Life in the desert is often accompanied by a feeling of constant surprise about what actually goes on here. Extreme cold, strange adaptations to isolation, mirages of landscapes that don’t really exist.
In The Desert Sea—a four-day pop-up exhibition at ASAP Gallery in Las Vegas that ends tomorrow—four New Zealand ex-pats explore the memory of water in the desert with a journey-like, interactive installation featuring work from painter Matthew Couper, mixed media artist JK “Jo” Russ, sound artist Brian Crook, and his partner, painter and sound artist Mary Crook—all collectively known as Grüüp. (The Crooks are also a part of a psyche-noir band called The Renderers, which will be performing at the show as well).
Known internationally for their own distinctive work, there is a through-line of surrealism, Dada influence, and dark, dreamlike sensibilities that connects these artists’ aesthetics, and compels them to put on the type of exhibition that imagines the desert and the ocean to be twin landscapes.
Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Grüüp over Zoom about their strange new show, the connection between the Mojave Desert and New Zealand, and the sea as a psychological landscape.
So before we talk about your very weird and wonderful exhibition, I’d like to know how you all found each other. You’re all Kiwis living in the Mojave, how did that happen?
Jo Russ: Matthew and MaryRose’s creative paths were kind of aligned at that time and I also knew of MaryRose’s work, and The Renderers music. But it wasn’t until we were all here in the Mojave and we were visiting Joshua Tree or LA when we connected as part of the art scene. And we all kept in touch.
MaryRose Crook: Yeah, we all felt that we wanted to come together and figure out how we had been changed. How we got here. Why we got here. What it did to us.
Are there parallels between the Mojave and New Zealand, in terms of landscape?
Brian Crook: Well, the landscape just over the Golden Gate Bridge is almost identical to New Zealand. The Joshua Tree is almost identical to the Cabbage Tree in New Zealand, except that the Cabbage Tree is softer with willowy leaves and Joshua Trees are spiky and tough. But if you were to see a photo, you would see the similarities.
MaryRose: Particularly if you get out in Joshua Tree in the rain, it really looks like New Zealand, it’s quite crazy. … I also think about things like continental drift and the fact that it really feels like New Zealand dropped off the coast of California at some point. It just feels like in Canterbury, where we’re from, it just feels like the parallels are too strong. … And even the limestone formations that we have out here in the Mojave are so much like rocks that we have in coastal areas of New Zealand. Of course, there’s no water out here, but it feels like it. I feel very much the presence of ancient water that is gone.
The idea of the memory of water seems to be the basis for your exhibition, The Desert Sea. How did this concept take shape?
Jo: I think part of it began because we were talking about voyaging. And the fact that we’ve all traveled quite a lot globally, but we’ve all come to this place from a long way away. There was that water connection to coming here—which is in a lot of The Renderers and MaryRose’s work … but also in Matthew’s and mine too.
Matthew Couper: And there was that Captain Beefheart quote that I put into the press release, “The ocean is very similar to the desert, it’s just that the ocean is wet and the desert is dried-up ocean.” That makes a very cool play on how you go about thinking of creating an artwork.
MaryRose: Yeah, these landscapes, they can morph into each other in your unconscious and then you’re swimming in both of them. I mean, I think about your work, Jo, and how it seems so much to relate to the collective unconscious that feels particular to being in Vegas. It’s this thing of tearing these things up and re-contextualizing them. …It feels like it’s very much informed by the collective unconscious.
Yes, all of your work strikes me as very psychological and dreamlike, but you achieve this in different ways.
Matthew: I think we all come from a surrealist basis. … For instance, my work is very much about isolation and psychological isolation, not being stuck on a desert island isolation. That’s how I represented my paintings, but the actual thinking is about psychological survival, which then goes more into how do you survive in the greater context. And that’s where being in the desert is kind of important to me. You know, you can step out in the desert in the middle of summer and die, yet you’re only half an hour from the largest man-made mess of border in the United States. So there’s all these strange kind of coincidences that happen when you get stuck in the middle of the Mojave.
MaryRose: I’ve always been conscious of the sea as a metaphor for the unconscious. And the sense that when you make a passage from one place to another, you’re also traveling through your own unconscious as well as the collective unconscious. For The Renderers, we wrote so many songs about the sea that it got to some point where we thought we could try and not put the sea in the next song we wrote. And then suddenly it was like, well, we’ll just keep putting it in there because obviously it’s a really important thing to us. In fact, in our last few houses in New Zealand, we were in sight of the sea. We could see the sea every day in our lives. And that really changed my mental state.
Do you think the sea has had more of an effect on the actual look and sound of your work or more of the psychological space that you make work in?
Brian: It’s probably both.
MaryRose: I think it’s both.
Can you talk a bit about the soundscape you’ve created for the show?
Brian: Well, in some ways, it is a bit like Jo’s work, it’s collage. It’s built up from pieces. At the start you could recognize it from other recordings of ours. It’s just laid with natural sound and the artificial sounds mimicking it, carrying on from the natural sounds and you have another natural sound overwhelming that. So you can’t tell what is the natural sound and what is the artificial sound. There’s this storm of cars that drive through town everyday. There are 3 million people who visit this park every year so you’d better magically take it down. It’s about 20,000 cars every day driving through a small town so it’s just car to car. Especially over the weekends. So this noise, it can sound like the ocean. It becomes this incredible texture of sound.
Jo Russ: We really like that there is this extra layer of experimental sound that Brian’s been putting together for the exhibition. And, you know, here in Las Vegas, it’s actually not something we’ve really got to experience very much, the coming together of the kind of visuals and sound in this way. So, hopefully, people will enjoy the experience of being able to move through the installation, not just the visuals, but the sound.
Yes, I wanted to ask about another interactive aspect of the show, the mask-making. What is the idea behind the masks?
Jo: It’s that, to put on a mask, you’re almost adding another layer to yourself. You can completely transform the way you appear, so you’re not necessarily going to be recognizable. It’s almost that surreal thing as well. And we kind of liked that connection with Dada too—they made a lot of masks and did impromptu kind of performances. So, offering that to folks who come to experience it, it’s something that’s really simple to make and put on and have people experience the exhibition differently, but also experience other people differently.
Yes, and in this moment where we’re kind of coming out of our Covid cave, it will be a nice transition to put on a different kind of mask.
Jo: Yeah, hopefully it’s a more kind of fun, creative, freeing kind of mask than what we’ve all been dealing with for a little while. We’ll see how it goes, Josie, we’ll find out! No, we’ve actually got a group coming in of young people, which we’re really happy about. We’re partnering with the Indigenous Education and Empowerment Group. That’s a new education group here focusing on making education very accessible to Indigenous students, particularly, so we’ve got a small group of young folks coming in during a special session. So that’ll be fun. We really wanted to be able to reach the community and something we’d like to continue to be able to do going forward.
The world that you are building in your exhibition feels a little out of this world, and I know that sci-fi is a theme that comes up in some of your work. Can you talk about this influence?
Brian: We love sci-fi.
MaryRose: We do love sci fi. Since I was really little, I’ve been writing stories and books, but I’ve never sent anything out there. And I’m writing a couple of sci-fi things at the moment. It’s really hard not to be influenced by sci-fi here. Something about the desert, something about the USA, really.
Brian: We’re called aliens to begin with …
MaryRose: We’re called aliens here! “Talented Aliens,” that’s what we’re called on our Visa. Would you say the same thing, Jo? I feel like there’s definitely a sci-fi aspect to your work.
Jo: I’ve always loved sci-fi. I always read a lot of sci-fi too when I was younger. I think that alien thing is interesting. … I found it strange being labeled an alien coming to the country here. And I think a lot of the blue figures, the blue women in some of my earlier work, that’s probably a connection to that idea of alien, being different. I think it’ll be interesting too, because to some extent, you know, we’re very much proud of our communities, but we still sound different, we have these differences.
This exhibition is the debut of your new collective called Grüüp. Does that mean you are planning to make more work together going forward?
Matthew: We’d like to do something in New Zealand as well where we cover our hometown and the old country. So we’re actually making a physical connection there as well. It’s a way to just say something about the zeitgeist as a group and make it more cohesive. And just show that a lot of people are thinking about these kinds of issues of survival and isolation, the global village because of the internet, that kind of thing. So really it’s all these dichotomies of how we’re living life at the moment, which can be daunting … but can be fun to make artworks out of and combine and clarify in an exhibition.
Grüüp’s installation The Desert Sea is on view through Saturday, Feb. 26 at ASAP Available Space Art Projects, 900 Karen Ave, C-214 (Balcony, level 1), Las Vegas.
Gallery hours are 12-6pm.
A closing reception will take place on Saturday, Feb. 26 from 6-9 pm, with a mask making workshop in the eastern courtyard of New Orleans Square from 6-6:30 pm and a performance by The Renderers at 6:30.
All photos courtesy of Grüüp and ASAP.