Palm Springs Art Museum
Palm Desert
Edwards Harris Center
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Reflections on Water

September 19th, 2015 – December 4th, 2016
Palm Springs Art Museum, Denney Western American Art Wing

“What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.”           -- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Water defines human experience. The average person is composed of approximately 60% water. It nourishes life as the body’s most necessary substance. This elementary liquid is essential for sustaining all life on the planet. As a result, the politics of water are woven into the fabric of social and economic institutions at both the regional and global level. Disputes over its distribution are at the center of struggles among interests competing for natural resources. Especially in the desert, where it is scarce, water is even more vital for survival than in places where it exists in abundance. Its very lack defines the desert, and yet even that ecological system could not exist without it.

William Allan, Sanger Ranch, Wyoming Pond, 1997, oil on canvas, gift of Neal Schenet (c) William Allan
Acoma, Canteen, c. 1940, polychrome ceramic with corn cob plug, leather and string, Gift of Isabel White Chase from the Cornelia B. White Estate
William Allan, Sanger Ranch, Wyoming Pond, 1997, oil on canvas, gift of Neal Schenet (c) William Allan
David Bates, North Jetty II, 1989, acrylic on canvas, gift of Steve Chase (c) David Bates
Dolores Cassero, Lubo, Cahuilla, Rain Eagle Basket, 1901-1925, sumac, natural and dyed juncus on a deer grass bundle foundation, gift of Cornelia B. White from the Marjorie Rose Dougan Collection
Cristopher Cichocki, Geothermal Grid, 2013, nine archival pigment prints, gift of Jane and Richard Twedt (c) Cristopher Cichocki
Edward S. Curtis, Getting Water - Havasupai, Plate 75 (from The North American Indian), 1903, photogravure on tissue, gift of Mrs. Ray Ingram
Native American, Hopi, Katsina, c. 1930, cottonwood and paint, Lura Newhouse Kachina Doll Collection
Sydney Mortimer Laurence, Mount McKinley, n.d., oil on canvas, Gift of the George Montgomery Trust
Dan Namingha, Song of Rain, 1991, acrylic on canvas, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Dan Namingha (c) Dan Namingha
Dan Namingha, Song of Rain, 1991, acrylic on canvas, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Dan Namingha (c) Dan Namingha
Arthur Tress, Sea Goddess, Apalachicola Bay, St. George Island, Florida, 1988, cibachrome print, gift of Jon and Ellen Vein (c) Arthur Tress
Agnes Pelton, The Jungle - Palm Canyon, n.d., oil on canvas, gift of Marjorie and Jim Treas
Native American, Prehistoric Southwest, Pitcher with Handle and Geometric Abstract Designs, c. 1000 C.E., earthenware and traces of black paint, Bequest of Lura Gard Newhouse Family Trust
Stanley W. Galli, Vaquero Time for Talk, 1977, acrylic on linen, Gift Stanley W. Galli © Stanley W. Galli 1977.

“What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.”           -- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Water defines human experience. The average person is composed of approximately 60% water. It nourishes life as the body’s most necessary substance. This elementary liquid is essential for sustaining all life on the planet. As a result, the politics of water are woven into the fabric of social and economic institutions at both the regional and global level. Disputes over its distribution are at the center of struggles among interests competing for natural resources. In the desert, water is even more vital for survival than in places where it exists in abundance. Its very lack defines the desert, and yet even that ecological system could not exist without it.

Water has become the most visible sign of the negative impact that human progress has created on the environment. However, it is equally the source of pleasure and play, natural wonder, and cultural symbolism. Rather than presenting artworks according to standard classifications based in media, history, or culture, this gallery presents numerous contexts that find a shared nexus through the multiple uses of water. This installation invites visitors to consider how their experiences with water connect them to this complex network of ideas, values, and emotions.

This exhibition is organized by Palm Springs Art Museum.

Water as Substance

Water defines boundaries, marking divisions in the landscape and encouraging a sense of place. It serves both a narrative and a poetic function in art. In depictions of the American West, the story of migrations, displacements, and settlements often involve water. Scenes featuring water often create the visual vocabulary of beauty and the sublime, of meditation and contemplation, of nature and culture. Artists have long recognized the metaphoric potential of its fluid and transparent character. Rain is an especially potent condition as a visual lens that lends atmospheric effects to a scene and signals the role of perception by diffusing light.

Water as Symbol

Water plays more than a literal role in human lives. It is embedded in our conscious and unconscious imaginations as a symbol of our deepest hopes, dreams, and desires. Spiritual traditions rely on water rituals for healing and purification. Recognizing the spiritual associations of water, native populations identified rivers, lakes, and streams as the abode of sacred beings. In traditional worldviews, water is one of the four basic elements along with air, earth, and fire. Within those cosmologies, it represents flowing movement and is associated with purity, healing, and cleansing. Its surface can be both calm and turbulent, a paradoxical image that suggests reflection and renewal but also violence and destruction.