Mining the Mojave for Art: Chelsea Dean’s “Remnants of Ambition”

Chelsea Dean. Remnants of Ambition. Shoebox Projects. Photo Credit Kristine Schomaker

Mining the Mojave for Art: Chelsea Dean’s Remnants of Ambition

By Genie Davis

It would be hard to underestimate the appeal of the desert as an artistic mecca. The vastness of the landscape, the shifting light, the vast horizons, and the lack of what passes for civilization or the ruins thereof is the stuff of magic to me. Ghost towns, abandoned shacks and mines, rusted trucks, and discarded furniture, the left-behinds of those who came, who stayed, who departed again, perhaps defeated by the vastness, the heat, the dryness, the sheer emptiness they could not fill – it’s a mystery the mind wants to explain, a story that no one but the vicissitudes of time and weather can account for.

It was with great anticipation, then, that I viewed the culmination of Chelsea Dean’s artist-in-residence exhibition at Shoebox Projects earlier this month. With Remnants of Ambition, Dean’s work is spare, haunting, and evocative of the scale and majesty of the desert, and man’s attempts, however brief, to claim it.

Dean says she’s spent the past four years in the Mojave, perusing the abandoned homes, taking photos and collecting items discarded.

She’s used some of them to create relics that honor and expand upon the desert experience. As she puts it “These relics have served as reminders that someone used to occupy these once-hopeful spaces. It is here that I find myself drawn to the multitude of textures, colors, and patterns.”

Inspired by everything from fragments of wood to broken mirrors, tiles, wooden frames, and windows, she used this raw material to shape sculptures and wall hangings, as well as creating her own works based on this material and this location.

The Los Angeles-based artist is no stranger to the salvage of artifacts throughout Southern California, and she has worked in both photographic art, collage, and experimental printmaking as adjuncts to her foraging. Her deep involvement with the abandoned homesteads in the desert fits with her overall aesthetic “to meditate upon the allure of beauty and decay.”

For Dean, one person’s discards are indeed another’s treasure, and Remnants of Ambition made this abundantly clear. Lamps, bed springs, windows, a cinder block, a metal angle – her gathered items – seem burnished, some polished, some painted, some rusted, but all infused with a new and triumphant sense of meaning as a sculptural form. Her mixed media works add elements of gold and patterning, conveying a sense of awe and wonder, adorning. Dean notes that she offers viewers “a spatially rich experience that illuminates the original site,” but to add onto that statement, the illumination is both intellectual and emotional, and it is also simply visceral – her works have an inward glow that seemed to radiate at her residency reception. They were spare and precious, raw and reverential.

Chelsea Dean. Remnants of Ambition. Shoebox Projects. Photo Credit Kristine Schomaker

A bedspring, artfully positioned and shaped, becomes a sculpture that resembles a boat sailing on a dried sea of lost dreams. Cracked ceramic on a wall hanging becomes a series of puzzle pieces that evoke the dried mud patterns of a parched desert floor after the rain that formed them has long since evaporated. Aged-to-gold glass, a window flawed with bubbles from the heat and sun, becomes a pattern that looks like raindrops, as if that rare and special event – rain in the desert – had been fossilized. A pattern of rust on an old vent cover resembles steps leading to an open door-frame that oozes white light, beckoning the viewer into an uncharted and thirsty realm.

A wonderful mixed media work on wood panel is embedded with gold leaf, much like the vein of gold that desert miners dreamed they’d strike. At the bottom of the large-scale work, the image of a desert shack, is wedged deep into the wood, a small dimensional image literally and figuratively carving its space from a vast and empty land represented by the wood panel. The light, both from the gold embellishment and the palette of the work overall, perfectly captures that gold, harsh, sun-bleached light that washes the desert.

Suspended from a corner just to the side of this work are three polished, glowing lamps on chains. They resemble ornaments or orbs, incandescent souls, seeking to mirror the sun but chained in place.

For Dean, and for viewers of her work, artifacts become emblems of transformation. Everything dies – and some day comes back – reincarnated or reinvented. But for Dean, the soul of these objects and the place she discovered them remains, conjured from the inanimate and decayed into the meaningful and redeemed.

See more of Dean’s work at

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