The Art Angle Presents: Artist Jim Denevan on Creating Massive Land Artworks That Are Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

Artnet caught up with the acclaimed artist as he prepared a colossal piece for “You Only Live Once,” a new project celebrating the all-new 2024 Lexus GX.

Jim Denevan with the all-new 2024 Lexus GX (prototype shown), which he drove to create a land artwork in the Mojave Desert. Photo: Matt Seger & Dexter Brierley.

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Land art, the movement which emerged in the 1960s and 70s with artists such as Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, and Michael Heizer erecting monumental works in far-flung destinations, is widely regarded for its engagement with the environment and its elements. These remarkable installations are crafted in concert with the Earth, meant to evolve as sun, storms, and seasons weather them continuously over time.

But what if you homed in on the core of this concept, creating sweeping land artworks in ways and places where they would be truly temporary, imprints made for a moment before disappearing back into the Earth? This is the crux of California-based artist Jim Denevan’s dynamic practice, which involves interacting with topographies and terrains to craft ephemeral compositions that play with the impermanence of our ever-changing world.

Land artist Jim Denevan. Photo: Matt Seger & Dexter Brierley.

Land artist Jim Denevan. Photo: Matt Seger & Dexter Brierley.

Since the mid-1990s, Denevan has traversed the globe creating unfathomably massive works in sand, earth, and ice, often using no more than a rake, stick, or even the soles of his feet. He has etched miles-long Fibonacci circles in Siberia’s frozen Lake Baikal, drawn shore-spanning spirals in San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, and sculpted concentric rings of sand mounds at international public art exhibitions Desert X AlUla in Saudi Arabia and Manar Abu Dhabi. His work has been featured in institutional shows at MoMA PS1, the Peabody Essex Museum, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, as well as the Oscar long-listed documentary Man in the Field, which explored Denevan’s artistic career and his culinary trajectory as the founder of Outstanding in the Field, a roving restaurant set where food is sourced to connect diners with the origins of their meals.

Denevan's colossal number "1," created as the ultimate testament to adventure—and making the most of every moment. Photo: Matt Seger & Dexter Brierley.

Denevan’s colossal number “1,” created as the ultimate testament to adventure—and making the most of every moment. Photo: Matt Seger & Dexter Brierley.

This spring, Artnet collaborated with Denevan on an original project, titled “You Only Live Once,” showcasing the all-new 2024 Lexus GX alongside the artist bringing to life an incredible land artwork in Harper Lake north of Los Angeles. Taking the shape of the universal number “1,” the more than quarter-mile piece is a dramatic testament to making the most of our time on this Earth by confidently pursuing our curiosities and drive for adventure.

On a cool, bright morning in April, we spoke with Denevan while he diligently surveyed the dry lake, his eyes trained from years spent surfing around the world to notice minute details like which way the waves were breaking or when the next sets were rolling in. As the artist and his team marked the arid landscape in preparation for his colossal drawing, we discussed the influence of tide cycles he observed as a child in Santa Monica, how his mother’s work as a mathematician enhanced his appreciation of numbers and symbols, and the time he used distant mountains as a guide while driving 100 miles an hour at a slight curve to create a 14 mile–wide circle in the Nevada desert.

“It’s another form of the ephemeral arts, like dance or music,” Denevan says. Photo: Matt Seger & Dexter Brierley.

“It’s another form of the ephemeral arts, like dance or music,” Denevan says. Photo: Matt Seger & Dexter Brierley.

Read on for an excerpt from our fascinating conversation, which you can listen to in full here:

Today, Denevan is crafting a 1,500-foot rendition of the number 1 in Helvetica font for a project aptly titled “You Only Live Once.” Here, the pervasive influence of Jim’s mother becomes evident, as her influence shapes the conceptual framework of life’s journey permeating the artwork.

“But regarding today and making numbers, like seeing my mother’s like, you know, in her own handwriting to see the way that she organized math on a page it’s like, kinda like a vitality to the numbers and, uh, notation. And it’s just very organized. And this is hitting me is how profound that is. And numbers and math symbols and letters, you know, they’re ubiquitous and like we see them all the time and like.”

“And we respond to the directions that they give. You know, the marks on the paper. And she was able to take things from a great distance metaphorically. And like in terms of like solving problems, like sums and these notations, they offer this, the view of the world to make a journey on a 0, 1, 2, 3, or four.”

In an exhilarating new video by Artnet and Lexus, aptly titled “You Only Live Once,” watch as Denevan creates his spectacular artwork in the vast California desert with the Lexus GX. Strap in for the full video here.

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