The Bullfrog Biennial contrasts contemporary art with the landscape of the desert in rural Beatty, Nevada, about 120 miles from Las Vegas.
LAS VEGAS, NV—Near the gates to Death Valley sits the small unincorporated town of Beatty, Nevada. With untamed burros, three restaurants, and expanses of wild desert, the town is an unlikely place for contemporary art.
In this stark landscape, near the mining ghost town of Rhyolite, sits the Goldwell Open Air Museum and Red Barn Art Center, hosts of the second annual Bullfrog Biennial, a weekend of performances and site-specific art installations. The biennial event, now in its second year, is curated by artists Brent Holmes and Sierra Slentz and acts as a “return to form” for the experimental art organization and outdoor exhibition space.
When Holmes answered Southwest Contemporary’s call, he was out of breath and taking a short break from installing a nine-foot-tall sculpture by artist and astronomer Antwane Lee that Holmes says will “capture the sun perfectly.” Holmes explains that 2021 Bullfrog Biennial artists hail from Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago, and will bring some big-city vibes to the “desolate” landscape. In addition, there will be several bands performing and plenty of open-air camping areas.
The event runs in conjunction with Nevada Day, which became an official state holiday in 1939, as well as with the local Beatty Days festival, a city and county fair. I recall the 2019 Beatty Days, which included a Wild West shootout reenactment in the town square and a small parade, with its one Boy Scout troop and two-person Dungeons & Dragons club. “It’s a really nice way to engage the community,” says Holmes.
Performance art is not common around these parts and experimental art is “safer” in a gallery or urban setting, says Holmes. The desert landscape and small-town parade make a compelling place for the arts—though the art may not be as “safe” here in a small, mostly homogenous town, the reaction is “almost consistently positive,” says Holmes. “Many of these communities embrace the arts in ways that urban communities kind of ignore the value of art.” Even when the residents don’t particularly care for the art, they still seem to appreciate it existing.
The biennial isn’t alone in bringing contemporary art to an arid landscape, but they’re not doing it with “the giant bags of cash given to art world interests like Desert X,” says Holmes. The project is “rugged-ass-artmaking,” with no paved roads or running water, and curators digging ditches. “It’s no suburban jaunt,” he explains. “But we are believers in… bringing art to rural and specifically arid desert communities.”
Another clear goal for curators Holmes and Slentz is specifically using the natural landscape to highlight the work being made in Las Vegas, and more broadly Nevada. “There’s so much to compel people to come out and take the time to explore arts in Nevada,” Holmes says. By creating a site-specific, place-centered art experience, the focus becomes the art itself.
There’s no driving to a strip mall for a gallery exhibition here. It’s at least a two-hour trek from a metropolitan area to a town of fewer than 1,000 residents to a drive down a dirt road, just to see works of art. Though the biennial asks a lot of the viewer by making the journey, it promises to be worth the effort. “It’s full desert art,” Holmes says. “The desert and the arid west asks us to engage in art with new meaning.”
The 2021 Bullfrog Biennial is scheduled to take place October 29-31, 2021 at the Goldwell Open Air Museum and Red Barn Art Center, 1 Golden Street in Beatty, Nevada.