The art scene in Tonopah could never be mistaken for the art scene in Goldfield. The main feature in Goldfield – and there is no competition – is right along 95 on the northern outskirts of town. It is a field of car art. There are simply no words to describe what some post-modern sculptor has done there to blow function apart, without obliterating the vestiges of function, while celebrating form for form’s sake. It is a parking lot with cars. But the cars have been mixed and mingled with all sorts of things. One small car sits atop another. One van wears a speedboat for a hat. On the grilles and fenders, the cars are adorned with toys, cattle skulls, whatever you call those curved little metal troughs that you spit (or worse) into in the hospital -- all manner of objects, generally having once had a practical use, now displayed like something from Andy Warhol for the sake of their shape and color – unremarkable when seen apart but amazing in the context of a community of forms assembled according to a design formulated in a uniquely appreciative mind. Yes, Goldfield. Who would have imagined it?
The public sculptures of Tonopah are of a mostly – perhaps not entirely – different order. The Tonopah exhibit is not concentrated in a single parking lot, but adorns the whole downtown. There are two basic kinds of sculpture. One is rust colored impressionistic representations of people from by-gone days. It is a historical theme – like the bronze statues of Boulder City – only the Tonopah figures are deliberately rougher and rustier. The other Tonopah kind of sculpture is arrangements of machinery – cog wheels, beams, mining equipment – which is somewhat like the cars of Goldfield. But Tonopah’s collections of metal are one color while the Goldfield displays are deliberately garish. And there is a deeper difference. Tonopah’s machinery sculptures and human sculptures are of the same color and texture – both roughly rusted. It doesn’t take an art critic to know that this similarity is deliberate and it is saying something. The question is: what? And here context may help to interpret. If I saw this likeness of humanity and machinery in Berkeley, I’d think it was a Herbert Marcuse critique of utilitarian capitalism dehumanizing workers. But not in Tonopah. I may be wrong. There may be some remnant of IWW radicalism at work in this art. But I don’t see it. This looks to me like a tribute to the resilient strength and courage of a mining town where people work like their equipment and with their equipment – together digging a life out of the earth, the iron rusty earth. We are more than what we do, these sculptures say, but we become ourselves while doing. Unlike the post modernist form for form’s sake of Goldfield, Tonopah’s art suggests stories as wild as the West and as human as anything by Zola or Hugo.
Speaking of great writers, not all the art in Tonopah is visual. There’s literature too these days. The best used bookstore I have yet found in Nevada is Whitney’s Books – open well into the evening. Whitney’s also hosts the AA and Al-Anon groups, which strikes me as showing some social conscience. Like any used bookstore, they carry the good, the bad, and the ugly. Someone at some point appears to have been a fan of Rod McKuen – groan. But I picked up two A. B. Guthrie novels and found several by Susan Howatch, as well as lots of classics – all for low, low prices.
So if you should be driving through Tonopah someday, don’t just think of the Mexican food at El Marquis, the historic ambience of Tonopah Station with its 1940’s Coca Cola posters and vintage gaming machines, or the educational value of touring the mining museum. Look around at the public art. And by all means stop in at Whitney’s Books.