July 8, 2008 | Essays & Memoir | Pamela Petro

Jim Magee’s Hill

On the outskirts of El Paso, gentlemen’s clubs compete for real estate with auto-salvage yards. Before long both vanish, leaving the highway alone in the desert. The earth is rough and scratchy, grown over in uneven, hay-green stubble and pocked with dark clumps of yucca.

The city’s newest neighbourhoods lie behind us. El Paso is racing into the desert, propelled by the latest Iraq War. Residents tell me that El Paso’s Fort Bliss was already the world’s largest army base before it absorbed 60,000 new soldiers as a result of the Bush administration’s 2007 troop surge strategy. Add the soldiers’ wives, husbands, children and service providers and that’s a lot of new residents. Hence the frenzy of construction. Driving the other way, back into the city, the strip malls and superstores, the residential communities and their bulging cul-de-sacs, ooze into the desert with the relentless right-of-way demanded only — until now — by lava.

Somewhere on the road ahead, Jim Magee is chatting through a translator with China’s Minister of Culture. Like me and the group of people I’ve been travelling with, the Minister wants to see Jim’s Hill.

No one who’s seen The Hill has been able to describe it to me without visceral discomfort. Actually, no one’s been able to describe it at all.

“It’s, ah, well, um…Jim’s like an onion,” were the words that came out of my friend Alan’s mouth when he picked me up at the El Paso airport last night. I wanted to hear about The Hill, but Alan could only touch on the layers of its creator. ‘You’ll see for yourself,’ he finally said.

Fair enough. So far I have only basic facts in a notebook: James R. Magee, a sixty-two-year-old Michigan transplant by way of New York, city and state, has since 1982 acquired 2000 acres in the desert outside of El Paso. On it he has created…what? I don’t know. Something that reduces articulate art historians to murmuring wonder. Something large and multifaceted and of the land, but not Land Art, in the sense of a particular environment manipulated to human design. A work capable of making adults weep and begetting terror in its viewers, even nightmares. From the awkward descriptions I’ve heard, The Hill seems insistent on resurrecting the word ‘awe’, allowing it to once again summon ‘solemn wonder tinged with latent fear’.

Ahead of me, fear and wonder are waiting, one a half-step ahead of the other. Yet so far this morning an hour and a half’s drive has revealed only the vast emptiness of this easternmost tip of America’s great Southwestern desert. Wheeling across it in anticipation is like watching a curtain rise, ever so slowly, on a horizontal stage.

Before long the SUV our party is travelling in slows and turns onto a deeply rutted earthen track that we follow to a cattle gate, beyond which Jim, China’s Cultural Minister, and the Minister’s entourage mill around in the dust. The Minister wears a dark suit and a Burberry scarf and is smoking a cigarette. Jim, casting a crimped shadow on the desert as he paces, urgently speaks Spanish into a cellphone.

It’s not a simple thing to bring visitors to The Hill. Under one hundred people have seen The Hill during its first twenty-five years of construction (a further twenty years are planned). Some of the people who have are amongst the country’s top art historians and museum directors, many of whom serve on a national committee that advises the foundation Jim and his family created to oversee the site.

When I spoke with Jim on the phone before flying to El Paso, his educated, Eastern voice sounded young and earnest. I pictured dark hair, a compact frame and strong jaw, a little like the young Jack Kerouac. So when I enter the Mexican restaurant where we first meet, I’m startled when George Bernard Shaw rises to greet me. Jim towers over the dark-haired lunch crowd, his hair and beard cloud-white, his eyes fair-sky blue. His features drain into hollows beneath his cheekbones, just above the first whiskers of beard. There’s a lean angularity to his frame that harks back to the Swedish Arctic, abandoned for America a century earlier by one grandparent. There’s also a very Celtic sense of warring asceticism and volubility that he inherited from his Irish forebears.

After lunch Jim and I drive to his studio, a former bottling plant set in a maze of hardscrabble backyards. A Rottweiller next door watches as Jim opens a cattle gate, then a garage door, ushering us both into a cold, cavernous space chaotic with tools, tables, drawings, dust and sculpture.

The workshop looks like a set for the junkyard Jim used to live in on Staten Island in the 1970s. Undecipherable stuff that my brain can’t catalogue at a glance lies everywhere. For order you have to look to the walls, where Jim has hung about ten of his sculptures at regular intervals. The pieces are large-scale but not monumental. In them the chaos of the shop — strips, sheets, shavings of steel, iron and copper, spring coils, mesh, bits of broken glass and terracotta — is contained within the rational, almost brutal geometry of line and angle. I call the works ‘sculptures’ but they present themselves in two dimensions within frames, so maybe it’s better to think of them as very heavy collages.

The first piece I notice is the least intricate. It’s about four feet long by two feet wide, a metal sheet from which the artist has coaxed a palette of earth-toned corrosions, welling in concentric patterns like the desert floor after a rainstorm. It’s something Rothko might have produced had he been intimate with steel.

I walk over for a look but Jim is already talking me away from this piece, talking me back in time to New York City in the 1970s. Or maybe we’re on a circular route toward his work, I’m not sure.

“That’s where the textures come from,” Jim says, waving his hand at the invisible warp and weft of years threading from New York’s Hudson River Piers to the materials of this El Paso afternoon.

The Hudson River Piers were immense, abandoned warehouses strung together alongside the river. From the 1970s, until AIDS ruined the party in 1982, the Piers sheltered an anonymous, ever-shifting congregation of gay men intent on exploring their sexuality. To some in the homosexual community, the Piers, Provincetown, Key West and Fire Island were proud new Cities of the Plain, taking over where Sodom had left off.

“The Piers were vast,” says Jim. “Five stories high and three to four football fields long. It was like being inside a Piranesi print. Surreal, you know. Figures in the distance so far away they’d be this tiny.” He brings his thumb and forefinger together until they’re nearly touching. “There was no electricity, only skylights in the galvanized tin roof, so day was diffused and at night there was just starlight or moonlight. Or more likely, total darkness.”

Jim speaks of corporeality disintegrating in the gloom, of shadows slipping in and out of one another unseen, only felt, maybe imagined. It was at the Piers, he says, that he learned languages more sensual than speech — languages of smell and touch and longing. And danger. Other men recall leaving their wallets at home when they went to the Piers; they’d slip a note with their name and address in a pocket instead, so relatives would be informed if they wound up at the morgue.

The way Jim talks about the Piers, they were as much an exploration of abstraction for him as of sexuality: Desire and touch transformed into visual and textural analogues of form, shape and shadow. Unlike a lot of participants in those days, Jim remembers everything that happened on the Piers. He doesn’t drink; he never took drugs; he’s never even had a cup of coffee (he dislikes the aroma). This is the ascetic Jim who lived in a pick-up camper in the Lester Kehoe Junkyard on Staten Island. Later he moved to an abandoned, upstate New York chicken coop formerly owned by Grado’s Ladies Underwear Manufacturing Company. During his exploratory Piers years he supported himself by driving a cab, teaching in schools for the mentally disabled and working as a welder (he’s still an inactive member of the International Brotherhood of Shipbuilders and Boilermakers) and a legal consultant to the City of New York and the United Nations.

It was in the junkyard that the images in Jim’s head first took three-dimensional shape in the unforgiving materials of his art: stuff that looks like junkyard detritus — pieces of wrecked cars and crushed plumbing, the cast-off innards of first-world living — but in reality is all carefully designed and crafted by the artist.

“Come,” says Jim, pulling me out of the broken office chair where I’ve been sitting. “This is the first piece I ever made. I was twenty-six years old.”

Jim leads me to a striking thing, maybe ten feet tall. A silver metal crucifix, attenuated and askew (Giacometti figures flash to mind, then vanish), with clawed appendages on the crossbar and a worried coil of a corkscrew Christ at the centre. As I stand contemplating it Jim ambles up behind me and asks if I’d like to hear the title; I nod. Jim is famous for titles that run up to sixty lines long. He doesn’t go in for brevity.

I think I’m prepared but I’m wrong. The title is both poem and performance. Jim doesn’t simply speak from memory, he incants the words in a quavering, liturgical sing-song. The meaning of his words slips away but the sound is what matters; the sound insists that Jim is enacting something holy. It’s so unexpected, so at odds with the shop’s mess, that I feel as if he’s calling the words down from some distant source. As he intones the words, the crucifix spins out of definition and becomes an antenna, or better yet, a lightning rod. There’s an implicit union of nature and manufacture in Jim’s work that seems to hinge on a lifelong attempt to reconcile creation, the created and the Word. It’s the artist, now, who’s mediating between realms immortal and mortal (nature intuited and invented) and human experience of it.

“I won’t read any titles tomorrow, out at the Hill,” says Jim, apologetically. “I don’t like to read before crowds.”

I ask him to tell me about the Hill but he refuses, insisting that I need to draw my own conclusions. Instead he recites several more titles before we leave the studio, always positioning me in front of a work and standing behind me, speaking into my ear.

Many of the titles he wrote between 1985 and 2000 have been collected and published; some have been set to music and performed in New York, San Francisco and Vienna. Jim’s titles are beautifully worded, sometimes picaresque enigmas — memories and observations snatched from life that skid into, over and through one another in the way of dreams. One begins, Today is paradise overcast. In another a Yankee woman shows up on a bus to Chihuahua, Mexico, scolding a boy for selling Coca-Cola. Later she thinks, oh, to be a wild animal again,
sixteen or seventeen years old,
or I’d settle for the gentle face of a farmer’s cow
every night sleeping under the stars,
 the rain and sleet against my fur,
 my bones aching with dampness, 
my hooves encrusted with mud,
 then awake at sunrise
With God in my nostrils and dew in my eyes.

As we’re leaving the studio Jim impulsively pulls out a cache of papers – his drawings. I recognize elements of the framed sculptures in these tempests of line, which seem to be furiously whirling themselves off the page, impatient to gain solid form.

“We draw all the time,” says Jim, innocently.

“Is that the royal you?” I ask.

“No, I like to use the plural. Everyone’s multiple, you know.”

Jim Magee more so than most. Before I can see The Hill, Rebecca — a longtime friend of Jim’s who serves on the board of his foundation — says I need to see ‘Annabel’s chapel’, located inside the city’s hospital.

Annabel Livermore is a retired school librarian and self-taught artist from the Upper Midwest. She began showing her paintings – watercolour florals, as well as expressionistic landscapes, in oils – in 1986, and hasn’t looked back. She’s a star in the Texas art world; her paintings sell in the thousands and are collected throughout the country.

Annabel has a flourishing career, a website, a house, a history, an income. She just doesn’t have a body. A female body, anyway. Annabel Livermore is perhaps best described as an incarnated response to Jim Magee. Jim has struck his claim in objects — metal, glass and stone, mainly — and words. His is an oeuvre of both weight and weightlessness, of sombre, muted hues. But there are colours inside Jim, too, explosions of colour so vivid and intense — tones of magma and eruption, of sunbeams finding the neon-olive depths of a dark lake — that they’ve had to invent an artist capable of expressing them. My guess is that the art came first and gave birth to Annabel, not the other way around.

Dr Richard Brettell, the Margaret McDermott Distinguished Professor of Art and Aesthetics at the University of Texas at Dallas, and the driving force behind Jim’s foundation’s national advisory committee, is an old friend of both Annabel and Jim. On the phone Rick told me that at the beginning of her career Annabel existed as an independent person: a study in exasperation who perpetually missed appointments or came down with mysterious illnesses. One day Jim took Rick to a transvestite bar just over the Mexican border in Juarez — “Jim’s an inveterate truffle snuffer of the transvestite border scene,” Rick says — and in the parking lot as they were leaving Rick had a sudden revelation. ‘You’re Annabel!’ he’d shouted at Jim. Jim wondered why it had taken him so long to guess. After that, Annabel was outed.

On the day I go to see Annabel’s chapel with Rebecca, at Thomason General Hospital in El Paso, a Mexican drug lord happens to be a patient there, and we’re made to go through what amounts to airport security at the door. Half of El Paso and most of Juarez wants this man dead. “Not exactly conducive to contemplation and prayer,” remarks Rebecca.

Despite his occupation, the patient responsible for my being frisked may well receive a bouquet of flowers during his stay at the hospital, courtesy of the Annabel Livermore Flower Fund.

“The flowers are something Jim — er, Annabel — thought of doing,” Rebecca tells me, holding open the door to the non-denominational chapel off the hospital lobby. ‘Her fund distributes flowers to patients from time to time.’

The small chapel is painted wine red and overseen by a deep barrel vault, so that once inside you feel as if you’re in a truncated railway tunnel. Annabel has painted the barrel arch in a celestial explosion of orange sunrays that race toward the altar across a starry night sky. Billowing clouds reflect the neon reds and yellows of the universe’s fiery furnace. The rush of movement along the vault is so strong that it feels like a shove in the chest towards the purple altarpiece.

On the side walls hang eight of Annabel’s naturalistic watercolours of pastel-hued flowers, mounted in hand-carved and gilded wooden frames made by her friend, Jim Magee. At the back of the chapel is a large floral triptych, painted in the revved-up colours and expressionistic style of the ceiling.

Rebecca shows me that the watercolours open up: the frames are hinged to boxes recessed into the walls, inside of which are pencils and paper for visitors to leave prayers. Behind a painting of a purple hyacinth is a slip of white paper that reads, simply, ‘Lord, I wish I was smart’.

I find it hard to keep my eyes off the beautiful skyscape. I haven’t seen neon earth tones of this vibrancy since I stood on a lava-cliff in Hawaii and watched the liquefied planet pour into the Pacific. If it weren’t for the triptych, marrying the flower motif to Annabel’s apocalyptic palette, heaven and earth would fly apart and make no sense. But like Jim’s antenna-crucifix, the triptych serves as a conduit between realms; thanks to its presence, a tight, circular kind of peace reigns in the chapel.

“What do people think of Annabel?” I ask Rebecca. “I mean, not everyone has male and female artists living in the same body and working in different media.” For some reason it seems harder at the moment to wrap my mind around the different media than the personalities who practise them.

“I’m sure some people find it kind of weird,” says Rebecca off-handedly. She makes a note to tell Jim that there’s not enough prayer paper left in the chapel, and that one of the spotlights over the altar has a dead bulb. “I just think of them as two separate beings. I see Annabel as essentially a landscape painter.”

“And Jim?’ I interrupt. ‘How do you see him?”

“I see Jim as Noah in the desert.”

El Paso, it turns out, is itself a barrio of Juarez, Mexico. El Paso has about 700,000 people; Juarez has around two million. Jim tells me that the best drag queens live on the Mexican side.

Driving around El Paso with Jim and Rebecca I glimpse signs that read, MEXICO 3 MILES and MEXICAN BORDER 1.5 MILES. It’s odd that there’s another country just down the block. The presence of the border characterizes everything here: border food, border music, border people, like Annabel.

As we disembark each of us is handed a letter from Jim’s foundation explaining that The Hill will not be interpreted for us. It also requests that we conduct ourselves quietly and refrain from using cellphones. Photography is not permitted.

The first part of the visit is highly structured. Because there are twenty-five of us in all we break into two groups, with the Chinese delegation ascending to the site first. The rest of us kick stones around and try to take in what lies before us.

The first thing readily apparent is that The Hill isn’t really a hill — it’s more like a slight rise in the here-to-horizon flatness of the desert. Ambition comes to mind next. For comparable feats of non-utilitarian building, in service to art or God and unintended for human congregation, you have to look back to the megalithic cultures of Europe and the Mediterranean.

Here in this vast plain, where there is no evidence of humankind for miles in any direction, anything raised by a pair of hands will, at the very least, take on heroic proportions, maybe even an air of holy audacity. So what to make of four identical, flat-roofed structures, each forty feet long by twenty feet wide and seventeen feet tall, erected above the desert on cut-stone plinths? The east and west buildings face one another as do the north and south, so that the complex is cruciform-shaped. In between the structures are raised stone pathways — essentially forming a Celtic cross — which run 187 feet from door to door. Each building has a pair of these portals made of deep orange, oxidized iron, at both the front and back — think of the Baptistery doors in Florence, minus Ghiberti — so that they face each other as well as the desert.

Like Malta’s temples (some of the oldest architectural structures on earth), Jim’s buildings are made of rough-cut stones, in this case local shale, which shade in tone from yellow and lichen-orange to peach. We’re not supposed to talk, but Rebecca — who’s memorized this stuff — whispers to me that it took 250 eight-ton truckloads of stone to create The Hill. Everything before our eyes has been shaped, mortared, raised, worked and invented (I note the specially designed, hand-made door hinges and discrete drainage pipes) by the mind and hands of Jim Magee.

Even before Jim’s young helpers open the doors in the first (south) building, so that the seashell-coloured stone is pierced by a perfect blue rectangle of sky, it’s clear that the desert is an essential part of this complex. In the city, even in the encroaching suburbs, our eyes would read these buildings as unusually massive and attractive bus shelters. They’d arouse curiosity, but never awe. It takes the natural environment — the southwestern desert, the quintessentially empty plain — to confer an awe-inspiring capacity upon them. These structures powerfully confront our imaginations precisely because the desert nullifies standard architectural functions. There’s no one out here to shelter, house, school or feed, and that leaves us with the Big Questions. If not our bodies, what — or who — do these structures engage? The beauty and insistence with which they demand answers is breathtaking, and not a little frightening.

There’s a hubbub in the south building: the Cultural Minister is bowing to Jim and moving on, and my group is being waved up the stone ramp into the structure. Inside, the walls repeat the same mosaic pattern of mortared stone as the exterior. Above them is a corrugated iron ceiling with skylights; below, a poured concrete floor. At either end of the building is a work by Jim, one on an iron pedestal, the other fixed to a pyramid stepped like a ziggurat.

I peer into the work on my left, a large, two-dimensional square framed in metal and covered in glass, but see only a hard-edged reflection of the desert and the pristine sky outside. After some experimentation, I find that if I step between the work and the doorway, the piece comes to life in my shadow. The Foundation’s flyer claims that in addition to metal and glass, Jim’s installations include paint, rust, textiles, wood, oil, flower petals, cinnamon and paprika, among other things. He seems to have used most of them here to create a red-hued, abstract topography that’s the shade of the moon in full lunar eclipse. It seems extraterrestrial, yet the environment beneath the glass also appears to result from the natural earthly processes of erosion, wear and human meddling.

I start toward the other installation, a triptych that looks to be many works within a work, but Jim’s helpers announce it’s time to visit the north building. We can return later, they tell us, but right now we’re on a schedule; the Chinese delegation is already in the third (east) building.

My fellows and I aren’t in the second building five minutes before one of our herders returns. “Hurry,” he whispers urgently, “they’re raising the floor in the third building. You can’t miss this.”

We scramble as best we can over the uneven, friable stone of the raised causeways to the east building, which is filled with the clatter of the Industrial Revolution. One of the two young labourers Jim hired to help prepare the Hill for visitors is struggling mightily with a steel chain attached to a ceiling pulley at the near end of the structure; the other labourer is grasping, hand over fist, an identical chain at the far end. On the floor between them is what appears to be an enormous and very heavy, many-paned window of metal and glass. On closer inspection I see that the glass structure is in two pieces, hinged to the ground at either end and unattached in the middle. The startling effect is of a skylight in a nineteenth century pavilion fallen miraculously intact to the ground.

With each gruelling tug and stereophonic rattle of chains, the two glass pieces — joined by wires to the pulleys — rise from the centre of the installation like the wings of a drawbridge. The physical struggle is almost obscene; the men are sweating and grunting, gritting their teeth. Jim takes over for the youth, harnessing all his strength into his upper body. Then someone takes over for Jim. All the while the glass ‘floor’ is rising heavenward, taking my reflection and that of the Cultural Minister and his interpreter with it, along with fluid, shifting images of the sky, the desert and the stones of Jim’s hand-built walls.

When the racket finally stops the two glass halves of the once-floor are standing as erect, vertical sentinels at either end of the installation. What their ninety-degree journey has revealed is an intricate glass and metal installation laid out in low relief on the ground. It looks like an architectural model for an alien, industrial city. There seem to be pipes and viaducts filled with crushed glass, wastelands, rusted iron structures and drying beds of shaved metals. You could call it a model of the Otherworld, but its carefully honed materials are familiar, like the detritus of Jim’s shop. This is landscape and city combined, an inhuman environment born of human sweat; a hard-edged, dangerous place where you could be badly hurt, yet here again the danger is contained in geometry. As the casting-off of its wings makes clear, this is a place of revelation. If Jim meant to summon the spirit of the Hudson River Piers, he has succeeded.

The Chinese have left and Jim is happy, though everyone seems a little tired. By now it’s almost noontime. Some people walk up to the fourth building and try to peer between the doors. This structure looks exactly like the others but remains locked because its contents are unfinished. Being off-limits makes it infinitely compelling; this is what Jim estimates will take him another twenty years to complete. He’ll be eighty-two years old when it’s done.

Rick Brettell says that every building in The Hill takes the building before it and multiplies it in complexity by ten. The fourth building though, will multiply the third by four hundred, Rick says. Every surface inside will move. Who, I wonder wearily, apart from Jim, will have the imaginative endurance to take it all in?

A feeling of weary liberation settles over everyone. Sarah, a heavily pregnant symphony conductor in our group, stands at the junction of the crossed causeways and hoots: a beautifully rounded owl sound that whips back and forth off the stone facades as if on an elastic band. I ask her how she knew the acoustics were so good.

“Instinct,” she says.

She hoots again and a pure, proto-musical note mushrooms around the compound. There are still about ten of us at the site, and everyone stops when they hear her and stares toward the crossing. The only thing moving is Sarah’s sound.

One of the Minister of Culture’s underministers, a woman in a poppy-red suit, thought that The Hill was about the end of the world. She is both right and wrong. The Hill is too multifaceted, too dynamic and unstable a signifier to be ‘about’ anything as specific as the end of the world. As Rick said, recalling his first experience of The Hill, ‘There are clear Protestant-Catholic references, and you have a strong urge to worship — but there’s nothing to worship. Jim’s altarpieces don’t correspond to any known religion’.

Like the great megalithic monuments, whose meanings we’ve forgotten, The Hill — whose meaning is too abstract to grasp — is a sacred space that extends beyond particularity straight into the imagination.

The Hill refers to ‘a natural elevation of land’, when in fact it sits in the midst of what’s at best an undulating plain. Here’s where the red-suited minister is on to something: The Hill may not be about the end of the world, but it does point toward the end of a worldview. Or the beginning of a new one.

The Hill is in some ways a supremely American work. Before Europeans even settled the continent they were equating its natural environment with their own moral imperatives. Jim would be aware of that: he was brought up Protestant. He knew what the ‘eies of all people’ were focused upon in John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon – they were fixed on the ‘Citty upon a hill’.

The Puritan settlers of Massachusetts weren’t above engaging in semantics, and neither is Jim. The Protestants fretted that if they succumbed to temptation — like the young men aboard their ship, the Arbella, discovered below deck en flagrante and packed back to England — their shining hilltop settlement would become a new incarnation of ‘the City of the Plain’. As Jonathan Goldberg writes in Queering the Renaissance, ‘Sodom is a ghostly analogy’ ever-present in Winthrop’s text.

You could argue that since 1982 — the year AIDS was given a name — Jim and the desert have been cohorts intent on upending the Puritans’ great experiment. For Jim, initiation into life and love came in one of the Cities of the Plain: the Hudson River Piers. “It’s where we began to understand ourselves and the world,” he says. The Piers were their own kind of great experiment. To this day, the textures and shaded recessions of those barely lit buildings infuse Jim’s work and shape his desert masterpiece into a magnificent ‘inversion’ (to use Havelock Ellis’s term for homosexuality): a modern Sodom transposed into a city on a Hill.

The Hill may be a radical re-making of the American myth, yet as a response, it’s also very much part of the American tradition of fusing meaning and nature through language. It is possible that here in the New World ‘awe’ has been experienced from the very beginning as a tandem expression of two environments, inner and outer nature. From Europeans’ first footsteps here, the magnificence of the virgin landscape has vied with the scope of their own ambitions and beliefs. An experimental theocracy is a big deal, but it’s an even bigger deal set against the dark, majestic hardwood forests of New England. As a built artistic environment, The Hill is virtually unrivalled in scope and aspiration. Yet its success is dependant on both language and its natural setting. Without the desert’s essential inhospitableness provoking it into meaning, The Hill might lapse into folly.

“Hey, would you guys like to hear a title?”

I’m astonished — Jim had said he wasn’t going to recite any titles today. He must be feeling charged by the Chinese.

We’ve all congregated in the second (north) building, and Jim has asked his helpers to close both sets of doors. As at the Hudson River Piers, dim skylights provide the only illumination. It feels a little like jail.

This structure, like the first, holds two installations: a large, hinged, metal-and-glass triptych at one end and a smaller triptych of oblong panels at the other. The first piece, for all its uncompromising edges and materials, bears an organic mass of twisted, painted burlap in the centre. Set against a harsh metal grid, the abstraction becomes sumptuous and referential.

The smaller triptych reads like three steel pages, against which is set a desiccated hide wrapped in a thorny embrace of barbed wire. Rebecca whispers not to worry, the ‘hide’ is just burlap covered with a kind of rubber. The Hill may be a celebration of vitality but it incorporates the consequences of the Piers, too: references to death, decay, recycle and resurrection are everywhere. Mounted on the stone walls surrounding the smaller piece is an elegant frieze of contiguous metal boxes, each filled with about half an inch of dark, ghostly green motor oil. The blood not of Christ but of ‘progress’. The liquid serves as an unintentional level; the building is aligned dead-straight.

Someone comments on the frieze. “It’s called Vaccinations”, says Jim. “We think they’re diplomatic dispatches from the last Hittite war, but no one can decipher them.”

People chuckle, unsure if he is serious or not. He’s enjoying himself. While Jim answers questions, Rebecca pulls me aside to point out where the roof has started to leak and how you can see chinks of desert sunlight between the iron doors. “Now you know why the Foundation exists,” she says.

Rick Brettell made a point about the site being perpetually bombarded by wind, rain, sun, bees (300,000 of them once, discovered in a massive complex of hives), birds, rattlesnakes, you name it. The whole place partakes of the cycle of being, ruination and altered recovery.

“The desert isn’t empty, it’s a complex ecology,” Rick told me. “The buildings teach you that when you try to take care of them.”

“All right!’ Jim claps his hands for attention. ‘Listen, now, everyone look at the work.”

We turn as one to face the smaller installation.

“No one look at me while I read!” This is a command.

Jim stands behind us and starts to recite:

Then tell me, Jerusalem, where to begin when Hartley walks across the floor (as Hartley) 
to press the bread inside my head
and the sun lies cracked a broken dish upon the field…

I get an uncanny feeling as Jim intones the title and we stare into his dark abstraction that he’s re-creating the act of creation. These aren’t just words; this performance is as close as we’re going to get to The Word. After all, God didn’t write the world into being from chaos — it was an oral performance. Jim seems to be echoing that act, although he didn’t make the rubber and metal installation in Hartley’s image (Hartley was a neighbouring farmer when Jim was a boy in Michigan). There’s no direct correlation between poem and sculpture. Jim is using the relationship between them not to cast himself in the role of God, but maybe to suggest that all lived experience, everything we encounter, our messes and memories, dreams, literature, history is the chaos of life. The words and images of art are the closest we can come to making the world anew.

Jim finishes his title and people begin to stir; a communal claustrophobia is beginning to seize the group. Jim’s lads slowly open the seventeen-foot doors and the flat white desert light hits us hard. After being shut up in the north building for half an hour, saturated in the human wonders of invention, construction and engineering, and beginning to take them for granted, the desert and the big sky strike me as the real marvel — as the artwork we’ve driven an hour and a half to see. The transference is complete.

It’s late afternoon and we’re back in El Paso. Visiting The Hill has wiped everyone out. But Jim wants me to see Annabel’s house. After Jim has a nap he picks me up in his big, pearl-white Buick Park Avenue — a sofa on wheels that gets thirty mpg on the highway, he claims, and twenty in the city — and we head across town.

El Paso — The Pass — camps alongside the Rio Grande between the Franklin Mountains and the Sierra Madres. The city seems to squat. Few buildings rise above three or four storeys, leaving the ridged horizon to do the heavy lifting in terms of views, which makes Annabel’s house all the more imposing. The house’s Mission Style architecture — high ceilings and craftsman bookshelves and cabinetry, rich dark tones on the walls — suits the eruptive earth shades of Annabel’s work and the ex votive weightiness of her gilded frames. Annabel’s paintings, with their Van Gogh-like repetitions of line and pattern, light up the bourgeois atmosphere like a Mexican carnival. Jim shows me Annabel’s small, bright studio in the courtyard out back.

Annabel’s house is where Jim lives when his partner, the writer Camilla Carr, is in town. He says he’s not surprised at having fallen for a woman — she’s not the first woman he’s been with — but the implied move to the centre that comes with heterosexual relationships makes him a little antsy. Jim feels more comfortable on the margins. “I may have a female companion, but I’m not straight, you know,” he tells me.

As if to underscore the truth of this we leave Annabel’s place and Jim drives us to the Villa Pompeii on the scruffier side of town. The ‘villa’ is a modest bungalow with folk art in the garden where, when Camilla is travelling, Jim lives with Petra, his brown-spotted Dalmation, and a flock of caged singing canaries. Overflowing shelves hold books on Romanesque art, works by Foucault, the modernist epics of twentieth century poet/artist, David Jones, and the collected poems of the gay Beat poet Harold Norse, to name some favourites. The Villa Pompeii is also where Horace Mayfield has his studio.

I’d heard Horace Mayfield’s name mentioned, but until now hadn’t had my eureka moment, like Rick’s at the transvestite club. But now I get it: Jim’s a trinity. This is the boys’ house; Annabel’s is the girls’ house.

Horace is the most palpably gay member of the trinity. From what I see of his work — he’s preparing an artist’s book based on the story of Abraham, for which sequences of sketches are displayed throughout the studio — Horace has been able to find delicacy and tone in Jim’s furious, whirling line. He also works with digital photography, fabrics, plastic, paint and porno images ripped from gay men’s magazines. Like Annabel, Horace is no slouch: his work is shown widely, often in queer art exhibitions.

Annabel is pure colour. She’s the gendered expression of place and time: Juarez nights and the desert at dusk and dawn, Pickerel Lake in Michigan when Jim was a kid. Horace (born in Chicago in 1932, as one catalogue notes) is campy and allusive; if sex doesn’t spill onto the surfaces of his work, it roils beneath.

There is no home for these passions in the exacting geometries and grave dialogues of The Hill. Rick Brettell says that ‘Annabel and Horace are necessary because they keep The Hill pure. Horace is a queen who likes to work on shower curtains. So God bless Horace from keeping The Hill free of shower curtains’.

The Hill isn’t a repository for interpersonal relationships or emotional responses. It may generate them, but it doesn’t exhibit those of its creator. The Hill is nothing if not the product of great passion, but the erosive effects of time, intellect and the desert make for passion distilled rather than passion paraded. In my mind I complete this process. I see the complex as I never saw it in person — as it hopefully will never be until a very long time from now: stripped of people, the doors ajar, shadows slowly circling the structures like rearguard troops left behind after the war, when everyone else has gone home. The installations house colonies of insects and animals who come and go uninterrupted on the beautiful stone causeways, unconcerned about whose God made their home.

Photographs by Tom Jenkins