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Photographer Fred Mitchell exhibits a crash course at Government Center

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Photo: Fred Mitchell
Dawn-Michelle Baude

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Four stars
Photographs with Sculptural Tendencies
Through May 24
Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; free
Clark County Rotunda Gallery, 455-7030

Fred Mitchell’s Photographs With Sculptural Tendencies exhibition in the Rotunda Gallery almost looks like street-sign debris from a roadside collision. Industrial signage, complete with sandbags, sprawls on the marble floor of the gallery, triggering what-happened-here confusion akin to the disorientation accident victims experience.

But in place of standard road-sign admonitions and warnings—Stop! Curve Ahead!—Mitchell presents black and white photographic landscapes shot from a large-format camera, printed onto sheet metal using industrial processes and mounted with roadwork construction materials. These are “real” Las Vegas road signs, but instead of directing traffic, the works document the ominous landscapes where accidents occur.

Take “Pole,” for example. The photographic sign features a Maryland Parkway apartment complex with a banged-up guard pole clobbered by vehicles taking the turn too close to the building. The corner of the building, along with its battered pole, is centered in the photograph, with the sides of the structure disappearing into perspective on either side. Mitchell accentuates the “wrapped around the pole” effect by mounting the sign on an actual crooked pole and rolling the edges of the sign underneath, away from the viewer, almost as if the image were a single frame on a reel of curling film, or a memory frozen in the interstices of eternity.

As in other Mitchell works, the scene in “Pole” is bereft of human life … except for the viewer. Mitchell puts the audience in the position of witness, forced to look—really look—at the places where cars careen out of control. Once the wreckage has been cleared away, accident sites usually fade into the background, but these photographic sculptures lay bear the evidence of violence, transforming banal landscapes into stark records of a disaster that just struck or is about to strike again. The most confrontational aspect of this work is left to the viewer’s imagination.

In veering away from slick, vivid and colorful photos associated with pornography toward the opposite—a warm and grainy photographic texture printed on bent and dimpled metal—Mitchell skirts accusations of exploitation even as he dramatizes the scarred surfaces of our roadways. In the first three months of 2013, there were more than 4,500 collisions in Las Vegas. Each one left a mark, a trace—and it’s those sites that Mitchell seeks to bracket with artworks that do more than communicate a haunting beauty. Mitchell’s signs declare how dangerous it really is out there.

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