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The truth about Vegas: “Teetering” grapples with the city’s gritty reality

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A cross-section of John Bissonette’s Teetering on the Brink exhibit.

Teetering on the Brink. It would be tempting to suggest that the name says it all, but in this case it's almost ornamental. No title needed, really — the work in John Bissonette's exhibition at the Clark County Government Center Rotunda says more about the precarious state of current affairs than words ever could.

A Tennessee transplant, Bissonette was primarily a painter before moving to Las Vegas in 2008. The hyper-ecstatic rate of collage-like change that pummels this skyline clearly made an impression, as did the surreal disconnect between manufactured opulence and abject poverty. We live in a city that all too often feels like a theatrical set but plays out like a gritty documentary. In response, the artist started making deliberately ephemeral objects.

Not that gritty is a bad thing — what sometimes makes it hard to live here is also the stuff of great art and rich lives. Bissonette obviously grapples with a hefty bit of love/hate, and at the end of the day produced an exhibition that manages to unabashedly celebrate and unflinchingly lacerate a city that basks in its own high-priced impermanence.

Given the exhibition's mixture of found objects and cheap components, materiality is essential to its impact. Placed at center is "The Price Is Right," a round platform covered in found carpeting of the dirty-brown shag variety. Forlornly resting atop the platform is a decadent chandelier that appears to have lost its ceiling: potent imagery magnified by the stunning discovery that the chandelier is entirely carved out of Styrofoam. A luxurious illusion passes its sell-by date, impotent and exposed in the harsh daylight of the rotunda.

Calendar

Teetering on the Brink
Four stars
Through March 12, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., free
Government Center Rotunda, 455-7030

"Untitled (Royal Red)" seems to think that things are business as usual. A wall painted in the aforementioned royal red frames a gorgeous side table, vase and buoyant flowers — all again expertly carved in Styrofoam. Intentionally constructed at a scale slightly too big, its excess is suffocating: too curvy, too tall, too fancy and too broad. This Mannerism would verge on Camp were it not for the fact that the wall is false front, precariously weighted by sandbags. The work eerily evokes the Wynn.

Anomalous only for its lack of representational imagery, "Harmon(y)" is a towering three-sided object meticulously painted on two sides. The third is brutal: a found mirror crusted in splattered ketchup and goodness knows what else. Shocked by this violence, the object's acute formality sharpens the event into theater as with Sam Peckinpah or Tarantino. An aggression abstracted, that is, until you see the man in the mirror.

The artist's painterly insight elevates this work. However abject the materials used, each piece reads as a classical still life; or, perhaps, a lifeless still? The air is literally sucked out of this work, and yet it's all so darned lovely. Teetering is filled with difficult ideas made more alluring by virtue of the sheer prettiness of the objects that contain them.

I have always thought of Las Vegas as a microcosm of America's political, cultural and fiscal climate, and the universality of Bissonette's Vegas-inspired investigations are further proof. Teetering transcends place altogether. This excellent show takes a difficult look into the anxiety, instability and impermanence of contemporary life. It questions the gluttonous trap that got us here and wonders why we can't seem to let it go. Rarely have we been offered work that so truthfully speaks to the exigent reality of our fair city.

Teetering on the Brink wasn't made to be written about; it was made to be seen. This is one zinger of an art show that is not to be missed.

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Danielle Kelly

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