Awash in history
Photography exhibit chronicles changing desert landscape
Thu, Oct 23, 2008 (midnight)
“The sciences of hydrology, ornithology, botany and geology, the pursuits of economics and land use must be accompanied by and balanced with the poetic, a sense of appreciation that goes beyond mere description. This is because the Las Vegas Wash is more than an environment, an accident in the desert. It provides us with a location where we can ask ourselves, why are we here and what are we doing to this place? We must go beyond habitat, scenery and parks.” –Fred Sigman
The Las Vegas Valley is a broad bowl that slopes gently to the east and south, and every molecule of water in the valley, if it doesn’t evaporate or soak into the ground, eventually flows downhill to end up in the Las Vegas Wash. Which explains why the Wash has been growing for decades: The larger the city gets, the more water is piped in, passes through its bowels and ends up in the Wash on its way to Lake Mead.
When photographer Fred Sigman, the owner of Water Street Gallery in Henderson, was a high-school student in the 1960s, he’d head out to the Wash for what amounted to a wilderness adventure along an intermittent stream that would flow when there was enough rainfall to fill it. Forty years later said stream is now a small river through which on average more than 150 million gallons flow daily, most of it effluent from the city.
Sigman hasn’t been the only Las Vegas artist attracted to the Wash, and he’s put together an intelligent and handsome exhibition in his gallery consisting of work about the place made by himself, fellow photographers Gary Reese and Geri Kodey and painter Robert Beckmann. All of them present, either explicitly or implicitly, human changes to the watercourse. Along with the increased water flow came increasing numbers of visitors, which meant bank erosion, piles of trash and temporary homeless encampments. The county stepped in, turned the entire site into a park, a change explored with bittersweet tact in the rephotographs of Gary Reese, whose background as a conservation biologist gives him a larger frame of reference than most artists. His collaged pictures integrate historical and contemporary photos, manifesting layers of time and human intent ranging from the scientific to the exploitative.
Sigman’s black-and-white and (later) color images, taken over a number of years, provide a more linear and personal narrative of the changes, while Geri Kodey’s aerial views of the terrain, originally taken for the Regional Flood Control District, assume another viewpoint from which to survey the human-made, or anthropic, effects. Aerial photographs cannot help but remind us of maps and evoke the sense that they are more objective than ground-based work, but both Sigman’s and Kodey’s pictures are composed in such a way as to reveal both natural pattern and the human disruption of it.
The farthest-reaching works are the small oil-on-wood paintings by Robert Beckmann, which started out as straight landscapes of the Wash painted several years ago, but have been reworked with concentric rings of scraping and paint. The result is a warped territory viewed through a lens that both distorts and reveals the effect that light has upon not the land itself, but on the landscape we construct by viewing. The inclusion of the word “blast” in title of the piece “Wash Blast Epiphany,” for example, reflects not only the atomic legacy of the region, but also the visual epiphany afforded visitors to this surreal oasis in the Mojave.
The Wash is classified as an urban watercourse, and is a simulacrum of an undisturbed wetland. Viewing the works in the show, one suspects and hopes that it will revert to a different kind of nature when enough time goes by. That’s one of the reasons we look at art, of course, the lure of a transformation, even a redemption. And that’s never more poignant and relevant than when artists deal with the nature of Las Vegas.