For some artist transplants, Las Vegas provides as much inspiration as it does frustration
Thu, Mar 12, 2009 (midnight)
Photo: Beverly Poppe
Laurenn McCubbin has been super busy for, oh, at least 15 years now.
There were the early years in San Francisco as a graphic designer during the dawn of desktop publishing (“I am the queen of Adobe”), then the disappointing move to Chicago for a BFA in graphic design (“I will not sell soap for a living”). After she completed her BFA, things really got cooking: a Xeric Grant-winning graphic novel, XXXLiveNudeGirls; an ongoing collaboration with Michelle Tea that began with the highly acclaimed Rent Girl and continues with the forthcoming Carrier; creative director of the now defunct, Utne Award-winning magazine Kitchen Sink; art directing, editing and illustration gigs for publications ranging from Shojo Beat to the New York Times; and, most recently, freelance work in Kansas City.
As of January 2008, McCubbin added three new things to the list: get married, go to graduate school and move to Las Vegas. Getting married? Easy. Graduate school? Difficult—but it’s supposed to be. Moving to Las Vegas? Not so easy.
“The heat is going to kill me,” she says.
Just when you think you know all there is to know about Las Vegas, you turn a corner and find something—or someone—new. In our deceptively tiny but ambitious art scene, fresh faces and ideas are a curious thrill, especially those that are hard to read. Who is that new person, what kind of work do they make, and when are they going to show us?
The real curiosity, though, is how are new artists adjusting to the visual onslaught that is our crazy-neon-sparkle-ville? For McCubbin and several other recent visual-arts transplants, it is sometimes rewarding, strangely disappointing, but never, ever boring. Do their fresh eyes hold some magical secret ingredient to making the Las Vegas art scene work?
Much of the artist’s source material comes from her immersion in burlesque communities in the Bay Area and its terrifically vibrant sex-worker culture. Accustomed to working with strippers and Suicide Girls as models, she’s having a hard time locating a positive community here. “I’m a big fan of burlesque, and I can’t believe there isn’t more support here for [burlesque]”—a surprise considering the city’s manufactured image as a den of iniquity. McCubbin finds this uniquely Vegas strain of morality a little prudish. “LV is a cocktease. You can get away with anything here—unless you live here.”
McCubbin came to Vegas ready for an artistic challenge, part of which was deciding to enter the graduate program in fine art at UNLV. Already a success in the realms of illustration and graphic novels, she became curious “about fine art and what that means.” McCubbin feels ready to branch out from the comic-book structure, exploring the intersection of graphic novels, artists’ books, painting and installation art, à la Chris Ware. Having just begun grad school, she is still in a research period, consisting of preliminary large-scale paintings based on individual graphic panels. Ultimately, she hopes to translate the sequential narrative of the graphic novel into physical space via painting and installation.
McCubbin remains conflicted about Las Vegas, and adapting to the art scene has been a challenge. “I think there is a creative community in Las Vegas, it’s [just] a little hard to find,” she observes. “Not everyone [at First Friday] is the person you want to work with. The community of artists is not readily visible … it takes more work [to find them].”
The sprawl of the city and scattered arts organizations makes it hard to pin down any particular person or trend. But the effort pays off. If there is one thing McCubbin loves about Las Vegas, it’s the people. The other aspects of culture shock are proving a little more challenging.
McCubbin’s studio walls are lined in very, well … graphic renderings of women of all shapes and sizes. By graphic I mean both XXX and possessed of a refined linear sensibility and gorgeous composition. Her graphic novels portray real-life sexuality, and the work here is vulnerable without losing its punk attitude: savvy feminist eroticism.
Still, McCubbin seems awed by the dynamic aesthetic of the city: “I’m overwhelmed by the visual clutter … it’s all so shiny and fascinating.” She is quietly developing some ideas for a new body of work in response to Las Vegas, a nagging but daunting prospect. The artist is keenly aware of the challenges of making work about the city, a time-honored exercise with inconsistent results. Her faith lies in the belief that to be successful, it must be personal. “I really hope to portray my experience of Las Vegas.”
Interestingly, McCubbin insists that an honest and personal portrayal of Las Vegas would have to engage its subtlety. Yes, subtlety—we do have some. “The color shifts in the landscape. So. Many. Shades. Of. Brown.”
A strikingly similar sentiment is shared by sculptor and installation artist Emily Kennerk. Seduced by romantic notions of the West—open space, untamed environment, opportunity—Kennerk accepted a position as the new head of sculpture at UNLV’s Department of Fine Art. Since arriving in August, she has barely had time to assess her new hometown. Yet she notices an unexpected trend seeping into her perception—and it’s all about subtlety.
“I’ve always been sensitive to certain gestures,” observes Kennerk. Images of her work suggest she has a keen ability to document grand cultural themes with exceptionally restrained finesse. In SuburbanNation, a 2007 solo exhibition at the Indianapolis Institute of Art, tall balconies evocative of suburban wooden decks lined the wall. Towering precariously, they very simply captured the claustrophobic precipice of suburban homogeneity and the fragility of “home.”
Artists are like giant walking sponges, in a constant state of absorption, endlessly filtering information. What stays in the brain versus what gets tossed is kind of fascinating. The first shocks to Kennerk’s system were the super-bright colors and elaborate casino carpeting. Kennerk was convinced a move to Las Vegas, with its over-the-top style, would surface in her work as noticeably louder or larger gestures, but the opposite has happened. Her practice, already invested in nuance, has only become “more sensitive to the subtle or the singular move.
“I just finished a new piece,” Kennerk says. “It’s a simple object with a simple move in space.” (On view at the Clark County Government Center, the piece is a picnic bench that manages to sink slightly into the ground.) Her first thought? “I think that with the immense amount of visual play in Vegas, I may be seeking out the simplicity in an irrational landscape.”
Kennerk is definitely still in deep adaptation mode. Having lived in the Midwest and East Coast most of her life, she finds Vegas to be a shock to the system. For an artist who feels that her work makes a spectacle of the mundane, she has found herself in a city where the mundane is already a spectacle. “Driving to Target and seeing a pyramid and a sphinx, it’s like, ‘This is strange …’” And for the first time in her life, she lives in an apartment complex. She is continually perplexed and disappointed by the homogenous architecture and, like McCubbin, exceptionally surprised at the general lack of seediness. “It’s like a giant shopping mall.”
If McCubbin and Kennerk recoil slightly at the unique challenges of adapting to the cultural collisions of Las Vegas, it’s entirely understandable and will undoubtedly make for great art. John Bissonette, on the other hand, is like a bee to honey. All he sees is seediness.
Bissonette has found a convenient solution to something that most artist transplants to Las Vegas don’t think will be a problem: work space. In the labyrinthine depths of his apartment complex, a cruddy beveled door slides open to reveal a large garage. On the downside, there is no sink, but on the upside, he saves on heating bills thanks to the warmth given off by the washer and dryer in the apartment above. It might be tough to keep cool in the summer, but he’ll worry about that when Mother Nature forces his hand. “Not bad for 90 bucks a month, eh?” Bissonette asks with a satisfied grin.
Bissonette is taking it all in stride—he came prepared to embrace the city’s idiosyncrasies. A glance around this painter-cum-installation artist’s studio provides a window into why. Immediately striking is the preliminary phase of what will be a to-scale replica of a bedroom set. A beautifully turned, Styrofoam version of a chair based on one he found in a Dumpster inspired the project. Most available wall space is littered with medium-sized paintings and collages, each layered in brightly colored shapes and text. Oddly familiar phrases like “my heart longs for you” fill the paintings, saccharine-sweet combinations of words lifted from greeting cards. The cast-off phrases are elevated to the status of event, set within an abstract field.
Scott Den Herder and Justin M. Bowen
Yes, greeting cards. Bissonette has a thing for them. Born and bred in Knoxville, Tennessee, the artist has developed a healthy body of work centered on a celebratory consideration of Southeastern U.S. working-class culture that lovingly mashes up monster trucks and hot-rod interiors with high romanticism. In an effort to shake off regionalism and expand his range, the artist instinctively turned to greeting cards, motivated by the irony-free fact that the universally American and unflinchingly corny cards are, in fact, sincere.
This appreciation for the root sincerity of lower-to-middle-class kitsch sentimentality demystifies Bissonette’s blatant affection for Las Vegas. In his own way he gets it, as much as anyone can. “I adore it here,” he says. “I’ve always thought of this place as my Mecca.” He compares his artistic practice to karaoke, something that he does knowing full well it is silly or excessive, but undeniable in its exuberance. Sounds a lot like his experience of Vegas.
There is something of the Jimmy Stewart/Gary Cooper everyman to the artist, an unassuming nature that belies his art-world credentials, having arrived in Vegas last summer fresh from a highly competitive residency at the Bemis Center. As with others interviewed here, Bissonette came because of UNLV—his girlfriend is a fine art graduate student.
Although he adores the people he has met, he notices a general sense of reserve, registering a kind of cultural inferiority complex in the city similar to that of Knoxville. “There’s a lot of complaining about this place because it’s not somewhere else. But I kind of love that about it.” This singularity is something to be celebrated, providing “a freedom to make work from a different place.”
He seems thrilled to have preconceived ideas about the city blown out of the water. “There are so many dimensions to this place that the majority of the world has no idea about, like suburbs ... or an entire population of people living comfortably in the shadow of this vast, hyper-real visual culture and functioning independent of it. What I knew about Las Vegas before I came here was its myth, which is of course false and limited.”
Thinking about the city, he admits surprise at how his work has so swiftly and unconsciously responded to being here. Ultimately—like McCubbin—he acknowledges the long history of artists who have tried to “decode this place.” “I feel like it’s impossible not to make work about this city.”
His latest obsession? Shopping carts. “… In the washes … on the street. I keep seeing ones I want,” he says without a trace of irony.
The abundance of shopping carts hints at the unspoken transience that each of these artists senses, in the city and perhaps in themselves. How much do you give to a place that you aren’t entirely committed to remaining in? And what happens five or six years later, when you’re still here—and still noncommittal? It’s hard to put your finger on, and a huge part of the atmosphere. “The lure of a destination seems counter to anything permanent or established,” observes Kennerk.
So, what do these fresh eyes think about what they’ve seen?
Their admiration for the resilience of this arts community is obvious, even if it is peppered with criticism. “I think there’s a lot of energy here—there may not be all of the galleries,” observes Kennerk. “On a street level, people are doing things; that’s the sign of a healthy art scene. It’s refreshing, a little more accessible ...”
Bissonette, excited by the work he has seen but disappointed at how few galleries show local work, finds the exhibition spaces generally lacking. McCubbin is more to the point: “It’s hard to find galleries that are supporting emerging artists and not just painting pictures of The Beatles.” Great art is difficult, she says. “And I think Vegas is terrified of art being difficult.”
The list goes on. “Why can’t there be more apartment galleries—why can’t there be a Chicago model?” wonders Bissonette. Chicago—like other cities—has built a thriving scene on unconventional exhibition spaces, particularly apartments, which remain fiscally independent of an unreliable market. He envisions the possibility of working with the city as an artistic process in and of itself. What about temporary exhibition spaces in and about foreclosed buildings? McCubbin suggests empty strip malls.
Luckily, we have front-row seats to the healthy infusion of all of these new ideas. Bissonette had a show scheduled at Main Gallery before it closed, and is now seeking alternative venues. In the meantime, he is excited to continue his ongoing project of donating paintings to favorite bars. The latest lucky establishment? Davey’s Locker. And McCubbin? “I’m not ready to show right now,” she says. “I knew I needed to take a step forward in my work, and that’s what this time is for.”
Although Kennerk, the wise owl of the group, is making her Las Vegas debut in the Government Center, she is still taking it one day at a time: “There’s something to this place that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to explain.”