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Vast displays a revealing retrospective on Robert Beckmann

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Robert Beckmann’s work through the years is on display at Vast Space Projects — and it’s incredible stuff.
Dawn-Michelle Baude

The Details

Robert Beckmann Retrospective
Four stars
Through June 15; Wednesday–Sunday, 11 a.m.–2 p.m.
Vast Space Projects, 323-240-2888.

You know that building, right? The iridescent hulk of blue at the north end of the Strip? Robert Beckmann’s painting, “The Impecunious Cloud” (2013), depicts the hexagonal tower and rusty annexes of the doomed Fontainebleau resort with what appears to be realistic accuracy.

But the blue is too weirdly buoyant, the annex carcass a little too dark—almost sepulchral. And that’s just where the painting opens up. In the contrast between the two extremes of overly optimistic blue and the gloomy palette of browns and blacks, the steeple of palm trees and the ritualistic wash at their feet, Beckmann creates a shorthand for the social, economic and cultural complexity that is Las Vegas. The absurdly blue tower recalls the humor in David Hockney’s work, while the street scene—zapped of people and traffic—evokes the nostalgia of an Edward Hopper or Enoc Perez.

Cities have always had their painters, since at least the time of Egyptian Thebes—artists who take “place” as their subject. Las Vegas has an astute witness in Beckmann, from “The Body of a House” (1992-’93) cycle, which analyzes the explosions at the Nevada Test Site with an unnerving clarity; through the “Vegas Vanitas” (2000-’01), which synthesizes Old Masters iconography with contemporary Las Vegas imagery in a sly, strange pastiche; to the recent “Under Water” (2012-13) series, that deals with the symbolic and economic impact of being “underwater.” Since the artist set up shop here in 1977, he’s spent all but seven years painting Southern Nevada.

Beckmann’s accessible content is deceptive. The paintings turn on an immediate emotional appeal, but he laminates layers of meaning, representations of representations, in his work. The ritualistic explosion of the Dunes hotel in “Renewal” (2001), for example, rehearses an atomic explosion (and, more cryptically, the coronation of the Pope). The ruins in “Stars Dust” (2013) are full of radiation, but they also morph the dregs of another failed Las Vegas construction site into the stealthy vestige of a cathedral.

Exhibiting the masterful “Vegas Vanitas” series for the first time since 2002, along with a few Nevada Test Site paintings and recent work, Beckmann’s Vast Space Projects show provides a glimpse into the artist’s prolific output and notable stylistic range. But this intriguing mini-retrospective begs the question of what insights a full retrospective might reveal.

Note: Baude contributed text for the gallery’s catalog for this exhibit.

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