Works by Sherin Guirguis (top), Thomas Burke (bottom left) and Jacqueline Ehlis.
Las Vegas Diaspora, organized by critic and curator Dave Hickey, our only genuine art-world celebrity, is either his victory lap or valedictory address. The 26 artists whose works are showcased in this exhibit studied with Hickey at UNLV between 1990 and 2001. Mostly recruited from art departments around the country, they were picked because they reminded Hickey of himself: They were “deeply self-sufficient, impudent and didn’t need a hug.”
For Hickey, Las Vegas represents everything he loved about the ’60s that’s encapsulated in the phrase “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.” But it didn’t have a thriving art scene, and he set out to change that. “To really be an art town you need artists, not just a garrison of rich collectors, like Palm Springs, where they’ve never seen an artist.” He encouraged his students to experiment, trust their instincts and be fearless.
Let’s look at a few artists in the show whose work embodies that advice. James Gobel’s huge triptych (90 by 192 inches) “Ridicule Is Nothing to Be Scared Of” is where pop baroque meets buggery—kinky and quirky at the same time. A scantily clad obese dandy is flanked by equally obese men in 17th-century garb. All the elements are fabricated in felt and yarn—materials more associated with handicraft than fine art—but the result is definitely fine. The craftsmanship is astounding, but Gobel makes it look easy.
Curtis Fairman’s glass, crystal and Pyrex found-object constructions look hard to do. I’m impressed as much by his skill in joining a score of glass candlestick holders into arches as by the beauty of the finished product. Although Fairman chose perishable materials to highlight the “preciousness of objects,” his imaginative combination of them has turned inanimate objects into a cast of hip-hop characters (“Studdin” looks good, “Shawty” seems innocuous, “Sadiddy” appears stuck-up).
Speaking of hip-hop, Gajin Fujita has pimped his large multimedia paintings “Ride or Die” and “Burn” with enough graffiti and spray paint to establish his street cred and enough skill and gold leaf to establish his art-world bona fides. Fujita layers bold graphics over precisely rendered Japanese images, which are themselves layered over graffiti, all in high-intensity colors. His banzai approach to picture-making leaves you breathless.
If your eyes need a rest, Robert Acuna’s long, horizontal paintings on wood panels, “Ooops” and “Sugar,” are just the thing. The two almost identical compositions consist of a central undulating shape, not unlike a clothespin, greyish-lilac in color, irregular vertical white stripes at one end and a metallic blade-like shape at the other. The difference between the paintings is that the narrow negative spaces in one are painted in subdued, closely related colors, and in the other they’re red and black. Equally pleasing, the two works make up a kind of demonstration of the effect of color on visual perception.
Philip Argent also plays with perception, but more like a magician—now you see it, now you don’t. In his untitled acrylic paintings, Argent carves out shapes that at one moment read as voids and then instantly become solid objects; straight lines intrude where you expect a curve, and forms look geologic, then morph into objects that look man-made.
Victoria Reynold’s paintings look exactly like what they are—raw meat, but painted as delicately as Rembrandt’s lace collars. Her ornate frames echo the veining and marbling of her subject and call attention to their baroque quality. The baroque artists delighted in presenting the edible bounty of the earth, but none of them had discovered the beauty of innards. Reynold’s slabs of meat are so beautiful, it’s almost embarrassing to admit liking to look at something we’d usually rather not think about.
If artists no longer feel embarrassed to admit they live in Las Vegas, we have Dave Hickey to thank. His stature in the art world has brought legitimacy to our town. Now that the Las Vegas Art Museum has thrown a spotlight on our homegrown contemporary art, will the other myriad venues and artists get the support they need to flourish? The Las Vegas art world is waiting to see what will happen next. Is Hickey declaring mission accomplished, or will he play a wider and deeper role in the Las Vegas art community?
Las Vegas Diaspora: The Emergence of Contemporary Art From the Neon Homeland
Through December 30
9600 W. Sahara Ave.