Marcus Civin and Jerry Schefcik introducing "Full Orchestra" at the Donna Beam Fine Art gallery. Photo Ed Fuentes
“Full Orchestra” was an abstract performance with a simple message. The UNLV College of Fine Arts is marching to a different drum beat on fresh legs led by the new chair of art, Marcus Civin.
Held on opening night of “New Faculty Exhibition,” the 28 minutes of non-stop drumming by seven percussionists, orchestrated and choreographed by Civin, is a call for change. After opening with a #MeToo declaration, the group built layer upon layer of rhythm on a custom table drum that Civin created in collaboration with Melissa Webb at School 33 Art Center in Baltimore, Maryland. The table and props, all made for previous projects, were given new context for the work making its debut at The Donna Beam Gallery. Each performer became an artist/musician hybrid as they moved through 3 passages channeling beats inspired prompted by Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero,” Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” and classical Big Band music that refers to Fred Astaire dancing with drums in the 1937 RKO musical “Damsel in Distress.”
The use of drumming was not known to everyone coming to the gallery. They came because something special was anticipated. It even brought out members of the local art tribe who have been missed, like writer Kristen Peterson. Known for her prolific art reporting career and now moving into different directions, she was glad to see it and loved it. “It reminded me of a very physical, dark symphonic work carried out with great precision and athleticism, the kind of sublime piece weighted with the drama of humanity,” Kristen said. “But it was also so beautiful that we can almost forgive this existential confusion we’ve lived with for thousands of years.”
Those who have seen a lot of art events on the UNLV campus also enjoyed it. “Playing in the shadows cast by sculpture and music percussion is so fun to see, experience and savor amidst reflection,” said Robert Tracy, the UNLV Art History professor who has also curated many experimental exhibitions.
The sound composition was led by UNLV percussion professor Timothy Jones, whose direction had everyone appear playing at same level of expressive drumming. According to Civin, Jones guided the sound to have more melody and nuance than expected. Carved wooden legs and bronze tops hats were used in solo interactions. Yasmina Chavez, who opened the evening with a reading of the #MeToo movement, gave an especially brilliant performance by expressing unleashed possibilities through physical undulation so raw she kicked off her black flats in rage and joy.
“The exhibition and performance pointed at, protested, and exorcised oppression in both academia and the nation,” says Alisha Kerlin, Interim Director, Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art. “[When] Javier Sanchez beat on the wall . . . I couldn’t help but think that it was like tapping at the cracks in the infrastructure. The performance felt like it was a reset for the semester. It felt like a timely protest and a march, full of hope.”
And full of people. The Donna Beam Gallery was packed. According to Civin, it was the largest crowd for a performance art work he has produced. The piece also introduces his missive that the door is now open for art that will reinterpret gallery space “as a protest gym.” Because of #MeToo and other social movements, Civin compares 2018 as having the same urgency as 1968. UNLV can be an institution to encourage works to “have the purpose and mechanics of protest to purge and restructure arts and academia.” Civin adds, “Change can happen through great writing, speech, and democratic process.”
“It’s wonderful to see such new and exciting work being incorporated into UNLV,” says artist Brett Holmes. “I am incredibly enthusiastic about the direction the art department is heading.”
That is part of a larger plan. UNLV is expected to be a creative leader, said Civin, who started surveying community as soon as he was appointed chair. Earlier this summer he debriefed me during a coffee meet-up, held just as he moved into town (his possessions were still on their way from Maryland). Even then he was planning how UNLV could engage with the region. He binged all summer by exploring alternative spaces off campus, listening to art leaders not affiliated with UNLV, including visits with City and County culture staffs and gallery owners.
That places UNLV in to a role beyond being an aesthetic thought leader. All the works at “New Faculty Exhibition” make an optimistic declaration that there can be fruitful growth for an art environment in a region that faces challenges to art. Now, just as each artist in the BFA and MFA programs are required to investigate their own work, UNLV College of Fine Arts may have been assigned the same task: to investigate how an art department can be an extension of the region and not just fulfill an academic mandate to produce works that meet the embodied perception of arts education.
Besides showing how art and performance can be a tool for protest, “Full Orchestra” also introduced the ideas behind outreach. After drummers were introduced as a unit, they wandered away from the table to be soloists engaged with objects staying within the community beat. “More than anything, that level of professionalism and collaboration was amazing to witness. I hope it's a sign of more to come,” says Peterson. Like drumming on a table and engaging with art objects in the same cadence, finding new rhythms on campus and stepping away to engage with community is a task that demands skill and endurance. That drum has been sounded with rage and joy.
"Full Orchestra" ensemble at the Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery. Photo Ed Fuentes
"[Cara] Cole’s redacted story loomed over us like a chalkboard-- a poem about harassment in higher education," says Alisha Kerlin. Photo Ed Fuentes
(Above and Below) Ashley Hairston Doughty's "The Space Between" at "New Faculty Exhibition" at the Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery on the campus of UNLV. Other recently hired faculty, Kay Leigh Farley, Michael Fong and Sean Slattery, are also exhibiting current work. Photo Ed Fuentes
ABOVE: Luis Varela Rico