Superbia Civilis, 2016 Found object, spray paint, garland.
The Barrick Museum of Art current exhibition, “Plural,” surveys memory, passion, voice, excess, and intersectionality through works donated by artists living and working in Southern Nevada. The exhibition closes May 12 but will be punctuated with “Plural: Meet the Artists” on May 10. Curated to “form perspective by exhibiting an understanding of who we are,” the exhibition becomes a jumping off point on how art is beginning to represent the region, and which ways it can go.
That is not a small chore. What it means to be a native of Las Vegas, or a Las Vegas-based artist, has never been consistent. It was largely defined, with cynical convenience, that ephemeral residency is the canon of being a Las Vegan. That prevents any distinct art movement from gaining traction. Plus, it’s not true. There are roots for regionalism. The city is unique for certain, and as residents know, there is life away from Las Vegas Boulevard. As I have said when on art panels, the Strip is a man-made campfire in the vast Basin and Range Province.
What “Plural” has are impassioned declarations by local artists that set new terms of identity, which is an innovation, or a breaking of the rules. That goes by many names; it was once called avant-garde. Iconic art critic Clement Greenberg referred to his era of avant-garde artists as a society that detached itself from a mainstream; he opined it is not just a method of experimentation, but a process by which to “find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion.” It’s from this heady old-school criticism that the ideas behind “Plural” expands, coupled with the recent backstory of the UNLV MFA candidate’s installation evicted from the Clark County Rotunda Gallery. It opens a door for an “-ism.”
First, my initial thought on “Plural” when it opened in February was the evidence of diversity. That was also noted in Dawn-Michelle Baude’s review. She wrote “Over half of the 44 artists showing in UNLV’s Barrick Museum of Art are women; many are artists-of-color and/or queer. Through rubber and bone powder, Alaskan blueberry residue and fleece—along with traditional media—Plural advocates for greater diversity in exhibition fare.”
Diversity is, too often, buried in this desert. “Plural” recovers it like and artist finds objects. The show brings back Justin Favela's’ "Estardas" (2010), the cardboard mock-up of the Spanglish pronunciation of Stardust. Favela's’ takes sentimental visual reference of a sign from an abandoned casino and reclaims it as a recreation with fragile materials. Also in the show is Gig Depio’s “Breaking Armistice” (2011), his known chaotic, yet controlled, brushstrokes that here demonstrate media hysteria infiltrating and reshaping popular culture. The piece resonates with a social mural heritage as the subjects stop short at the edges, enticing the viewer with expectations for continuity. Between these two works is Krystal Ramirez’s “I Want to See” (2017), a statement pieced together on paper to make a call for more Brown artists, poetically suspended from the ceiling like a floating mural or vulnerable wall.
Yet, it is the works that deal with abandoned objects that show how artists, even after the Dave Hickey high-brow bump was interrupted by a downturn market, did not stop creating. Local artists stayed in the trenches, short of resources, and scraped together a movement that defines the region in this place and time. Aaron Sheppard's costume for “Mermaids on Parade” (2017) creates an alternative reality out of scrap materials, and the performance art artifact of the happening is a document of communal-minded artists wandering Joshua Tree like it was the New Jersey Boardwalk. Photographs by Mikayla Whitmore has us witness the march. Brent Holmes’ “Superbia Civilis” (2016) is sculpture made from a crushed shopping cart that was pulled out of a wash, painted white, and decorated with garland. (Added note: “Superbia Civilis” first appeared in a group show at Clark County's Winchester Center). It is lit in a wash of gallery lighting. That has me wonder more about “Space Available," the installation made of possessions that sat briefly in the Clark County Government Rotunda. If the boxes and scrap were coated in a lacquer of white paint, would it then have been a visual code for a broader audience and government officials to know it was indeed art?
With the quick demise of “Space Available" occurring near the end of “Plural,” it also brings to mind past exhibitions that featured found objects transformed into art as a shared methods of art-making. In 2017, Chris Bauder painted found objects for “Strange Glove” at Sin City Gallery; “From Refuse to Reuse,” the recently-closed exhibition for the City of Las Vegas, was a collection of works by artists who re-purposed found objects; D.K. Sole’s exhibition “or, Some Time Ago” were small sculptures exhibited at Clark County’s Winchester Cultural Center Gallery in 2015, and were made of scrap she found on foot; and in "Tilting the Basin: northern Nevadan Galen Brown’s “Trees” were 27 salvaged Christmas trees suspended from the ceiling that made a post-apocalyptic holiday forest.
Regional movements often come from a declaration made by like-minded artists, who aim to separate their processes from what is expected from a larger pack. Sometimes it falls into a cohesive narrative that evolved from an organic response to a collective environment and manufactured culture. That is how art movements are born.
Works from found objects is not new. Yet, Las Vegas artists have made it a personal statement, and there are examples of that in "Plural." For lack of a better name for now, we can call art made out of found objects from the urban Nevada Desert “Scrapism.”
Or you can go to meet with artists and ask them where they think a Las Vegas art movement can go.
ABOVE: Luis Varela Rico