New works by artist Rita Asfour are love letters to an American city that contemplate on the Las Vegas Showgirl, the latest artifact of the town.
In "Rita Asfour: Her Way" at UNLV's Artemus Ham Concert Hall, there are ten new paintings that show how the Las Vegas Showgirl walked with European class, were the ringleaders of Strip sass, while emoting American bravado. The aura from the costumed bodies clearly say they were there for the stage, not a toy for the casino, nor anyone in the audience. It played off the fantasy of recreational sin, enhanced by the spectacle of the female form that migrated from the late nineteenth century version of European performance art, the Folies Bergère, which were Americanized in early twentieth century New York through the Ziegfeld Follies. It was exported to Las Vegas in the mid-twentieth century to clean up the joint.
If there was ownership to be claimed, it stayed with dancer, which Rita shows in a series of solo bodies shifting balanced movement during a performance, sometimes with a face turned away so the dancer's eyes, for a brief moment, do not connect to the audience. The showgirl is not avoiding the gaze from the viewer. They are focusing on staying in step during a turn and movement that kept an audience dazzled by watching a full costume of feathers, beads, glitter, headdress, gracefully move on a vast stage.
And placing the paintings on the walls of large lobby walls of Artemus Ham Concert Hall, adjoining a series of paintings of young ballet dancers, give the works theatrical positioning.
That is where you will see how Rita demands the Showgirl is not seen as a passive figure. The dancer takes the lead with a costume that is her partner and the physical task reaches an apex when the body is flexed in natural extension, teasing the edges of sexuality. Movement is direct comment to what is sensual that began with small talk of a static pose and led to an invitation to an audience to awe and examine.
Some images in this new series of paintings place a dancer’s long legs out of the frame. Though lovely in the usual showcase they could be a distraction, a visual breach to the symmetry of torso. Rita showgirl is a figure as solo act, a divine body with fair skin with rose-colored glow wrapped in fluid feathers that echoes motion and direct flirtation to the audience. Her painted light reflects off the costume like glitter and bling, the ever-present co-stars of the Las Vegas stage.
The point of view is not from the dark caverns of a room that holds an audience. The paintings place the viewer in the middle of the stage, next to the dancer keeping her eye on the next move during the twirl in step with flesh and feathers. By placing us onstage Rita speaks of the work and concentration needed for the pristine balance and motion that projects stylish entertainment power.
That work is also seen in the artist’s brushwork. There isn’t passive stillness in the strokes. They are as swift and lively, a reflection of how the artist danced through her own life gathering artistic styles. She touches on the storytelling of illustration before moving on to fine art, took an intermission from her brushes, then pick them up again after she saw Showgirls perform on the stages of Las Vegas. Born in Cairo in the 1930s, the daughter of an Armenian born in Turkey who escaped the 1915 Armenian genocide who, according to family lore, fell in love with a beautiful Syrian girl. Her education began in France before shifted to studying art at the Leonardo Da Vinci Italian Academy Of Fine Arts, from where she graduated with a BA in 1960. She roamed Europe and jumped in the allure of commercial illustration, the same visual style that is a marker of the late 1950 and early 1960s through works by artists like David Stone Martin, Brian Saunders, and Jon Whitcomb. In 1965, when Rita relocated to the US, and according to her bio, picked up a job as a portrait artist at Universal Studios during its early stage of becoming a tourist destination.
Travel brought the world closer and Las Vegas also became a destination in the late 1950s, enhanced by the adaptation of French revues. That began fade away by the turn of the new century but was just enough time for Rita to see it. She came to Las Vegas in 2012 to retire from being an artist until she saw “Jubilee” at Bally’s Casino. She picked up her brushes again, experimented with scrap materials, like CD packaging, testing how colors would dance with light, all leading to work that are mixed media of paint and found object.
This Robert Rauschenberg-like use of materials mixed with traditional painting is how Rita costumes a blank sheet, and considers how drawing is the immediacy of form, painting is gesture of performance, and the brush stroke is evidence of motion. When you think of the forceful assertive strokes of Jackson Pollack showing physical presence and motion, Rita also touches on that apex of contemporary painting. She also picks up on colorful rhythms of Leroy Neiman’s popular painting that has athletic motion projected through dabbled brush strokes. Rita connects art movements in the retracing of aesthetics, be it fine, commercial, or pop, that have influenced all painters. Rita choreographs them to stage her showgirls in an after glow of illustrative gesture and graceful motion.
Rita’s artistic determination to master all notions of what defines art and beauty is the supplemental surface narrative in these new paintings. Her decisions to embrace the dancer, seen as a personal subtext of being raised a Parisian, bypasses the post-modern artist owner’s manual to bury beauty with subversive idealism. She mastered the craft of illustration as recollection and persuasion, a seduction of taking what we familiar with and make it a perfect experience. The style dodges modern art criticism, or the mumble of artist statements, that always place intervention on taste being dependent on decrees of eyewitness accounts of art fashioned to an elite consumer.
She also shows how the subject is not an object, but a person who wore a costume that extended the tradition of the dancer and showgirl, hence only giving permission to view and gaze the female form from a distance.
Time is now the distance.
The Showgirl of the Strip is left behind by taste, trends, and budgets. While Las Vegas mythmakers wants visitors to still think they are treasured as an entertainment envoy and alluring mascot, the dancing showgirl has been abandoned and imploded by Las Vegas. Las Vegas only has ghosts of Showgirls. A dignified mural in the 18B Arts District, on a costume house owned by a former dancer, is based on an archived photo, so it began as an artifact. McCarran Airport’s 8-foot-by-50-foot "Folies in Flight" mural from 2012 welcomes travelers boarding off international flights, but it is a false offer of shows that are now dark. Models dressed as dancers, posing and scrapping for donations from tourists on the Strip and Fremont District, feels like the showgirl experience has been tossed in the streets to fend for itself.
Rita keeps the memory of the Las Vegas Showgirl to be more than being a museum artifact and shows how the enduring spectacle doesn’t have to be treated as torrid kitsch. These paintings are portraits that review the revue that is an encore of Vegas elegance. Rita offers a way for Showgirls to take another bow.
Rita Asfour: Her Way
Exhibition Featuring Ballet and Showgirl Paintings
Curated by Robert Tracy, Ph.D.
Show Girl Costumes from the Collection of Grant Philipo
Artemus Ham Concert Hall, UNLV
Opening and Special Presentation
Tuesday, October 11 from 4-6 PM
Special Presentation Featuring a Collaboration with UNLV’s Department of Dance
Pas De Quatre I Original choreography by Perrot
Music by Pugni
Choreography by Dolly Kelepecz-Momot
Going to Vegas I Choreography by Dolly Kelepecz-Momot
Panel Discussion Featuring Robert Tracy, Louis Kavouras, and Dolly Kelepecz-Momot.
Above: "Blue Angel: Between Heaven and Earth" at The Neon Museum's Ne10studio.