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Viva Art Vegas! PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 22 June 2004 18:00
What’s the best sightseeing to do in Vegas in 100-degree-plus weather? Stay mostly inside and check out the great art scene. Last Thursday I took the inaugural nonstop flight to Las Vegas from the Quad Cities airport. You know, the “Red Eye for the Fun Guy” flight that AirTran recently announced, before it even had its first departure, that it was ending on September 6? Too bad, too, because there are some real benefits to the early-morning flight coming home, namely avoiding six-hour-plus lines through security during the more popular hours.

Anyway, back to “What I did in Las Vegas besides play the slots” essay. The art starts in the airport terminal, where oversize floor sculptures are being installed along with recent terminal renovations. Some of the first advertising we saw was for the Monet exhibition, on loan from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, showing at the Bellagio Casino. Not to be outdone, the Venetian casino has on exhibit through July 5 A Century of Painting: From Renoir to Rothko inside its Guggenheim Hermitage Museum. These include the works of Cezanne, van Gogh, Pollock, Kandinsky, and more.

Those are two mini-blockbusters found within the new Vegas. I was on the hunt for something a bit more indigenous. And there’s nothing more local than the Las Vegas Arts District just south of the old Vegas strip downtown. Started in the mid-1990s, this 18-block area around the intersection of Charleston Boulevard and Main Street is ripe with light industrial buildings, warehouses, and auto-repair shops that have been incrementally transformed into more than 30 studios, galleries, furniture shops, and restaurants.

One of the anchors of this arts district is The Arts Factory at 101-109 East Charleston. This mixed-use building is home to a few artists’ work/live lofts and more than a dozen studios for painters, photographers, muralists, sculptors, and architects, as well as a black-box theatre, a not-for-profit gallery, several commercial galleries, and an art-themed bistro. Necessity joins with art throughout the building’s constructs for doors, hallways, fences, and windows. And on multiple levels, hallway galleries in the large open common spaces show accomplished works by some of Vegas’ local artists.

We entered via Charleston Street to inside the Contemporary Arts Collective gallery now showing two photo exhibits. The first, Found by Ana Maria Rodriguez, included seven 24-by-36-inch Lamda prints, neatly framed in black wood. Each photo was a captured Vegas-scape, such as the serendipitous shape of a dirt pile on a casino construction site in the foreground against the Sunrise Mountains in the background. Rodriguez has a keen eye for the various atmospheric effects of Vegas, not only in commercial districts but also amidst suburban landscapes caught at twilight while the sprinkler mists spread a cool shroud over the foreground. These vibrant prints were rich both with thick controlled greens, reds, and ochres, as well as airy compositional effects. Like the breakthrough period Monet paintings we saw later that day, this artist had deftly applied her craft to capture a moment, rather than construct one. Rodriguez had “found” the fleeting but soothing atmospheric moments in Vegas that would pass soon with the sun’s movement.

Around the corner were the photos of artist Gregg Segal in a show titled Lost Vegas. This was a series of more than 20 prints capturing the inhabitants of old Vegas as they exist today, via the portraits of motel dwellers, musicians, prostitutes, gamblers, shop-keepers, and families. Segal captured his subjects amidst the haunts, arches, and neon-lit interiors and exteriors of Fremont Street so inventively that one could not imagine these subjects existing anywhere else. Segal effectively used time-lapse photography, intuitive juxtapositions, and available natural or electric light to draw the viewer ever deeper in to examine the details of this person’s life. Just when one is considering how content one would be in these gritty and gorgeous settings, it becomes apparent that each subject shared contentment with themselves devoid of their surroundings. The gallery, operated by the Contemporary Arts Collective (CAC), received funding for Lost Vegas and Found by both the state Nevada Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. The CAC is a 14-year-old not-for-profit, independent artist-run organization.

Not a bad introduction to The Arts Factory. Winding hallways hung with art from the renting studio artists led one into more open areas, where each tenant had fashioned an individual “store front” or entrance. Finding our way upstairs, we followed the sounds of Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind to the vast open gallery of Michael Wardle. Wardle played host to us for the next hour or so, sharing stories of the area’s rise and the success of his own recent abstract works with a little help from his cross-marketing with a local wine steward. Wardle’s gallery/studio/loft was at the top of the building, with exposed wooden trusses and skylights.

Wardle – born in Ames, Iowa, of all places – was in his 50s and had done everything from realist portraits in New York to elaborate trompe l’oeil murals for homeowners and casinos alike. His current period was abstract, and he was clearly having fun with it. His expansive loft space was ideal for displaying his works, which hovered between homages to deKooning and Pollock. In fact, when mentioned, he remembered the famous painting Mural by Jackson Pollock, in the University of Iowa collection, as an early influence on his aesthetic, when he first saw it as a teenager in Iowa.

Wardle is in full command of his palette and pulls off some striking small triptychs alongside vast explorations of tertiary colors accented by flailings of white lines and flourishing under-paintings that are allowed to breathe. Around the corner Wardle has on display, in the rear entrance to his gallery, paint-by-number-esque nods to popular culture, with Wardle himself inserted into the worlds of Lennon/Ono, Madonna, and O.J. Simpson. One could spend hours in and around his gallery/studio, and he proved to be a consummate host, showing our party around the rest of the Arts Factory and seeing us off to the other gallery on our list, Dust.

Dust was located just a block and a half south on Main Street and occupied a 2,000-square-foot storefront next to series of Mexican-American furniture stores and body shops. On exhibit was a show entitled Paint Draw, made up of artists from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and New York with a purported influence of UNLV art grads. The works were truly modern, with several nods to retro late 1950s pop and garishness. Curated extremely well, this collection of works showed a continuity of sleek, a consistency of finish, and a penchant for fluidity.

In the back and not part of the current show hung two wall pieces by Curtis Fairman. Fairman’s approach was quickly surmised as and agreed to as “brilliant” by the group I was with. Fashioning store-bought items such as Tupperware and stainless-steel bowls, doorknobs, hub-cap bolts, jiggers, and Target-found glass-ware, Fairman concocts wall-hangings of free-standing objects that one critic called a “fantasia of lounge kitsch and sci-fi geek-o-sphere fetishes. … If pop art grew legs and started hanging out with George Lucas, it would look like this. When it comes to sci-fi/pop collisions in art, Fairman is that aesthetic’s leading light.” His works were an arresting synthesis of the patterns and colors of consumerism into pseudo-organic objects alive with depth and mystery.

We had just scratched the surface of the Las Vegas Arts District on the fringe of old Vegas, and it was time to head back to our digs in the new Vegas. Next we made it to the Bellagio Casino, past the immense ceiling full of Dale Chihuly glass sculptures, through the casino (of course), to the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art. Here, Monet: Masterworks from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston are on display through September 13. I couldn’t help but think of long lines and sold-out showings of Monet in Chicago, and how easy it was to access this icon of art history in the heart of slot machines and poolside sun bathers. The ticket price was $15 for nonmembers, and the lines were moderate.

Inside, the audio tour was superb, easy to use and insightful. The exhibit showed Monet’s progression from a student of realism, willing to paint what he saw with equal weight and no fanfare, to a master of his own floral realms, turning the art world on its ear with landscape compositions and light studies never before imagined, let alone realized with such vibrancy and depth. The gallery was not expansive, yet it was accommodating to small throngs of viewers, all eagerly listening to the audio tour. On view were the famous The Water Lily Pond, Water Lilies, Rouen Cathedral Façade, and Grainstack (Sunset) , among many others. The lessons learned in art history were visually realized, as one could experience the passion Monet pursued capturing a moment in paint, rather than the traditional method of creating such moments academically. This beat standing in line in Chicago any day.

There are lessons our community can learn from Las Vegas. Even if all one has experienced in Las Vegas is the grandeur and attention to detail at such pleasure domes as the Bellagio, the Venetian, MGM Grand, the Luxor, and so on, it is apparent that content is king. The new casinos have embraced many aspects of the human experience from history to literature to nature to art and invested in their telling from exhibits and décor to concerts and promotions.

Returning to our own riverboat-gambling capital, one wishes such an experience would be merely attempted. The Rhythm City Casino claimed the mantle of music as its theme, but where are the music-themed content and exhibits? A burger in the café named after a hit song doesn’t quite compare. The Isle of Capri used to have a fairly significant sports-themed bar, but that has since been left aside. There are so many themed opportunities to capitalize on here in the Quad Cities that it is a wonder the bar is not raised a bit higher. Perhaps the planned Jumer’s casino will raise the content bar for casinos in the Quad Cities. Let’s not forget we have two world-class museums opening within one block of the Davenport casino: the River Music Experience (now open) and the Figge Art Museum (spring 2005).

What’s the downside of visitors coming to the Quad Cites to gamble finding they enjoyed the side trips they took to our soon-to-be-nationally-acclaimed attractions more than the nickel slots? That they might come back for more?
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