I was driving on I-215 south of town when for an instant I mistook the silhouetted Strip for the real Manhattan skyline. I had gotten back from three weeks in the Big Apple the night before, and what I’d seen there was on my mind. The following day I decided to try to find a meaningful connection between the art I saw in New York and a new Las Vegas exhibit.
Newfangled at the Main Gallery is a group exhibition of drawings by 11 artists represented by 36 smallish works and comparable stylistically to the much larger group show at MOMA in New York City with 100 works by self-taught outsiders and conventionally trained professionals inspired by outsider art.
In recent years the art world has become receptive to art that is out of the mainstream, and in particular to experimental or offbeat drawings. Las Vegas is not immune to this trend, so it is not surprising to find commonalities between the New York and Las Vegas shows. They both feature unconventional approaches to drawing and highly personal imagery that is characteristic of outsider art.
Many of the works in the Main Gallery are akin to doodles or the obsessive patterns drawn by schizophrenics, and the use of materials associated with children’s art, like markers and glitter gel pens, did not bode well. But Julien Kedryna’s set of four marker drawings, which tells the story of a dark ball magically transformed by a rainbow, has a conceptual sophistication belied by the humble medium and naif drawing style. Helene Riviere’s four small drawings in graphite, ink and colored pencil have a similar narrative quality, but are more enigmatic. Some lines suggest mountains and plants; some shaded areas hint at clouds; a bloated object (a bladder, perhaps) sprouts fingers or flowers.
Three of the artists use abstract patterns in a way more associated with design than fine art. Stephanie Dowell’s two glitter gel pen geometric designs are attractive in a fractured-glass sort of way. Geoffrey Todd Smith’s drawings of circles within circles rendered in psychedelic colors and obsessively filled with patterns are op-art dazzlers. Arnaud Loumeau’s marker drawings on graph paper are colorful and complex, and although abstract, the symmetrical arrangement of squares and pattern of darks and lights suggest facial features. One in particular, a wide-eyed creature whose mouth opens in a little “O” that breaks free of the grid, is adorable.
Two artists explore the ambiguity and tension between soft and hard surfaces. Anna Giertz’s ink and watercolor drawings of crazy quilts bunched into rock-like formations are charming. Vanessa Dziuba’s ball-point pen drawings depict bent or folded pieces of paper which sometimes become boxes. Her technique of building shapes with staccato strokes results in surprisingly delicate and tactile drawings; here the act of drawing mimics the act of constructing.
Daniel Samaniego’s pencil drawing “Axis” is another kind of construction, one of identity. Samaniego is art-school-trained, but his homosexual imagery is intensely personal. His imaginary triple self-portrait uses faces appropriated from fashion magazines, but disfigured with penises, bumps and lesions symptomatic of STDs. The hollow eyes, drag-queen eyebrows and facet-like facial planes add up to a ghoulish homoerotic nightmare. He hopes the power of fashion and the symbolic power of the trinity will make the “isolated gay experience” comprehensible to others, but given the imagery I’m afraid it will have the opposite effect.
Elizabeth Blau has a totally different fashion sense, one that involves floral patterns and weaving. Her work, although unrelated to outsider art, connects strongly to another exhibit in New York, a retrospective of Philip Guston’s works on paper. Guston was a prolific draftsman who often turned to drawing to explore new directions in his art before transposing them to painting. Blau’s three mixed-media works serve a similar purpose. Her Taos Tapestry series was inspired by weaving, but enriched by images from her “long history of hunting and gathering,” including the word “lozer,” which she found written on an abandoned building.
Although Las Vegas does not have New York’s well-established museums with the resources to mount important group and retrospective exhibitions, it does have a few galleries dedicated to showing quality contemporary art. Newfangled is a small but noteworthy addition to the campaign to validate artists working in nontraditional ways.