It's just this side of brisk on Second Friday, when Dust Gallery holds its reception for artist Angela Kallus, whose new circle paintings, platters of concentric ridges painted on canvas, overwhelm the walls. A quartet of jacketed guests chats outside, inside an animated cluster of 25 or so mills and sips, chews and chats. A few troll the perimeter in the bright watchful gaze of Kallus' paintings. Pop music plays.
Outside again, aside from the group in front of the gallery and patrons coming and going from Casa Don Juan restaurant, Main Street is mostly vacant—few cars and fewer pedestrians, who do not stroll but stride purposefully, or break into a trot for a bus that does not wait. Up at the corner with Charleston Boulevard, on the doorstep to S2 Art Group, a man in a tattered coat fetal-curls on scraps of cardboard.
A few yards away, inside the Contemporary Arts Collective gallery, torn and soiled patches of cardboard line the walls. They compose the makeshift canvas of a sort-of-mural, painted with cartoon-like figures and peppered with printed words. Jorge Catoni, who created Human Inhumanity with KD Matheson and Kate Jackson, calls it an "installation," and indeed it is something to experience environmentally. Where Kallus' platter-paintings engage you in reveries about surface and color, Catoni's collaborative installation indicts a society that leaves a man sleeping on cardboard at the corner of Main and Charleston.
Speaking quietly in sometimes fractured, sometimes fluid English, the Chilean native says he prefers art with a social edge. He does not mention Kallus, or anyone, but with a nervous chuckle he admits that some artists in Las Vegas "really don't touch me."
Catoni's comment points up a divide in the local art scene. It remains sub rosa but it can be as stark as the difference between the visually astute canvases in Dust and the accusatory cardboard in the CAC gallery. The former symbolizes the official art world in action: Kallus, who studied art at UNLV, ascends the ladder of gallery representation and résumé-building. The latter emblemizes a DIY ethic that scorns the official art world: Catoni, who studied drafting in Chile, has little interest in art history or in the steps required to craft an art-world career.
The academies in Chile, he says, are heavy on art history. "I just want to learn how to draw in different ways," he says. He is not averse to learning but "just the stuff I need to know." He says he has found it difficult to get his work taken seriously. "It's hard because ... people really care about your résumé, where have you made shows before. I left my country for that reason."
Cybele understands. The single-named artist runs MTZC in the Commerce Street Studios with fellow artist Mark T. Zeilman, and they have scheduled a Catoni show for March. "We don't look at their résumés and where they're showing," says Cybele. In May, MTZC will show the work of Dray, whose graffiti-inspired work is a mainstay of First Fridays. Dray, a cofounder of the Arts Factory-based 5ive Finger Miscount, also studied drafting but is a mostly self-taught artist. So is Zeilman, whose colorfully grotesque portraits are shown through January at MTZC. Zeilman, who prefers to "paint in the now," says art-school training could be counterproductive.
"Both of us make art from what's inside," says Cybele. "We make art from within and not from anything else." And both consider art a compulsion to which they have succumbed—Cybele less than two years ago. Zeilman remembers doodling in class as a child, "instead of listening." He cites cartoons and children's books among his reference points. "I think I could probably recognize a Renaissance-era painting," he surmises.
Anyone who recognizes early-modern work knows that the art world has sought inspiration from beyond its borders for more than a century. Sources as diverse as advertising posters and tribal crafts animated the work of Braque and Picasso, and pop-culture images have moved artists from Warhol to Koons. It could be argued that the art world has paved the way for a generation of artists who want nothing to do with it. More to the point, though, these mostly self-trained artists, whether they follow their hearts or street instincts, reject the perceived hauteur of the art world. They see a priestly cult, anointing its catechized acolytes and sneering at the rabble outside the cathedral. They are as populist as any Sunday painter.
"It's always been thus in every city," says Libby Lumpkin, consulting executive director of the Las Vegas Art Museum, who sees nothing wrong with a broad art scene. "Overall it's a positive thing. You want all kinds of arts endeavors taking place." But Lumpkin defends university art training.
"They don't teach it well-enough in high school. ... The essential lesson of fine art isn't taught or taught well," says Lumpkin, who has taught in several university art departments, including UNLV's.
This argument is often heard from the "official" art world—that the general public finds contemporary art so off-putting because art history is not an educational priority.
"Art is a part of the philosophical culture," says Lumpkin. "Artists who participate in the philosophical discourse of culture rise to the top."
Another, colder evening in December: A dozen or 15 have gathered at Godt-Cleary Projects to watch the final installment, via DVD projection, of the PBS documentary series Art:21. Four artists are profiled: Cai Guo-Quiang, Laylah Ali, Krzysztof Wodiczko and Ida Applebroog. The segment examines the issue of power, however broadly defined. Cai's work, for instance, involves fireworks in varied settings, such as igniting strings of firecrackers to create a drawing on paper. Applebroog's sometimes tortured, sometimes disturbing work most clearly fits the theme, which she has plumbed for decades.
If anything comes clear from the presentation, it is the open range of possibilities for art-making, whether it is the idiosyncratic figure paintings of Ali, whose work could be mistaken for "outsider" art, or the haunting, politically loaded video and slide projections of Wodiczko, who uses public buildings and monuments for his screens.
The evening also carries the promise of another, shorter documentary about a handful of Las Vegas artists. Nine Eyes, by CCSN student Ron Rierson, comprises mini-profiles of five artists who might be considered, to varying degrees, as more in the unofficial than the official art scene. But aside from slicker production values of the PBS documentary, it's hard to tell what places its four artists in the mainstream of contemporary art while Rierson's quintet trolls the margins. Leslie Rowland's painted furniture, incised with legends, has been exhibited locally, including a show at the Clark County Civic Center, where Rierson interviewed her, and it is of a piece with other contemporary work that works unexpected transformations on ordinary objects. KD Matheson's papier maché, totem-like seem to arise from respectably anthropological origins.
Catoni's segment of Rierson's film becomes an artwork of its own, a bow, perhaps, to early avant-garde filmmaking. Or perhaps to the one artist Catoni admits to admiring, the Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, who enjoys cult status for his densely layered surrealist fables, including the sanguinary, over-the-top El Topo. In Rierson's film, someone shaves Catoni's head and paints it with fake blood while Catoni draws and chants in Spanish about the spirit bleeding color. This comes across as amateur avant-garde, an awkward departure for the otherwise engaging short documentary.
Some in the audience have come for Art:21 and others for Nine Eyes, and polite applause follows both films.
The Art:21 series was organized by Catherine Borg, who since has resigned her position as Gallery Programs Coordinator with the city's Cultural Affairs Division to work more on her art, and with her husband, installation artist Stephen Hendee, who teaches at UNLV. Borg says she has seen evidence of the split in the local art scene. "The antagonism is probably flowing in both directions," says Borg. "Maybe even coming more from the people who are in the official [camp]."
Naomi Arin, who runs Dust Gallery with artist Jerry Misko II, has heard the complaints, too, especially about getting more of the "right people" Downtown to view art—a jab at the circus-like atmosphere of First Fridays. "These people are going to be the 'right people' some day," says Arin. "They just have to get into the habit of looking at art. I love the fact that teenagers show up at First Friday."
At the same time, she would like to see more judgment exercised about the artists who exhibit at First Friday booths, and says she has discussed this with her partners in its producer, Whirlygig, Inc.—First Friday founder Cindy Funkhouser and Julie Brewer. "It's extremely important to both Cindy and Julie to make sure that it's free and open to all. As such, there is not really a curatorial element to that at all," says Arin, adding, "I am outvoted and I support that."
And Arin says her decision to move Dust's opening receptions to another night—as with the one for Kallus—did not signal a rejection of the monthly affair. She wanted to give her featured artists an undiluted night to themselves, to address complaints about some gallery patrons about parking, and to people to the arts district on another night.
"To me First Friday is much, much, much more about community development than it is about art. It's really about bringing people to the area ... providing access to visitors to look at art."
Borg agrees. "I think the First Friday scene is very much a community scene. I don't think it's an art scene," she says. "I'm glad Dust is having their openings on another night."
Although she finds "room for everything" in the Downtown arts district, Borg echoes an often-heard lament about it. "The boundaries of the art world seem to stop at Las Vegas. I just don't feel like a lot of people here keep up with the larger art world."
Keeping up with the larger art world is part of Michele Quinn's job as director of Godt-Cleary, where she has organized exhibits of established, celebrated artists—Richard Serra's immense, blunt prints hang there through March 15. Not surprisingly, she makes no apologies for the gallery system in which she has forged a career. Gallerists and curators who rise through it develop a sense of what works and what doesn't, and they have to, because not everything can be shown.
"You have to build a résumé ... graduate through the ranks of galleries ... is your work being sold?" Quinn says, dismissing the arguments of those who find that path arduous or confining. "Good work is going to rise to the top. That complaint is going to come more generally from people whose work just doesn't make the grade...
"There's massive opportunity to get your work shown, if it's good and it's relevant," says Quinn.
Brian Paco Alvarez concedes that "it's foolish for any artist to think they're selling out by showing in a gallery," but he questions how "good" and "relevant" are judged. Curator of the Neon Museum and adviser to L. Maynard Galleries in Holsum Lofts, Alvarez discerns "a very small, vocal minority saying you have to have a master's degree [to make fine art]. The real art in a community is coming out of the people ... I'll put Jorge Catoni against anything coming out of UNLV.
"I was once told by a master's student ... a lot of this stuff being shown at the Arts Factory is 'outsider art.' I was kind of puzzled. What's 'outsider art?' That sounds like a very elitist term."
Alvarez's perception of elitism is the common bond between "street" artists inspired by graffiti and comics and more traditional, trained artists who reject the art world's sometimes querulous offerings. Alvarez resurrects the "Piss Christ" controversy of 1989—Andres Serrano's infamous photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine, a print of which was torn up on the Senate floor by Alfonse D'Amato—to make his point. "I guess that's where I'm a conservative. ... I'm torn ... I could see the sensibilities and the issues ... [but] that is not artwork. It's mean. It should elicit a response, but not to that degree. A cheap expression to piss people off."
So are the partisans of the street pushing aside the official art world?
Quinn doesn't see it. "Actually, I think the unofficial world will have more problems," she says. If the arts district matures, and more people move into condominium towers Downtown, rents will go up and marginal artists and galleries will have to move elsewhere, Quinn says.
And she has no problem with a broad variety of art offered Downtown. "No, actually, I think it's great. We basically have high to low here and that's great."
Arin, too, discounts the antagonism. "Those two worlds always coexist. I don't think it's adverse to one another. I just think they do different things."
Different things, in different ways. "No wine, cheese or children," says Cybele, stating MTZC's motto. "We're canned beer in a bucket."
To be sure, art history is full of stories about untrained but gifted artists finding success within its halls, sometimes even before they're dead. Galleries in New York and Los Angeles have embraced artists from the "street" ethic, including former graffiti taggers. The most famous examples are Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, darlings of the 1980s Neo-Expressionist scene in New York's SoHo, whose Brooklyn Museum retrospective last year is finishing a tour in Houston next month. Arthur C. Danto, the venerable art critic for The Nation, noted in a review last year that Basquiat was more canny about art history, and the gallery world, than most people suspected.
Catoni's crabbed, cartoony doodle-drawings show affinities with both Haring and Basquiat, although like Zeilman and Cybele, he cites his peers, such as Matheson, as influences, rather than figures from recent or distant art history.
"You have to be honest and just do the work ... [and] not try to make the art that the people want," says Catoni.
Oddly enough, that's precisely Quinn's prescription for getting into the gallery system. "You run the risk of losing the marketplace if you're too commercial," she observes. "Your work has nothing to do with the business."
The business sometimes concerns her, not because it's exclusive, but because it's too inclusive. She worries that some collectors will get burned buying over-hyped work that will not survive time's test. "I think right now the art world is still in this kind of frenzy ... You get these kids right out of graduate school, and it's frightening ... That's not the reality of what this system is about."
So, it's a good time for artists making distinctive work to get noticed, whether they've been graduate-schooled or not.
"The convention now is to be unconventional," says LVAM's Lumpkin.
This might be the one reason for self-taught, homegrown artists to engage more with the history and profession of their vocation. It's also a reason for those within the official art world to embrace and encourage those on the outside who take their work seriously.
And most do. Catoni wonders if some of his peers are "underground because they don't have another option, or underground because they want to be underground ... I am not trying to be underground and I am not trying to be famous."
Neither is Zeilman, who says he only wants to improve his work. "I'm still looking to paint a painting the way it's supposed to be."
Both Zeilman and Cybele say they plan to stick around the scene. Says Zeilman: "You wouldn't get the ball rolling if you didn't plan to ride it a while."