Works by Sherin Guirguis (top), Thomas Burke (bottom left)
and Jacqueline Ehlis.
Can you hear it? That buzzing sound? If not, you aren’t listening hard enough. That buzz would be the hum emanating from Las Vegas Diaspora, the freshly opened exhibition at the Las Vegas Art Museum. And, wow, what a justified buzz it is; I can feel my eyes burn just thinking about it. The work is bright, bold, booming ... and, oh yeah. Beautiful.
There’s that word—beautiful. A term that is virtually impossible to circumvent when navigating the terrain of the show’s curator, Dave Hickey; it becomes even more difficult to isolate the exhibition’s art and artists when Hickey and his ideas provide the framework. In short, Hickey brought back Beauty with a gallop and a roar in the ’90s, and our very own UNLV department of fine art was the incubator (or battleground, depending on how you look at it). What might seem like a fairly obvious aesthetic concern was in fact revolutionary for its time, one in which the art world for all intents and purposes appeared to be in a spin over poststructuralism and institutional critique. The rhetoric is debatable, but who can contest the perfection of Pleasure Central as epicenter of the zeitgeist? Las Vegas Diaspora showcases the work of those former UNLV MFA and BFA students who took the risk of coming to what appeared to be a cultural no-man’s land, grabbed onto the tail of Hickey’s invisible dragon and hung on for the ride of their lives.
Hickey reminded us that, for centuries, the artist and viewer have been complicit in the pursuit of one singular satisfaction: visual pleasure. Beauty is too narrow a filter to access the work in the exhibition, as it clearly sidesteps the impact that Hickey has had on his students. So, what about the art? Well, some of it is of its time, and some of it is timely. Meaning, standing in front of some of the work feels uncannily like partying in 1999. This is not bad, just very specific and not too demanding, offering a luscious and highly direct visual experience. But this is 2007, and 2007 is scary and precarious, and art that numbs me to that stark reality feels safe and somehow insincere. The most vital offerings feel the most dangerous and fearless within this context, and approach visual pleasure from an oblique angle.
James Hough’s “How Is My Baby So Far Away” vibrantly continues the artist’s ongoing exploration of a more visceral notion of mass-market branding; his work is sound-as-thing. The piece is a song written by the artist and offered not as an aural sensory experience but as a bright and dynamic three-dimensional form. In the series “Lifted ...,” Jacqueline Ehlis’ concerns challenge painting and question your experience of what we call a painting. Her objects, with hints of neon color that cascade onto the surrounding wall supporting slight curls of aluminum, work on a number of levels. They call attention to their structure, to you as the viewer and to the space around you; in so doing, they reinforce the primary essence of your exchange with the painting/object. It is an expansively intimate experience. I am consistently amazed at how David Ryan’s synthetic amoeba reliefs ceaselessly excite the eye. While they grapple with formal similarity and self-imposed visual dilemmas, each equally manages to offer a more complex and definitive solution than the last. The terrific potential of an exhibition like Diaspora is to reinforce and expand the vibrancy of the Las Vegas artistic community. However, does it really matter anywhere but here?
All of this work typifies Hough’s belief that “the Hickey discourse is too narrowly interpreted sometimes, and ultimately it’s about believing in what you do and fighting for it.” I think it’s also about flying in the face of permissiveness. The most memorable work challenged my visual experience while still indirectly acknowledging beauty as only one of many paths. And it wasn’t out to please anybody but itself.
Much of it is inspiring and crystallizes a terrific moment, pivotal to the cultural history of the city. At this moment, however, the city’s creative output is actually far more diverse than this exhibition might suggest. There’s exceptional art coming out of UNLV and proliferating across the Valley that has absolutely no investment in any of the ideas that this exhibition holds so dear, with the exception perhaps of a commitment to hard work and an attempt to engage in a dialogue outside of the desert vacuum.
The call to arms: Kids, see this show. Then go home, work hard in the studio. Destroy your idols. Make your elders squirm. It would do Hickey, and this exhibition, proud.
Las Vegas Diaspora: The Emergence of Contemporary Art From the Neon Homeland
Through December 30
9600 W. Sahara Ave.