- Atomic Vegas/Area 51
Americans were clearly struggling with the dichotomy of Atomic Age reality, simultaneously digging fallout shelters and practicing “duck and cover” drills while harnessing the optimism of nuclear energy. Atomic motifs flooded popular culture in the 1950s, when picture-perfect families sat down cheerfully for dinner, haunted by fears of total annihilation. Here in Las Vegas, Area 51’s mushroom clouds, visible in town, were celebrated events with tourists sipping atomic-named cocktails. The female mascot of the era, Miss Atomic Bomb, posed gleefully in a mushroom cloud bikini.
This glamorous, rosy naiveté in the face of mass destruction dominates the group show Atomic Vegas/Area 51 at Blackbird Studios, where artists, given few parameters beyond atomic influences on the city, turned in works that collectively capture the innocence and horror of the era.
The mushroom cloud is pervasive, appearing so often that you could confuse it for a religious symbol, a deity we fear and pray to, a perfect metaphor for the times. The paintings, drawings, sculpture and mixed-media works are a great commentary, whether satirical, somber, celebratory or dark.
JW Caldwell’s rendering of a mushroom cloud includes the double entendre, “Wish you were here” in scripted font. Lisa Dittrich’s “Black Velvet Boom”—an orange, fiery mushroom cloud painted on black velvet—ties in the era’s kitsch. An assortment of mutant creatures, a flying saucer, an atomically groomed poodle, advertising fonts and post-apocalyptic desert terrain fill up the rest of the gallery.
Joel Spencer’s light-up “Neutron Bombshell” features a woman (her skeleton visible as if on X-ray film) sunning in sunglasses and hat, with a mushroom cloud behind her. Enrique Nevarez’s “Project Manhattan” (spray paint on wood panel) features a ’50s-era couple looking over a sparse landscape and the words “It’s the future, Sue Ellen. We will be a country without fear nor worries.”
Additionally, the Atomic Testing Museum loaned some items, including an Atomic Liquors parking sign and a collection of certificates designed by Test Site workers commemorating tests and other events. On opening night, explosion videos continuously looped, while a soundtrack of upbeat ’50s music was interrupted only by the rumbling sound of blasts.
The multi-voiced exhibit of diverse styles and artistic skills is solid. Given this region’s prominent role during the Cold War, it’s surprising we don’t see shows like this more often.