As an exhibition title, A Phenomenal Photography Show is less than modest. It is also completely lacking in guile. While the superlative status of the show is debatable, one thing is for certain: When Brett Wesley Gallery says “phenomenal,” it really means it.
The well-publicized arrival of the Brett Wesley Gallery at its shiny new Casino Center digs brings with it a trickle of uneasy optimism. The precarious state of the arts in Las Vegas has been oddly paralleled by the rise of a city-ordained Arts District known as 18b, and Brett Wesley Gallery sits at its literal and figurative threshold. The intersection of Casino Center and Charleston promises to be the burgeoning neighborhood’s crossroads and owner Brett Sperry’s gallery one of its cornerstones. Walking distance from the Arts Factory, the energetic Colorado Avenue corridor and the future 18b ACE transit stop, the gallery is in a prime location. For a community that has been bruised by the recent closure of so many mainstays, the emergence of a young gallery in a fresh building suggests a sea change, longed for but pragmatically observed.
Cut to A Phenomenal Photography Show. Spanning the 1950s to the present, it’s a survey that seems designed to whet the viewer’s appetite for contemporary photographic trends. Only the second exhibition mounted in this space, it also feels a bit broad—as if the gallery is still exploring its identity and focus.
A dominant thread is imagery that shimmies along the converging edges of fashion, advertising and fine art. Anyone with a penchant for classic Vogue editorial photography and Breakfast at Tiffany’s will swoon over gorgeous, archly-mannered silver gelatin prints by Frank Horvat and William Klein. These provide a nice counterpoint to the high-fashion-influenced prints of Marilyn Minter, an artist most notable for taking the 2006 Whitney Biennial by storm. Absolutely dripping with the gooey refuse of soured glamour, Minter favors her Holly Golightly covered in mud, makeup smudged. While I prefer the artist’s photo-realistic paintings, this luscious print was a welcome surprise.
The power of the photographic image rests in its proximity to reality; It must be real or true, because it looks so very close to what we know to be real. And yet, what about a photograph of something we know simply can’t be real? For almost a century, this double bind has served as the playing field of experimental photography, cresting in the post-modern trends of the ’70s and continuing in some form or another today. The ’90s saw this manifest in hyper-cinematic narratives (Gregory Crewdson) or large-scale, immersive man-made landscapes (Andreas Gursky). These currents are reflected in pieces like Julie Blackmon’s theatrical “Cupcake” and Robert Polidori’s lovely and sweeping large-scale depiction of the gardens at Versailles.
Digital applications allow for surreal excess. In “Blue Fish 2” Korean artist Kim Joon uses 3D software to “paint” bodies, but it’s Ruud van Empel who really maximizes the potential of software applications. Van Empel’s “Moon #7” is an overworked, luminously high-keyed portrait brimming with symbolic imagery: mysterious, strange and gorgeous.
There are some really great images (Mark Seliger’s classic black & white of Kurt Cobain) and fascinating artists (Thomas Ruff and his pornographic blurs), and it’s nice to see some local photographers included (Diane Bush). What’s missing? The photographic flavor of the ’00s—the snapshot glamour of (literally) wasted youth. Where are the candid Polaroids, à la Ryan McGinley, Nan Goldin and Larry Clark? The trend may be overwrought, but a nod to its popularity would have amiably rounded out the survey-like feel of the exhibition.
While A Phenomenal Photography Show brims with quality and a wow factor that’s absolutely worth your time, I wouldn’t say it’s quite as exceptional as its title suggests. Still, the generous enthusiasm of Sperry and gallery director Victoria Hart is infectious. They clearly love the work, and while they don’t expect you to love everything, they are eager to encourage dialogue. As the gallery further develops an identity, hopefully it will take more risks with bold curatorial decisions, solo exhibitions and more A-list artists; a to-die-for Paul Morrison painting resting unassumingly in the corner suggests as much.
Brett Wesley Gallery, 18b, the ACE transit system … maybe things are looking up? The gallery is clearly invested in taking the time to build and educate an audience for the long haul. Sure, it’s about money; but Brett Wesley Gallery also seems genuinely committed to art and this art community. That’s pretty phenomenal.