Taking the Las Vegas arts scene seriously

There’s a revolution brewing, but is there anything to overthrow?

Artists Matthew Couper and JK Russ in their Downtown home studio.
Photo: Adam Shane

The villagers are at the gates, their torches in the air. They’re calling for change, a revolution of sorts. But with no establishment, no leader and no institutions to tear down, there’s nothing to overthrow. It’s a cause without a sense of order: Occupy Arts Las Vegas.

But first, reel it in. Begin with this simple question posed by an artist on a chilly Friday night in the Arts District: What would it be like to live with a giant hole in the floor of your living room as a sculpture?

Trifecta Gallery owner Marty Walsh and Spud, surrounded by works by Sam Davis.

Trifecta Gallery owner Marty Walsh and Spud, surrounded by works by Sam Davis.

The artist is Brent Sommerhauser, and the question is an outtake from a discussion about his thought process when making art, an open-ended exploration of concepts and ideas linking houses, memory and the psyche. Unlike a painting on a wall, which can be viewed or not, a hole in the floor would entirely alter your behavior and awareness. There’s no way to ignore it.

Using that example, consider the Strip as the giant hole in our communal living room. Its presence is more than peripheral. This noisy, well-lit gash on the surface of our dry Valley is not only the engine running the city’ it’s the driver, the landlord, the boss, the lawmaker and, most importantly, the economic lifeline. It defines us to the world as a place of spectacle, corporate-sanctioned debauchery, populism and facades. Those who live here must navigate around it, consciously or not.

Mark Brandvik

The Strip designed the Valley as it is today, for better or for worse. So, when someone recently posited that art in Las Vegas has no middle ground, I took it as an insightful critique, a situation that exists because of Las Vegas itself. What we have is a transformational young city.

There are the varying camps in the art scene: The Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, exhibiting modern and contemporary masterworks. Local galleries that show a mix of established and emerging artists. Cosmopolitan’s P3 Studio, which treats tourists and locals to installations and performance-based work through a partnership with New York’s Art Production Fund. And UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum, which now hosts the Las Vegas Art Museum Collection. Lastly, there are low-end, “I-just-started-painting-yesterday” works being shown—an anything-goes movement some critics of the scene wish would just go away, paving the way for more sophistication.

Benjamin Entner's <em>Ego Sum</em> at the CAC.

Benjamin Entner's Ego Sum at the CAC.

What echoes most from the Valley’s more serious artists and gallery owners is that there’s nothing to tie it all together: no esteemed museum, no quality educational art institution, no formal format for discussion, no printed critique that could connect Las Vegas with national art journals.

“There is a lot of misinformation about what is really happening here,” artist Matthew Couper says. “What you’re seeing being promoted as the art scene is First Friday. You don’t get to see a lot of what’s coming out of UNLV or the artists who work here. There is no place to go to see who are the most important artists and most important galleries. There’s actually nowhere to ordain art in this city.”

When Dave Hickey and Libby Lumpkin barreled into town in 1990, they brought some art-world attention to Las Vegas. Hickey, a famous art critic and writer, took a job at UNLV and brought with him a select group of art students from around the country to study in the Master of Fine Arts program. While living here he received a MacArthur Fellowship, a $500,000 award known as the Genius Grant. Lumpkin, meanwhile, curated Steve Wynn’s private collection exhibiting at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art when it opened in 1998.

Yek at the Barrick Museum as part of the Las Vegas Art Museum collection.

The couple left, then returned in 2005. Lumpkin, an art historian, became executive director of the Las Vegas Art Museum, turning the decades-old institution into a contemporary museum, which exhibited works by James Turrell, John McCracken, Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter and current artists, including Damien Hirst. It also showed Las Vegas Diaspora: The Emergence of Contemporary Art From the Neon Homeland, featuring works by Hickey’s MFA students.

When the economy collapsed in 2009, the museum closed and the couple moved to New Mexico, but their influence lives on in the LVAM collection at the Barrick, along with works from donors such as Patrick Duffy and the late Wally Goodman.

Today, the local arts landscape is saturated with artists of different skill levels and backgrounds. It creates what some consider a reckless free-for-all without a leading curatorial voice. Facebook arguments, private discussions and lamentations erupt as each party tries to school the others.

From Wendy Kveck's <em>The Party's Over</em> exhibit at Kleven Contemporary in 2012.

From Wendy Kveck's The Party's Over exhibit at Kleven Contemporary in 2012.

“I find it disappointing that we just champion anyone who says they are an artist or creative person, galleries or gallerists included, with no discerning eye,” says artist Erik Beehn, who grew up here and received his bachelor’s from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “That we just put anyone who makes something, good or bad, into one big category.

“I have met a lot of people who have no experience or history in the arts yet are given great authority in helping dictate where the art scene should go. We can’t group everyone together. Not everyone is in the same place, and all that does is dilute the amazing talent we do have here. There are a lot of great artists in Vegas, but they all get clumped together with a bunch of crap, and that’s unfortunate.”

Right now, the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art is showing Warhol Out West. The Contemporary Art Center has a clever installation by New York artist Benjamin Entner. MCQ Fine Art, run by Michele Quinn (who curated CityCenter’s art collection), has a series of 40 Damien Hirst Spot Prints on its walls, and Shannon McMackin at Vast Space Projects is curating contemporary shows by more established artists from Las Vegas, New York and LA.

Trifecta Gallery, the mainstay in the Arts Factory, has been raising the bar on its programming. Kleven Contemporary, which has had consistently good exhibits, is sadly closing. But it doesn’t stop there: the artist-run 5th Wall Gallery, Get Up Gallery, Amanda Harris Gallery of Contemporary Art, Joseph Watson Gallery, Winchester Cultural Center, Blackbird Studios, Brett Wesley Gallery and Dana Satterwhite’s TastySpace.

Furthermore, a $40 million collection of large-scale works by celebrated and influential artists at CityCenter is there for us to look at free of charge, as is Jeff Koons’ “Tulips”—a $34 million polished stainless steel sculpture—at the Wynn. Even performance art has moved from exclusive private events into the open arts community.

What’s missing from the mix is a representation of mid-career artists or galleries resonating outside of Las Vegas. The days when Naomi Arin exhibited works by Mickalene Thomas and Polly Apfelbaum in the Arts District are gone. Arin closed her gallery in 2009, and Las Vegas artists who reach some kind of critical acclaim often show elsewhere.

That includes David Ryan, whose colorful and dynamic abstract works hang in executive spaces at the Smith Center and at Barrick, and Tim Bavington, who created the colorful “Fanfare for the Common Man” sculpture in Symphony Park. Both artists live in Las Vegas but are represented by Mark Moore Gallery in LA. There’s no place to buy their work in the city where they live.

Other artists say showing in other cities and in Las Vegas creates a problem: “There’s a buyer’s market in other cities,” says artist Erin Stellmon, who moved here eight years ago from New York City. “If you are selling your work outside of Las Vegas, you set certain prices for yourself and you can’t change that. You can’t set one price in LA and lower your price for Las Vegas.

“Artists come here and stay here. But once they settle in, they realize they want to live in a place that supports them. It’s a pretty forgiving and exciting place in terms of getting press. You show up and give a show and people pay attention, but for mid-career artists, there are real issues. It’s tough survival-wise.”

Sush Machida

Couper is among a chorus of other artists who agree. “If you’re looking at an art career, [Las Vegas is] not the best place to base yourself,” says the New Zealand artist, who moved here two and a half years ago with his wife, artist JK Russ. They live Downtown, attend weekly gallery openings and serve on the exhibition committee of the Contemporary Arts Center. They’re full-time artists, but Couper’s work shows and sells in cities throughout the world and in group shows elsewhere.

Art is selling here—particularly at Trifecta Gallery, where price points range from the low hundreds to several thousand—but collectors often look to other cities for new work.

And the market isn’t the only problem. Vast’s McMackin says the same people turn out at exhibits while other art-interested residents—even UNLV art majors—don’t bother stopping by the galleries.

“In LA, people will get in their car and drive for an hour just to look at art. If you love art, you look at it. That’s what you do.”

Troy Gillett's Inner Sanctum in 2012 at the Clark County Government Center.

Over at the Contemporary Arts Center, a 24-year-old nonprofit that, despite some growing pains, presents an exemplary lineup of contemporary and sometimes experimental work, Demecina Gray is keeping a tally of visitors coming in to look at Benjamin Entner’s Ego Sum. Every few minutes she picks up her pen to add a tally mark, a big change from just two years ago.

A Detroit native who moved here from LA, Gray remembers visiting the Strip with a group of girlfriends, stumbling out of an elevator at Mandalay Bay and coming face to face with a Jasper Johns. Continuing on, she noticed a suite of Richard Serra prints. “Right there,” she says, “just as were getting off the elevator with a bunch of Elvises.”

It was an interesting juxtaposition with the rest of the Strip, but Gray was surprised to learn there was no art museum.

That this visually innovative, contemporary city would not have a quality museum has baffled many. The Barrick is a start, but some would like to see a museum include more art produced here. It’s the artists who are considering the complexity and the narratives of Las Vegas. Many of them tap into the dialogue, ask the questions, begin the critique, praise and mourn.

Artist Erin Stellmon, working on her upcoming show at Trifecta Gallery.

Artist Erin Stellmon, working on her upcoming show at Trifecta Gallery.

“There’s a lot of exciting work that happens here,” Stellmon says. “There are graduate students and artists coming here interested in a place that doesn’t have rules. Vegas attracts people that want to do work outside of a traditional system.”

Stellmon’s own work has dealt with Las Vegas’ past, present and future, its transformational nature and the community here. “The light of the city, the sunsets, the quality of light, the nature of the people and the landscape, that’s always going to affect you. Where you live affects you.”

Cosmo’s P3 Studio has brought in artists from New York, England, Portland and Las Vegas, many of whom work within the physical or conceptual context of Las Vegas, and the CAC receives scores of submissions from artists in other cities eager to work in the context of Las Vegas. The idea and reality of this city draw many artists here to live, work and study.

Leor Grady at Cosmopolitan's P3 Studio.

Additionally, Couper says the CAC’s exhibition committee looks for programming that, in some way, reflects or works within the context of Las Vegas. He’s also interested in what artists in Las Vegas are creating.

“What Eri King is doing is fantastic,” he says, referring to the works of the recent UNLV grad. “Lauren Adkins’ work [she recently married a cardboard Edward Cullen] is one of the best artworks coming out of Vegas in terms of Las Vegas. One, it takes an aesthetic of facade, superficiality, the aesthetic of the wedding chapel and spectacle.”

And there’s so much more: Artist Catherine Borg’s digital works explored the ongoing development of the idea of Las Vegas, including a video that was shown at SFMOMA. Her public artworks directly reference Las Vegas history. Her husband, artist Stephen Hendee, designed “Monument to the Simulacrum,” which sits in Centennial Plaza near the Fifth Street School and was named one of the top 10 public art projects in the country in 2007 by Art in America. The stainless steel sculpture was dedicated to philosopher Jean Baudrillard, whose focus of hyperreality references Las Vegas.

Laurenn McCubbin's "Economic Flow Chart of a Las Vegas Call Girl"

Mark Brandvik’s minimal paintings capture Las Vegas architecture with reverence, and his large-scale installation of the “Green Felt Jungle Gym” at the Clark County Government Center involved a jungle gym creation of major Strip hotels. Other natives, like Jen Kleven and Justin Favela, respond to their environment in witty works. Kleven’s Urban Naturalism explored the concept of elsewhere in Las Vegas in mixed-media works of cell phone towers dressed as trees. Favela created a cardboard appropriation of the CityCenter art collection in an exhibit titled CountyCenter. Laurenn McCubbin created a performance project on the sex industry. Philippine artist Jevijoe Vitug has tapped into the ideas of Las Vegas and the art history here. Vegas native Jerry Misko paints neon.

Couper lists others: “David Ryan, Tim Bavington, Sush Machida. They’re very smart people and talented artists. It’s a pity that more people here don’t know who they are. They know Tim has poles at the Smith Center (“Fanfare for the Common Man”), but not that he’s in the MOMA collection. There isn’t that kind of forum.”

To discuss some of this, Marty Walsh, owner of Trifecta Gallery, launched the Las Vegas Arts Discussion group last summer with Jerry Schefcik, director at UNLV’s Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery and a gallery studies professor. Open to anyone, the group held its latest meeting at the Barrick Museum with LA art critic David Pagel (who was in town for a lecture) in attendance.

"Future Homestead," a mixed media kinetic sculpture by David Sanchez Burr, is displayed at the Clark County Government Center through March 22.

Walsh plans to reconvene the group after its holidays hiatus and is looking for others to help take the helm. “The more conversations we have, the more clarity comes into place,” she says. “There is so much happening now that it would be difficult to identify the art scene now. It’s really malleable.”

Real critical analysis, however, will evolve with the city, says David Sanchez Burr, a multimedia artist whose Beyond Sunrise Mountain is on display now at the Clark County Government Center. “Las Vegas has a lot of artists, a lot of vitality. But it doesn’t critique itself. People aren’t investigating. I have to go elsewhere to have discussions.”

But, he adds, a museum isn’t the answer to that: “It just takes time. Within the last 25 years, 90 percent of the population arrived. It takes time to develop this milieu.

“Let Las Vegas be Las Vegas.”

And what of the past? A heritage collection could enshrine the Valley’s artistic past, referencing Jean Tinguely’s exploding sculpture in 1962, Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative,” Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s “Flashlight” and Jenny Holzer’s digital installations that began in the 1980s, along with organizations like the Allied Arts Council and the Nevada Institute for Contemporary Art (NICA).

The Goldwell Open Air Museum and its artist residency program are definitely notable.

Some earlier works, including a Robert Beckmann painting from his Vegas Vanitas series, are in the LVAM collection.

Jason Adkins and Shannon McMackin, inside Pop Up Art House, renamed Vast Space Projects.

Jason Adkins and Shannon McMackin, inside Pop Up Art House, renamed Vast Space Projects.

Vast’s McMackin is pushing for some sort of printed archive that documents what has happened here. She’s on the board of Metro Arts Council (an offshoot of the old Allied Arts Council), which is focusing on umbrella grants, an arts calendar and the reintroduction of a periodical. McMackin’s gallery produces catalogs with its shows featuring Vegas writers, designers and a local printing press. She’s irked that daily newspapers don’t pay the arts more attention, that there aren’t more writers and artists exploring and examining the concept of Las Vegas.

Or, as Stellmon says, “We’re just starting to talk about Las Vegas history with the Neon Museum, the Mob Museum and talks at the Fifth Street School. But there hasn’t been this archive of what’s happened in Las Vegas art-wise.”

David Ryan at the Marjorie Barrick Museum as part of the Las Vegas Art Museum collection.

Maybe that will help sort out what’s happening today—all the diabolic back and forth.

Patrick Duffy, an art collector and the president of LVAM, says the arts journey here really requires looking at the larger picture. He’s in favor of artists getting off their “elitist pedestals” in terms of how they regard art that might not be academically proven.

“The day when we begin to respect each level is a day when art is going to move forward,” he says. “LVAM, where it’s at in the UNLV galleries, is really going to morph itself into an academic focal point for the creators of First Friday or artists with MFA degrees, because everyone gets to walk through the front doors.

“Come on in. Hate it, love it and talk about it, whatever. The front door has no special radar to determine one’s overall academic credentials. It opens for everyone.”

Photo of Kristen Peterson

Kristen Peterson

Get more Kristen Peterson

Previous Discussion:

  • ‘Up Las Vegas: YESCO Marks a Glittering Century,’ presented by the LVCVA and the Neon Museum, runs May 6 through August 29 at Clark County ...

  • Curators say they hope the exhibit raises awareness and sparks a conversation about how humans view their outings in the desert, and how they can ...

  • ‘Haas Vegas,’ with its menagerie of beasts made largely from cast bronze, synthetic fur, porcelain and electric components, is less a gallery show than a ...

  • Get More Fine Art Stories
Top of Story