JK Russ taps into the primal force of the image-making psyche

JK Russ at Sin City Gallery
Dawn-Michelle Baude

Four stars

A Walk on the Wild Side Through August 24; Wednesday-Saturday, 1-7 p.m. Sin City Gallery, 107 E. Charleston Blvd., 702-608-2461.

JK Russ’ “Desert City Birdlife Vista” is a collaged landscape you’ve never seen before. Oh, you’ll recognize the hot girls, the opulent escalators at the Forum Shops, the glistening façade of Mandalay Bay. The Ponte Vecchio at Lake Las Vegas poses at one end of the wall installation, the Hoover Dam at the other. Only something happens to the girls and pools, the architecture and landscape, that ID the Valley. Something, well, primal.

Desert Bird LIfe Vista

Russ’ show, A Walk on the Wild Side, is just that—an unpredictable excursion into a neuronal mash-up of imagery. From the small format “#Freethenipple #1” to the wall-size “Birdlife Vista,” the 10 collages on display at Sin City Gallery through August 24 are so seamlessly constructed that images transform into images as easily as they do in dreams.

Working with discarded magazines, books and ephemera, Russ cuts, juxtaposes and bleeds pictures the old-fashioned way, with scissors and glue, sometimes adding paint or markers. And even though a work like “Birdlife Vista” was scanned, scaled and printed on adhesive die-cut vinyl and affixed to the wall, telltale staples from magazine folds and thick contour lines reveal slow, painstaking assembly.

Why get paste on her fingers instead of just mousing pieces together on a screen? Russ’ complex connection to the body is key. Her artistic process relies on the accidents and evolving intentions of physical gesture. Just as important are human representations in the finished pieces. The gender-bending “Candy Rock” and “#Freethenipple #2,” for example, engage a range of political and social issues involving sexual identity and censorship.

JK Russ at Sin City Gallery

Yet an archaic relationship between body and landscape dominates the show. In “Birdlife Vista,” for example, an upside-down Red Rock panorama anchors the Las Vegas cityscape. The Smith Center, Tim Bavington’s “Pipe Dream” and other local icons blend into a coherent aggregate from a distance, and dissolve into surprising patterns of particulars up close. Poised among phallic symbols, a splendid array of 13 bird-headed females reigns over the composition, the women as powerful and sexy as they are strange.

Russ’ bird women recall some of the earliest depictions of humans on record, bird-headed goddesses painted in Paleolithic caves in Europe and sculpted in the rocky deserts of the Middle East. Perhaps Russ’ New Zealand youth and awareness of tribal culture are also at work here. In “Parallel Universe,” she uses snakes and women to create a kind of visual talisman, while in “Desert Bloom,” a primeval siren prepares to seduce.

The images in A Walk on the Wild Side may have been produced in the last year or two, but their relevance goes back millennia. In these intriguing works, Russ taps into the primal force of the image-making psyche.

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