Matthew Couper’s ‘Horror Vacui’ combines wit and weird

Vampire Weekend”
Matthew Couper
Dawn-Michelle Baude

Four stars

Matthew Couper: Horror Vacui Through July 18; Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturdays, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
 Winchester Cultural Center, 702-455-7340.

As playful as Alice in a Gothic Wonderland, as sharp as a graduate seminar in cultural theory, Matthew Couper’s paintings combine wit and weird. In the small work “Galvanizing Culture,” for example, the “Eye of Providence” (the pyramid eyeball on the back of the U.S. dollar) shines above the Galvanizing Hand (of Frankenstein fame), which reaches out of the Spring Mountains toward the vampire (from the classic film Nosferatu), who’s propped up by blunt red bars (in homage to the New Zealand painter, Gordon Walters), which represents … and alludes to … and …

There’s a lot going on here. In fact, there’s way, way too much—which is the point of Couper’s Horror Vacui show. A video, installations, prints, sculptures, a digital work, drawings—and, of course, masterful paintings—fill the quirky gallery at the Winchester Cultural Center, making good on the exhibition title. Loosely translated from the Latin as “nature abhors a vacuum,” Horror Vacui is purposely overwhelming, just like the city of Las Vegas, whose imagery and excess saturate the show.

From small renderings of destroyed casinos to implosion film clips to stylized portraits of local celebs like Holly Madison and Steve Wynn, Couper uses Las Vegas the way Las Vegas uses culture. He seizes upon the icon, copies and recycles, destroys and resurrects, consumes and litters. His art issues from a symbolic vocabulary drawn from every available source—magic, religious, historical, popular, literary, civic and obscure. To call his work “surreal” is a cop-out; a Da Vinci Code-type romp through the unconscious, in which one symbol leads to another, might be more on the mark. The endgame is cultural critique, one that addresses how currencies (visual, cultural, monetary) are produced, valued and exchanged.

Couper’s standout piece, “Vampire Weekend,” features a totem pole of intellectuals (Plato, Marshall McLuhan, Jean Baudrillard, Leonard Shlain and David Hickey) being pulled on a horse–drawn cart across the desert outside of Las Vegas. Various vignettes circle the big heads, including the running “jealousy” figure from Spanish colonial painting, a caveman etching a pictogram of the Stratosphere into stone and, in a receding hall-of-mirrors move, a miniature of the painting itself, along with a self-portrait of Couper painting Couper.

Although “Vampire Weekend” may appear chaotic, in fact it’s tightly controlled—Couper divvies the picture plane into proportionate geometric units, slotting symbols into place. The muted palette reinforces coherence, as does the Old Master glazing. Not everything else in Horror Vacui is as successful. For example, Couper’s humorous Nosferatu-meets-Vegas video, Lying in State, would have more power in a less-jumbled setting. And this is a problem: The masterful works are still convincing, not because of the cluttered show, but in spite of it.

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