Exploring Las Vegas’ underbelly in ‘This Must Be the Place’ at Brett Wesley Gallery

Ellis’ ‘Drink’ at Brett Wesley
Dawn-Michelle Baude

Three stars

This Must Be the Place Through November 29; Wednesday-Friday, noon-6 p.m.; Saturday, 1-4 p.m. Brett Wesley Gallery, 702-433-4433.

Vitamin stores and bail bonds, Medieval European castles and ancient Egyptian pyramids—weird juxtapositions, in which two totally unrelated things exist side by side, are an authentic Las Vegas staple. And Geoffrey Ellis has photographed a gem: His “Eden’s Hotel,” a 13.3-by-20-centimeter crystal archival print, delivers not only a remarkably odd coupling, but also a poignant commentary on the city’s identity.

Ellis' 'Eden'

“Eden’s Hotel” is one of 20 images in Ellis’ This Must Be the Place exhibition at Brett Wesley Gallery. The “place” is, without a doubt, our own Las Vegas underbelly, with its gambling paraphernalia, sidewalk sleepers, tattoo armor and leopard-print carpeting mined with broken glass. The site-specific show is apparently inspired by Martin Scorsese’s film Casino, but the historic pretext seems forced. Something else is going on in the strongest works—a frank vision, not a theatrical one.

Case in point is “Eden’s Hotel.” Ellis shot what appears to have once been a four-room motel now clobbered by concrete walls in a godforsaken parking lot. Was Eden’s Hotel Lilliputian to begin with? Or is it a castrated shred of a titillating mega-inn? Has the building been repurposed as storage area? Who would have ever stayed there? The sand/mint/gray ’50s palette, combined with an expressive geometry of intersecting lines and planes (doors, walls, roof, cables, asphalt), positions the photograph as a kind of abstract Modernist tableau. What was lost in the primeval garden of Eden has blossomed into urban austerity. Ed Rushcha’s series on mid-century American architecture comes to mind.

Ellis' 'Cards'

Other building shots by Ellis, such as “Smoking Sink,” with its buoyant plume billowing from the depth of urban blight, and “Jungle Scene,” with its tropical wallpaper-appliance mishap, also convincingly tap into Las Vegas’ signature, weird-juxtaposition category. These and other photos are more successful than Ellis’ conventional Casino-inspired works. No matter how crisp the image, how saturated the color, how pristine the composition, it’s difficult to transform photos of dice, playing cards, abandoned cars and burning money into stunners.

Ellis is at his best when his eye leads him serendipitously to the winning frame, as it has in “Beach Club Drink.” The photo catches tubby men in swim trunks, and sexy girls in bikinis (one has a merchandising tag poking from her bottom). In center frame, the largest guy throws a drink at the viewer, the cup, straw and liquid snapped in mid-flight. In photographing this symbolic ejaculation, and the entitlement it portrays, Ellis has created a Las Vegas icon.

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