In Retrofit Painting of Las Vegas, artist Thomas Willis has turned P3Studio into a high-end retail boutique, borrowing elements of the fashion industry from branding to minimalist display to advertising—posing himself as the consummate sales clerk, dapper in a navy suit coat, oxford shirt, denims and suede shoes.
“Hello. Welcome,” he says to an older woman studying an exquisite hat on the wall. “Would you like to try anything on today?”
She comments on the beauty of the luxury products and browses before moseying next door to dine, promising to return.
With each customer, Willis is unsure of when the switch happens or if, for some, it ever does. Given the reputation of P3—a rotating residency where artists interact with the public—many visitors wander in expecting art. Some ask if P3 closed, not realizing that they’re in the exhibit. It’s that good, an installation appropriating a 21st-century consumerist reality while incorporating art history and challenging preconceived notions of painting and of flatness. Moreover, it makes the paintings mobile, functional and sculptural and, as with commerce, the brand is imperative.
“They’re paintings that are using today’s form of communication,” Willis says, referring to social media playing into the brand and its line of products—sunglasses, hats, belts, ties, shoes and fashion bags, each handcrafted by the artist using linen, laser-cut oak and brass tacking and a recurring motif—the traditional frame for canvas paintings marked with the “RP” monogram the cherry on top.
The “luxury paintings” stem from his first Retrofit Painting at the 2013 deCordova Biennial in Lincoln, Massachusetts, in which he retrofit canvases into shoes, planters, furniture and tools offering up the essential commercial questions, “Are your paintings too flat? Too static? Too Visual? Taking up Space? An Illusion? We can help.”
The designer objects at P3 further move Willis from the “mono discipline” of painting into that of designer, craftsman and entrepreneur.
Created specifically for Las Vegas, the art responds to the industry of capitalism, rather than the church or other institutions that have inspired artists through the centuries. Here, it’s corporate vernacular and the idea of reforming something that already exists and “selling it in a new way.”
“The Luxor isn’t Egypt in the way that these paintings aren’t about painting at all,” Willis says, referring to Vegas’ pyramid hotel. In fact, say it doesn’t fit and he’ll remind you that it’s a painting. Retrofit gives everyone a chance to “be an ad.” Willis will accessorize you, have you professionally photographed and post your image online—creating an experience for the visitor while launching the brand deeper into perpetuity.
Retrofit Painting of Las Vegas Through August 9; Thursday, 5-10 p.m. (closing reception 6-8 p.m.); Friday-Sunday, 6-11 p.m. Cosmopolitan’s P3Studio, 702-698-7000.