Fine Art

Artists play with destruction and recombination at the Barrick Museum

JK Russ’ “Floral Flirtation” at the Barrick.
Dawn-Michelle Baude

Four stars

Kveck, Russ & Stellmon: Break Ups & Tear Downs Through January 23; Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (Thursdays until 8 p.m.); Saturday, noon-5 p.m. UNLV’s Barrick Museum, 702-895-3381

"13 Times M" by Erin Stellmon

Break Ups and Tear Downs at the Barrick Museum presents Las Vegas artists Wendy Kveck and JK Russ, along with former Las Vegan Erin Stellmon, who recently left for the East Coast. Deconstruction is key to the exhibition: All three artists process visual representations by cutting them up. But the “break up” and “tear down” title omits that the artists also reassemble the fragments, generating fresh, new ways of looking at familiar content.

Kveck and Russ take on the female form, subject matter notoriously fraught with cliché. Working in Dr. Frankenstein mode, they dissect sexualized images, swapping out a face for a mask, legs for wings, assembling strange composite beings. It’s almost as if the images require radical surgery in order to transform banal, submissive females into powerful feminine creatures worthy of close attention.

While Kveck prefers paint, Russ recombines found images in paper collages, creating mythical beings, often woman/bird or woman/snake hybrids set in fantastic, desert landscapes. Something archaic, even primal, pulses in Russ’ work. In “Floral Flirtations,” for example, an outsize ’50s pin-up gal perches incongruously amid phallic succulents, a microbe/cactus hat on her head. She’s defamiliarized in such a way that she’s both approachable and threatening. In “Fruit of the Joshua Tree,” Russ and her assistants collaged a multitude of eyes and lips into a feminized fruit resembling a Hindu goddess who might suddenly take on human form, either kissing you or striking you dead. This duality—an enticing, almost twee allure coupled with latent discomfort—gives Russ’ work depth, resonance and sophisticated humor.

"Lake Cosman" by Wendy Kveck

As for Kveck, collaged images result in “grotesque” female portraits as extravagant as they are transgressive. She begins by appropriating, cutting up and combining photographs of inebriated co-eds and coloring-book princesses, sometimes “activating” the women in performances subsequently photographed for further processing. The composite females end up in paintings that seduce, fascinate and horrify by turns. In “The Most Popular Girl”—a pinky-red canvas on the verge of igniting—the deformed woman with jagged contours is both monstrous and beautiful. In “Lake Cosman,” the surface is gentler, the content no less disturbing: sleeping beauty is unconscious, even dead—an Ophelia floating away on effervescent dreams. The tension between desire and disgust repays sustained interest with unfolding discovery.

In contrast, Stellmon uses collage to abstract ends. She cuts up architectural photographs into geometric components and recombines them in 3D bas reliefs with Futurist appeal. In “Binion’s Horseshoe Restoration,” for example, photo fragments form a robust mandala threatening to spin out of control. More recent work veers into drawing, where Stellmon’s first-rate draughtsmanship comes forward. In the “13 Times” series, sinkholes are rendered as mysterious, disconcerting objects of beauty.

The 97 works in Break Ups and Tear Downs feel a little thin in the cavernous Barrick Museum, a fact that neither the artists’ installations nor expert hanging by Aurore Giguet can camouflage. The exhibition would have been better served in a smaller gallery. That said, the show is vibrant, intriguing and not to be missed.

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