Matthew Couper uses Vegas iconography to deliver a potent message in ‘From Dust to Water’

“In Memory of Water” by Matthew Couper.
Dawn-Michelle Baude

Four stars

Matthew Couper: From Dust to Water Through November 30, by appointment Thursday-Saturday, 1-4:30 p.m. Rise at Holsum Lofts, 241 W. Charleston Blvd. #130, 510-936-4052, mattcouper.com.

Matthew Couper’s From Dust to Water, at Rise gallery at Holsum Lofts through November 30, is a beautiful, strange and disarming show that does something rare in fine art today: It delivers a message. Using the language of symbols—skeletons and cacti, blenders and playing cards—Couper combines pictorial elements in witty and incisive visual narratives.

Social commentary is Couper’s endgame, and he often uses Las Vegas iconography to get there, but these artworks aren’t just about the Valley. Their bizarre, surreal content addresses bizarre, surreal phenomena in our increasingly post-humanist, globalized culture.

From Dust to Water includes 50 paintings influenced by Spanish Colonial art and created between 2011 and 2017. Couper—a New Zealander by birth, a Las Vegan by choice—frequently exhibits internationally, but he has never surveyed his work made about Las Vegas in Las Vegas. The scale ranges from miniatures to large-format pieces, mainly oil on canvas, metal and paper, along with wood block prints, mixed media works and lithographs.

At 64-by-144 inches, the masterful “In Memory of Water” nearly takes up an entire wall. The painting showcases Couper’s symbolic vocabularies, sourced from Maori artifacts, Mayan pictographs, Russian Suprematism and the Lake Mead intake water system. Using the layout of the $1 bill—itself based on the tripartite structure of a Christian altarpiece—Couper places a decaying “Madonna of Consolation” cradling a baby Stratosphere Tower in the central oval. While the Madonna is usually depicted lost at sea, here she’s dry-docked in a drained Lake Mead, the three intake straws spewing droll messages (“…we flushed and it was decimated…”). A wave of spiritual presences flees the snuffed candle in her hand.

Candles—like skeletons, playing cards and insects—appear frequently in Couper’s art. Borrowed from 17th-century memento mori paintings, these symbols serve as stern reminders of the vanity of life. Couper deploys symbolic currencies in layers, or what he calls, “the cavity of illusion,” which allows viewers to experience visual depth and perspective at a time when most artists are focusing on surface and process. The multiple planes, in turn, correspond to layers of messaging: The more you bring to it, the more you get out of it. His foremost layer is dripped and smeared, suggesting age and weathering on one hand, action painting on the other.

From Dust to Water is a vivid reminder that Couper is an expert, and learned, painter in full possession of his powers. He follows David Hickey and Jean Baudrillard in recognizing that Las Vegas is, in many ways, ahead of the curve. Our water crisis isn’t just ours; it’s everybody’s.

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