Fine Art

JK Russ’ ‘Desert Flower Power Landscape’ pleases the eye and skirts controversy

JK Russ at her latest exhibit.
Photo: Steve Marcus
Dawn-Michelle Baude

Three and a half stars

JK Russ, Desert Flower Power Landscape Through September 14, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., free. Clark County Government Center Rotunda Gallery, 702-455-0000.

JK Russ heads in a new direction with Desert Flower Power Landscape at the Rotunda Gallery. The artist—applauded for her uncanny collages of voluptuous females, desert scenery and Las Vegas landmarks—exhibits a softer side. Instead of provocative works-on-paper, Russ has created a friendly, interactive installation geared to the general public that literally clothes her interest in the human body.

Russ began by choosing materials that resolve the significant site-specific constraints of the Rotunda: the circular space, constant pedestrian traffic, unpredictable air currents, bright windows and its trio of giant, insectazoid lamps. In the middle of the gallery, she placed a dozen beanbag chairs in a circle with a larger, twin-chair at the center. Each chair is topped with a bright fleece blanket, so that together they resemble a collection of colorful boulders. Each blanket, in turn, is printed with a collage featuring the complex, conceptual layering for which Russ is known.

Half the collages have an amber and coral background, the other half azure and turquoise. In both cases, the background was assembled from torn photographs—either of Red Rock Canyon or the evening sky. At the center of each textured color field, a figure—a volunteer who answered Russ’s call for a photo shoot last year—reclines. The lovely woman dressed in a white shirt and navy blue pencil skirt has a prickly-pear blossom for a head, while another person, in black tank top and shorts, sports the visage of a buckhorn cholla flower. Saguaros seemingly poke from the figures like tumescent tentacles or prickly tails. Hybrids are a hallmark of Russ’s work, and point to larger issues of desert ecologies, evolution and transformation.

Like sirens, the chairs call to passers-by. The welcoming swells and depressions in the beanbags alternately accentuate and obscure the colorful, reclining figures printed on the blankets. The ergonomic attraction of the beanbags is so irresistible that busy government employees sit, sink, relax and think, adding a living layer to the collage. The reclining figures have come to life as real people.

In the wake of controversy over the removal of Cory McMahon’s Space Available from the Rotunda, Russ’ Desert Flower Power Landscape avoids offending critics who hold conservative views of what, exactly, constitutes “art.” In this Russ has succeeded admirably, but in doing so, she has filed her edge. Wrapping a beanbag in a blanket depicting a sexy female hybrid—a beanbag that no one sits on—as she did recently at the Barrick Museum, comments on gender in a way that clothed figures do not, while the dimpled views of her collages—the effect of people sitting on the chairs—compromise their strength. That said, Desert Flower Power Landscape is a happy, interactive show that incorporates people into the artwork and makes them smile.

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