The art component of Life Is Beautiful is every bit as ambitious as it has been in past years, but it’s lacking the indescribable wow that Santa Fe art collective Meow Wolf provided last year, when it took over the Art Motel space. (However, Meow Wolf’s new Vegas landlord—the Area 15 art, entertainment, retail and dining complex, set to open near Palace Station next year—does have a presence: a 12-foot-tall, projection-mapped skull called “Shogyo Mujo,” created by BARTKRESA studio and sculptor Joshua Harker.) To be fair, there are no real disappointments—like the year that Banksy sent that underwhelming, unrepresentative forest-in-a-truck piece, whose biggest visual impact came from the small army of security guards surrounding it—but Meow Wolf elevated LIB’s art game to a level where everything that followed was bound to fall a bit short.
That said, there’s a lot to love here. Once again, the JustKids studio has curated a striking assortment of murals, with a few eye-popping standouts. Egle Zvirblyte’s piece at 7th Street, adjacent to the Forest House, is a bold, punchy ode to female empowerment; it’s also proving one of the fest’s most popular Instagram backdrops. And Sebas Velasco’s pieces (on Stewart, between 7th and 8th streets) are a gut-punch; Velasco, inspired by the recent film The Florida Project, has given us a real Downtown Vegas tableau—a pair of photorealistic murals of a Downtown motel, and of a man who might have lived in that motel before the gentrification of the Fremont East corridor forced him out. The look on his face is one of confusion, loss and disappointment, and it’s weird to see festivalgoers taking selfies in front of it.
Some of the interactive pieces are worth waiting in line for. FireSkee Ball—created by Tomas Toulec and Carl Cosico, with flame technicians Dirk Schmidhofer and John Duncan—is as good as its name: it’s a heavy metal variant on the carnival bowling mainstay, with high-point shots punctuated by scary bursts of flame. Less impressive is Playmodes Studio’s “Beams,” an interactive alley walk of pivoting spotlights and low electronic bleats. It’s an impressive work, but also an anxiety-inducing one; there’s something about those low-frequency sounds and bouts of intermittent darkness that really rattle your nerves. If you’d like to see graffiti artist André Saraiva’s “Mr. A” character, however, this alley is where you’ll find him; he makes repeated appearances here, hiding in the darkness like an impish mugger.
I feel a bit let down by this year’s Crime on Canvas group art show (as always, at the Western Hotel), for reasons that are largely personal: A number of the pieces on display—particularly those by Lynn Nailor, a cofounder of the Spümcø animation studio (of Ren & Stimpy fame) and a peerless creator of angular women of action—used to hang at the offices of the former WENDOH Media, where I once worked. It was nice to see them again, but at the same time, they occupied walls that could have been filled by works I haven’t seen several times a week for three years.
But you’ll love the show (and you’ll feel mild shock at the five-figure prices on some of the works), and you’ll definitely love the Crime on Canvas shop, which is packed with affordable prints, ceramic pins and vinyl figurines created by everyone from Tara McPherson to KidRobot. Personally, I’ve already blown my pin budget for the month. And I have no regrets.