This artist’s hybrid, unorthodox work can’t be summed up in bullet points
Whoa, kid! Watch your foo … too late. An unattended boy, maybe 11 or 12, so optically unnerved by all the art on the wall that he didn’t see the art on the floor, swung his foot into Javier Sanchez’s piece. Whoooahh! Because it was a grid of empty bullet shells set on the bare concrete of VAST Space Projects, a light metallic clatter pinged through the gallery burble. The kid pulled back, bewildered and probably wondering: Am I in trouble? Nah, don’t worry, short stuff; as you can see from a few other spills in the piece, several adults already did the same thing.
Anyway, Sanchez sort of expected that to happen — both on that night in May, when the piece was part of a giant group show at VAST’s edge-of-town art garage, and in August, when a select subgroup of those artists recreated their pieces for a reciprocal display at the Torrance (Calif.) Art Museum. Indeed, such unpredictable viewer interactions — and yeah, clumsy foot-placement counts as interaction — is part of what Sanchez was after when he phased out of photography in search of something more conceptual, more experiential. He’s fascinated by the evanescence of it.
“A flat surface is not enough for me anymore,” he says. He’s sitting at the kitchen table in his comfortable mid-valley home. His dog, Luna, lolls nearby; Sanchez says he gets his best ideas when he’s walking her. “I’m not kind of a traditional artist,” he adds, perhaps unnecessarily. His work has lately emphasized room-filling installations, soundless video, disembodied audio — Sanchez isn’t big on creating objects, commodities. He’s a rising figure among a vanguard of Las Vegas artists (David Sanchez Burr, Scott Grow, Lauren Adkins) working in such conceptual territory.
“What I like about Javier’s work,” Sanchez Burr writes in an email, “is his willingness to engage in different media to satisfy the intent of his projects. I have seen him effectively use video, sculpture, photography, performance and spoken word in his projects. He identifies interesting and hard subject matter and does not rely on traditional formalist aesthetics to accomplish his goals as a lot of artists do.”
“A lot of my pieces, I’m very interested in the experience of presence and absence, or the absence of presence, and not just of an object but actually of an idea,” Sanchez says. Take May’s Derivative Presence. A collaboration with artist Yasmina Chavez, it was a two-parter: YouTube videos silently flickered in an immersive environment in downtown’s TastySpace Gallery, while their voiceovers — awkward, bizarre monologues — were broadcast from hidden speakers in UNLV’s Xeric Garden. Passersby found their normal routine interrupted, their attention drawn out of their own ruminations and into the external world for a baffling moment. When Sanchez and Chavez were taking it down, one instructor told them he would miss it.
Meanwhile, the video gallery “raises issues about our psychic relationship with digital media,” Las Vegas Weekly art critic Dawn-Michelle Baude wrote. “Given the possibility of downloading digital selves, what meaning does ‘presence’ have now and in the future?”
Since both the VAST and L.A. shows were more about cultural socializing than the art itself, it’s doubtful many viewers knelt over Sanchez’s bullet casings long enough to ponder their layered meanings. Too bad; they’re there. Because he’s originally from Mexico (he’s lived in America for 17 years but says Mexico still resonates in much of his work), Sanchez is attuned to the violent chaos of the border, and because he became an artist, he wanted to address it in some metamorphic way. The empty shells offered a flexible metaphor for transformation: Although they symbolize disorder, they can be arranged in a precise pattern; although they symbolize lethal power, they can be toppled by a child. And for an artist preoccupied with presence and absence, a spent cartridge evokes both: Its emptiness forcefully calls to mind exactly what it’s been emptied of.
“What I find exciting about Javier’s work is that it doesn’t shout at me,” says VAST gallerist Sam McMackin. It’s quietude. “I love its minimalism, too.”
Sanchez gets up from the table and walks into his garage, crowded with the boxed components of previous work. He stands over a bucket of sand on the floor. Among his future plans is an installation in VAST’s corner of the Life is Beautiful festival. “I’m going to do something using natural materials from the desert, sand, sound, video — not an object, but an idea. Very simple,” he says. Well, not so simple that he actually knows what form it will take. Yet. He’s still in that heady exploratory zone that must represent peak fun for the conceptual artist. “I have to play with it for a while,” he says, scooping up a handful of sand. A few more walks with Luna ought to clinch it.