For her exhibit Under the Sky: Ceramic Landscape Wall Series, artist Sierra Slentz created 360 ceramic nodules evoking the desert; they hang in three groups of 120 in the big windows on the First Street side of Las Vegas City Hall, where they’ll remain until May. Each rounded lump has been differently painted, manipulated, and sometimes embedded with manmade shapes so that each memorializes one of Slentz’s encounters with the desert. Sometimes literally: “Some of my favorite ones were actually made in the desert. I took a bunch of clay out to Rhyolite, and pressed it into wood, rocks, and soil. Some are physical collages of the actual earth.”
What was the first impulse that led to what we see here?
I wanted to start a new body of work, and I wanted to challenge myself to be in the studio more, like every day, and working on smaller sculptural pieces that I could put together, originally was the idea. I do a lot of mosaics. Just trying to free myself up and do some looser, more abstract work.
Why the emphasis on small? You could have done fewer larger pieces.
There’s 360 of them, so it’s one year’s worth of work. And 360 is, like, the circle —
A nice organic form.
— yeah. But then I also wanted it to be linear, like a timeline, and also like the horizon line when you’re in the desert. Three grids of 120 that make one long horizon line, is how I kinda see it. But also a timeline, since it’s a year’s worth of work.
Part of the exhibit’s backstory was Slentz’ realization that even the seemingly useful act of picking up desert trash can be an unwelcome intervention. Note here that trash + time = artifact, as anyone who’s seen the scatters of preserved tin cans in the Rhyolite ghost town knows. “When I’m in the desert,” she says, “and I take a rock or I move something, I’m conscious about every step I take in the desert, every rock or artifact I move, every piece of trash I pick up, that I have potentially erased an archeological marker and altered the landscape in some way.”
Some of pieces definitely exude a small anxiety about, am I making a mistake? The way some of the manmade objects are jammed in them or sticking out at an awkward angle — there’s a bit of tension there.
That’s interesting. I like that. Some of them have little bottles or pieces of bottles; when you are in the desert you see bottles, and the older ones are purple, and you’re not supposed to take those. If you’re on BLM land its part of the Antiquities Act — but I have collected some bottles, and realized I was depriving someone else. So what I did was, I took those bottles back to my studio and cast them, I made molds of them, and then I put the bottle back.
That speaks to a very high level of eco-consciousness —
But still f**king it up.
So a lot of these pieces, without being too political, talk about that type of unknowingly making a mark on the landscape or changing it.
Another fruitful duality in Under the Sky is between the loose, organic gesturality of Slentz’s nodules and the unyielding linearity with which they’re displayed.
Nature doesn’t tend to put things in perfect grids.
We do that, though. We try to control things. Meddle.
Indeed. Humans are always taking the visual emptiness of the desert as an invitation to do something better — “better” — with it than simply leave it alone: We develop it, mine it, irrigate it, build resort cities in it, seek religious visions in it, militarize it, test atom bombs in it …
“Humans, it seems like we’re always trying to fix things or help things and we end up making it worse. And we don’t realize we’ve f**ked it up until later.”
That said, Under the Sky isn’t larded with theatrical politics. Its aims are subtler. For example: the gold — real gold — in some pieces is less a polemic about extractive industry than a nod to “the decadence of needing and wanting; the dripping aspect of it talks about water waste and consumption. There’s definitely some waste out there.”
A lot of people will be tempted to read it as a reference to mining.
Some have gold nuggets, so there are definitely some mining and ruining-the-earth (references). But there are some natural elements that are being illuminated by that gold to kind of make them a little more precious. To remind you that, hey, this water is precious, this root system is precious.
What happens to these after this show?
I would like to have it in a gallery at some point, and people can buy them off the wall, and it would slowly disintegrate the landscape. Leaving empty spaces in the grid.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)