What's the phrase I'm looking for here? Blithe indifference? Serene unconcern? I'm trying to interpret the faces in the bottom corner of this painting, their ... what, bubbly apathy? … their hot-tubbed insouciance? ... regarding the ecological disaster unfurling around them. Their expressions are the emotional and intellectual keynotes of this amazing, bonkers artwork depicting Las Vegas, “On Borrowed Time,” by New Mexico artist Brian Myers. This painting wants to know, with some urgency, if there’s any awareness, anything at all, behind her pleasantly vacant stare, his goofy Pepsodent grin ...
In the wonderful way that art can randomly blindside you, I was unaware of this work, which resides in the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art in Roswell, New Mexico, until I saw it on Instagram a few weeks ago, at which point I became modestly obsessed. Kept peering into it. Showing it to people. Clumsily trying to find the artist. (Sorry, different artist named Brian Myers!) I mean, this is us, Las Vegas, neatly apprehended. Sadly, it's never been exhibited here.
I love the painting’s vigor, its whimsically compressed perspective — Hoover Dam is right there — its hypervigilant detail, its gently warped realism. The spectacle of its glorious, teeming muchness: very Vegas, that. And I definitely love how it shuns the murk of academic “importance” for an illustrative clarity, calling to mind the work of pop artists who painted everyday street scenes (say, Wayne Thiebaud or Robert Bechtle), only, as writer Kristen Peterson astutely noted when I showed this to her, “turned up to 11 and on Vegas time.”
Vegas time, indeed: Look at all the consumption and waste! Sprinklers going off, pools galore, a golf course, a fountain in the yard, cars being washed — the liquid outrages of a society at war with the ecosystem it’s sprawling into. (And note the ongoing construction on the hill.) The saguaro is being watered to death; the wild animal carries off the domestic pet. Reckless civilization is revealed as the true invasive species, and everywhere you look there are symptoms of something out of whack in America: the pesticide hosed onto the middle yard; the mother wheeling two kids, already pregnant with a third (a reference to overpopulation), the lady in the window, seemingly adrift in a psychological limbo. “On Borrowed Time” may be about Las Vegas, but its indictment is much broader.
“It really bothered me, the ridiculous water usage,” the right Brian Myers tells me when I finally track him down in New Mexico. “You could see it coming.” From a long way off, as it turns out: Myers, who’d visited Vegas a few times, painted this all the way back in 1994, a few years into the unbridled-growth-is-good zeitgeist of the megaresort era. A time when we foolishly believed there was no problem we couldn't grow our way out of. An artwork that was then an astute diagnosis seems positively clairvoyant now, in this era of alarming reports on water levels in the Colorado and U.N. bulletins about climate change’s paralyzing enormity. Twenty-four years later, our time is more precariously borrowed than ever.
Which brings me back to those faces, and their expressions of … I’m gonna go with languid nonchalance, which is surely redundant, but I’m sticking with it. Myers plucked them from an ad in a 1950s Life magazine. Yes, of course. Their features shine with that buoyant postwar march-of-progress thing. “It was so bizarre,” he remembers thinking. “Everyone was so happy.” Now, here they are, brought to 2018 in their hot tub time machine, languidly nonchalant about the water in the gutters, the poison in the grass, the coyote in the yard, the disaster on the horizon. Just like the rest of us. These are the faces of people who figure others — probably forward-looking scientists, the kind you’d read about in an old Life magazine — are working to solve these problems that’re too big for us to think about. Only no one seems to be listening to scientists now. In the meantime, crank up the hot tub.
One last detail, which you probably can’t fully grasp at this resolution: See that old blue Scout on the freeway, behind the faux-brick house? There’s someone hanging out of the passenger window. “It’s a self-portrait of me, throwing up,” Myers says, laughing. “I guess that says it all.” And then some! Just one more reason to love it.