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Pushing Back

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Wendy Kveck
Photography by Mikayla Whitmore

In her art and activism, Wendy Kveck subverts the patriarchy, promotes the city’s arts scene, and gets unabashedly political

The first thing that strikes you when you enter artist Wendy Kveck’s studio: pink. The oil paintings on the studio walls are a bright neon pink, layered with equally bold reds and yellows and blues. The images are striking, not just because of the colors that arrest the eye, but because of the subjects as well.

Kveck has been making art for nearly 30 years, and throughout that time her work has focused on the female body — eating, drinking, at rest, active. When she moved to Las Vegas 20 years ago, she began to draw on her retail experience and the heavy consumer culture in the city.

“When I moved to Las Vegas, that experience of seeing magazines ads and billboards and so much media about body modification and cosmetic surgery made me think about how accelerated and dominant that had become in culture, particularly somewhere like Las Vegas,” Kveck says.

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Settlers + Nomads

Artists' work included on Settlers + Nomads: Dan Fischer

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Artists' work included on Settlers + Nomads: Wendy Kveck

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Lance Smith

Artists' work included on Settlers + Nomads: Lance Smith

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Milayla Whitmore

Artists' work included on Settlers + Nomads: Mikayla Whitmore

“I was also starting to look at a lot of advertising where women’s bodies were objectified in a way that they were both being shown as consumers, marketed to, but also consumed, literally,” she says. “I remember there was an image of a women wearing something that looked like a slice of a peach or piece of fruit, so her body became a piece of fruit.”

And so Kveck turned women into food, too.

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For her Meateater series, Kveck brought in friends and family to pose as models, layering cold cuts over their faces and photographing them. In Specimen, she swapped the meat for frosting, layering chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry confections over the faces in a way that mimics oil paint.

“When I was doing this series, I realized the models became more passive because they couldn’t really move with this food on their face,” she says. “Exposing that vulnerability or that level of trust with another human being who had (been) invited to collaborate or volunteer … These women were being open to these experiences with me, and there was an element of touch.” One woman, she remembers, was a vegetarian but was determined to participate in the project despite her discomfort, something Kveck appreciated.

Collaboration is a key concept for Kveck; her models are as much an influence on her work as they are canvases for it. In one series, Kveck had friends reenact poses of models on magazine covers for a project exploring the aestheticization and stylization of the female body. That they were friends was crucial. “To have a connection with the model so we would have a conversation about body image … that was like a backdrop for the work, these shared experiences.”

These women become recurring characters in Kveck’s work, as she transforms them from staged performances to photographs to blind-contour line drawings and then paintings. In each iteration, the images take on a new significance and tell a new story. “(I) think about representations of the female body as being this zeitgeist of cultural values, moments in time, in that way I think that it can be accessible … not limited to a gendered reading that way, but that’s there, too, in my work,” she explains.

Last year, her work was included in the sprawling, statewide survey of Nevada artists, Tilting the Basin, which originated at Reno’s Nevada Museum of Art. Not long before, she was part of a three-artist exhibit at the Barrick Museum. Singly or in group shows, her work has been exhibited in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Portland, Dallas, and beyond.

Kveck received an MFA from UNLV in 2007, and has taught there and at the College of Southern Nevada. Her studio space is reminiscent of a professor’s office, with books stacked against the wall and laying on tables. The desk sits near the center of the floor space, and her brushes sit neatly organized in makeshift penholders. It’s a space that says, This is a place for work, and Kveck takes that seriously. She leaves her laptop at home because it’s a distraction from making art.

That discipline is channeled beyond the studio, as well. Kveck is an active member of the local arts scene — in fact, you could argue that she is a significant driver of it. In 2015, she launched the website Settlers + Nomads (settlersandnomads.com), a collaborative effort in which Nevada artists contribute their work and their perspectives on the art community. “Settlers” describes those who live here — some 30 or so — while “Nomads” covers dozens of artists from out of state who have stopped in Nevada for exhibits or residences, or former locals who have moved away. The site has links to their work, and a sporadically updated blog that looks at art projects around the country.

Kveck was inspired by artists’ web projects in other cities, and sought to tackle what she says is a lack of arts infrastructure in Las Vegas. What began as a small project consisting of colleagues she had worked with at UNLV quickly grew to include a much wider group of artists, including visiting artists at UNLV and some who worked for the now defunct P3 residency program at The Cosmopolitan. 

“People have been extremely generous and enthusiastic about participating — it’s really highlighted the special energy here,” Kveck says.

“With Las Vegas being so transient, I think it’s paramount for a project like Settlers + Nomads to exist,” says Lance Smith, a local artist highlighted on the site. “Beyond its archival importance, it provides a beautifully curated space that showcases the artists who have lived and created in Las Vegas. It also creates a bridge between artists who have relocated, which allows for new and interesting collaborative possibilities.”

Andreana Donahue, another Las Vegas artist and contributor to Settlers + Nomads, believes that the project has been crucial in creating an art community in the city. “Settlers + Nomads draws necessary attention to work artists are also doing outside of the studio — rigorous endeavors in community engagement, activism, and education,” she says.

This month, Settlers + Nomads will mark its second anniversary. Kveck hopes to keep growing the project by creating a publication that will feature the blog posts artists have contributed to the site.

After the 2016 election and the subsequent Women’s March, Kveck deepened her activism, helping found the Desert Arts Action Coalition. Affiliated with the progressive movement Indivisible, DAAC began as 10 artists and arts patrons who initially wanted to get involved in this year’s state Legislature. “One of our focuses has been to protect arts and humanities funding,” Kveck says. During the session, Kveck and others attended public hearings, hosted speakers, and, using a private Facebook page, tracked legislative actions so that members could contact their Senate and Assembly Members. More long-range, she adds, DAAC is “ultimately preparing for the 2018 midterm and gubernatorial elections.”

“Wendy is, to me, one of the most important artists and activists in the Las Vegas art scene,” Smith says. “She has shown time and time again that she is committed to harnessing community, and seeks to help elevate the perception of what it means to be a working artist in Las Vegas and Nevada as a whole.”

The election, and the bills and executive orders coming of out of Washington, D.C., have also motivated Kveck’s work. While her art has always challenged our culture’s view of women’s bodies, she now says she wants her work to be more aggressive — more assertive or angry female figures, she says. “The feminist agenda in my work and research is to push back against patriarchy and a society that has become desensitized to objectified, hyper-sexualized images of the body,” she says.

While Kveck draws from art history, the clichés of which often reflect a patriarchal culture — the Reclining Nude, the Mad and Fallen Woman — she works to subvert these tropes through her media and approach. Sometimes, that’s simply a matter of readjusting the frame: “I’ve done a lot of paintings where it started as a reclining figure, so it maybe would have been a horizontal painting, where then I invert it and make it a vertical painting. I’m activating or empowering the figure by switching the passive to a more active (stance).”

She is also taking another look at some of her older paintings and considering how she might change them to reflect the current political climate. “This could mean pushing the grotesque or tragic overtones in the existing works,” she says. As an example, she mentions obliterating a soft yellow sky in one image by painting over it with heavy black brushstrokes. “This sounds simplistic and obvious, a petulant response which might destroy the painting, but it also creates a formal problem to solve: How do I make the black sky work with rest of the painting? How do I have to modify the figures in the foreground to make them hold their own against the field of darkness?”

As always, there is her use of color, deliberately oversaturated and overpowering. “The way that I’ve worked with color, it has been to me more confrontational,” Kveck says.

“Wendy’s work always circles back to painting; whether she’s implementing other media, such as performance, drawing, or collage to access recurring concepts, there’s a visceral, painterly quality present,” artist Donahue says. Smith concurs with the sentiment: “Wendy has a beautiful understanding of color and form. … There is an honesty in Wendy’s work that is always there. Her work does not simplify itself for the sake of the viewer, it demands attention while offering insight.”

As Kveck talks through her paintings and photographs, one feels that visceral connection with the women who posed for them. Even as their features are obscured by frosting or paint, the movement and message are clear. We are here, these paintings say. We are loud and aggressive. Maybe that’s not what you expect from pink, but it is there, in its nature. It’s not going away.

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