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Desert Companion

Open Topic: Trash Art

What a randomly acquired painting taught me about the transitory nature of hope, value, and Vegas

My neighbor got evicted. That or he skipped town. A work crew had been emptying the house for three days, throwing everything into a trailer-sized Dumpster, and when I asked what happened, they just said, “It’s a mess in there.” The guy was a hoarder, apparently. One worker came out carrying a large painting. It had black, yellow, and brown L-shapes overlaid like a pile of boomerangs. I like abstract art, so I asked, “What are you doing with the painting?”

“You want it?” The men set it on my driveway. “It’s yours.”

The thing was pretty beat up, and a bit ugly to begin with. It had sloppy brushstrokes and a distinctly 1970s color palette, the paint had peeled away in spots, and its wooden surface, which stood six feet tall, was dusty and splintered. You might think it was beautiful — but just from the corner of your eye.

I’d moved to town a few months earlier, to study creative writing, and my house felt barren, so I brought it inside. That’s when I noticed a name on the back: “Marco Tirelli 1984.” I leaned it against a wall and learned from Google that Tirelli is a famous Italian artist. The first hit was a New York Times profile celebrating his “large-scale canvases of geometric objects and arresting contrasts of light and darkness.” Naturally, I wondered if it was actually his and, if so, worth a lot of money. 

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This wasn’t the first time that the famous Las Vegas confluence of luck, hope, and willful naiveté had crept into my brain: I’d already taken up gambling. In fact, from that point on, whenever my credit card debt and impending student loan bills combined with a bad night of shooting craps to plunge me into regret and despair, I fantasized that the Tirelli would bail me out. According to artnet.com, his similar-looking 1984 piece “Solare” had fetched $10,000 back in the ’90s. And his star had only risen since. 

Through Tirelli’s personal website, I sent him photos of the painting and signature, hoping to authenticate it. He didn’t reply. I emailed the New York art dealer who’d sold “Solare.” She was retired but asked how much I wanted for it. The price I suggested must have been too high because she ghosted me after that. The painting’s only value, then, was as a conversation piece during house parties, and it actually became a burden when I moved in with someone who had no wall space for it, and no love for peripherally attractive art. 

Eventually, I reached a London gallery owner who said the painting didn’t represent the style Tirelli became famous for. It might fit into a retrospective, but otherwise had little value, I was told. The dealer offered me 300 euros, not even enough to mail it to his residence in L.A. The Times had mentioned that Tirelli came from a school of Rome-based artists who experimented in a variety of styles in the ’70s and ’80s. As his career matured, Tirelli painted almost exclusively in black and white, often portraying realist objects in abstract compositions, like a spiral staircase floating amid shadows, in tones both darker and brighter than what was in my possession.

It seemed fitting that what I had was Tirelli’s attempt to develop his own artistic style. That’s what I was doing at UNLV — participating in fiction workshops, trying to find my voice as a writer. Some of those stories were published, but the rest will never again see the light of day, which is typical of the MFA experience. You hone your skills by being told when your work is derivative, tedious, confusing, or cliché — all critiques that could’ve been lobbed at that painting. 

The next time I moved it was onto a friend’s couch, so the Tirelli ended up in a different buddy’s garage, where it stayed when he moved out. The place was full of old renters’ junk, so we assume it’s there still, waiting for someone else to assess its worth.

That transient narrative, that elusive promise — whatever the painting’s origin, it was a product of Las Vegas in the end. Vibrant and colorful, but also oversized and shoddy and frayed from neglect. For all that, I had a hard time letting go of both it and the city. How often do you come across something that’s world renowned and still full of quirky mystique?

If you’ve enjoyed this read, wait until you get your hands on a bunch of these reads from contemporary voices mining the good stuff from Las Vegas — all laid out in a gorgeous design experience. Subscribe. It comes to your house. For real!

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