In the studio of Brent Sommerhauser, fine art emerges from dirty, hot, dangerous places
CORRECTION: This article has been corrected to reflect that Brent Sommerhauser was an assistant gaffer in the creation of the Domsky Glass sculpture for The Cosmopolitan's Book & Stage venue. Artist Larry Domsky conceived, designed and fabricated the piece. Desert Companion regrets the error.
In an unmarked warehouse on Industrial Road, Brent Sommerhauser ministers over a crucible of molten glass. The air stings. That’s the arsenic. A pantheon of furnaces roars, each blazing at more than 2,000 degrees. Everywhere, things are sharp, hot, breakable. Dangerous. Sommerhauser is completely at ease. Strolling over to the kiln, he shows off compressed-fiber molds. He has specially designed them to cast glass floorboards for his upcoming solo show at the Michele Quinn Fine Art gallery.
For six years, Sommerhauser, 38, has been adding his unique vision to the Las Vegas art scene, showing work around the city and the world, collecting praise and awards. But it doesn’t go to his head; when he gets back to the labor of making art, it’s a lot of pushing and tugging and sawdust. In an era where creation seems to be migrating to the computer screen and artists often turn over designs to craftsmen, Sommerhauser bucks the trend and gets his hands dirty.
“My studio is more like a laboratory,” he says. “I go there to solve problems.”
His solutions often involve blowtorches, electricity, saws, vacuum cleaners and sledgehammers.The result of all this extreme art-making? Discreet, introspective, even delicate sculptures and drawings — flooring made of Emily Dickinson poems, glass arms reaching from plaster walls, drifts of pencil marks on paper. His work contemplates the effects of invisible forces
and the possibility that materials can transcend their own nature. But even if Sommerhauser’s work does not scream with color and hype, it’s not boring. Elemental tensions, dangers — and opportunities — born of fundamental powers such as gravity and time grip the pieces. “The art is indicative and reflective of our era and time,” says Jerry Schefcik, Donna Beam Gallery director. “It is non-traditional methods of rethinking and art-making, of reusing.”
When the truck breaks down
Kansas farm boy and the oldest of 10 children, Sommerhauser did not have art galleries to visit growing up. “There were old farmers who welded together tractor pieces, but I didn’t think of that as art art,” he says. Farming has its own aesthetic, and he learned about creating, generating, making and doing. “When the truck broke down, you fixed the truck with what was in the truck.”
He took this philosophy to college, where, six credits shy of a degree in psychology, Sommerhauser stumbled into a glass-blowing studio and discovered there were a lot of ways to make art art. And that was that. “I saw a guy take a blob, like a blob of honey, and turn it into a vase,” he says. “I saw nothing become something. This was what I wanted to do.”
His work is not just multimedia. It is any media. While certain materials, (glass, pencils, wood flooring) frequently recur, Sommerhauser has the tendencies of a magpie and a tinkerer. Picture frames, wax, Styrofoam, a curtain in an emptied house, anything that comes near his hands is fair game. The result is a feeling of re-balancing as you accept reassigned purpose and possibility — change and salvage.
“The work asks the viewer to be a nuanced observer of the space you inhabit,” says art historian and UNLV Assistant Professor Kirsten Swenson. The materials engage with their transformation and so does the viewer. While the work feels effortless, moments of inevitable disturbances — of course the doors would invert upon themselves, of course the wax would flow like lava from the pencil — pleasure still comes from considering how the art came to be. Sommerhauser is not a magician who distracts the viewer with spectacle. He does not ask the viewer to be satisfied with whistles and bangs, to ignore the false floors behind the curtain. He is an architect for whom the entirety of a piece, the imagined-made-tangible is, in itself, the spectacle.
“The story of how the pieces are produced adds to them,” says Schefcik. But you don’t need to actually know the whole story. The layered depth and weight of each object is testament to the questions of how to do and make.
The storyteller of breathless moments
Prod him just a little and Sommerhauser will tell you something about his own story, like how he’s been stuck by lightning three times or how, when he was a child, his family dug a basement and moved into it before building the rest of the house, each morning shifting aside the plywood roof, emerging into Kansas farmland.
Once he draws you into the settings and plots of his life, it becomes impossible to separate biography from artwork. In both, Sommerhauser is an expert storyteller, hanging in the breathless moments when we wonder what will happen next — a boy is made to speed-read the complete works of Kurt Vonnegut, uploading the content direct into long-term memory; an emerging artist falls in love with and follows an Olympic-synchronized-swimmer-cum-baker to Vegas; wooden floorboards defy gravity and curl like paper in a breeze; two pounds of glass and wood float like a balloon. Like a good story, each piece feels resolved. But, like a good story, the experience lingers and you want to get another peek.
“There is life (in Sommerhauser’s work) beyond the four seconds people take to look at an art piece,” says Schefcik. “Later on you wonder, ‘What was happening there?’ That’s good art.”
Sommerhauser’s work leads a dialogue between exterior and interior environments, sometimes quite explicitly. Following the tenet of “Make the thing that you fear,” he explores what happens when you enter a space — a psyche or a house — and create disturbance. In one expression of this, Sommerhauser studied and dissected abandoned homes in Detroit. Literally. Eluding feral dogs (they hunt in packs) and, possibly, the mob (be careful where you go digging in some towns), Sommerhauser explored the detritus of an emptied city, looking for clues to lives, jigsawing out sections of flooring and walls, reshaping found objects.
“They were a record without a key. They left open doors to interpretations of history,” Sommerhauser explains. The careful exploration of the spaces and the reuse of the materials became a method and means for reading that history.
These accounts of wonder, subjects caught in a moment when forces act upon them, mirror the way that Sommerhauser sums up his life experience. “I stumble and I fall and I roll down a hill and land in something wonderful.”
Since landing in Las Vegas in 2006, Sommerhauser has become widely and deeply involved in the art community. You can see a white, crystalline glass piece he helped create as a gaffer with Domsky Glass at The Cosmopolitan’s Book & Stage. He designs and builds the collections technician for Cirque du Soleil, is a visiting lecturer for the UNLV Art Department and handles art for several galleries — everything from local art to Picassos to Michael Jackson’s glove. (“It was in a big Tupperware container and the security guards made a big deal about it like they never do with paintings.”)
‘of course it can be done’
In Vegas, Sommerhauser’s work has grown in complexity and confidence. “The problems that must be solved have become more significant,” he says. Part of the confidence comes from stepping behind the curtain of some of the big Vegas spectacles.
“(They are) false constructions that someone built to serve a visual purpose. It makes me think, ‘Of course it can be done,’” he says. The city has also increased his commitment to the finer points of craft. “I don’t want to go to the indoor forest, hear the birds singing and then see the speaker in the tree. I don’t want anything to be lost after the a-ha moment. I don’t want the experience to fall apart.”
For gallerist Michele Quinn, Sommerhauser’s work speaks to the city’s physical environment. “(It’s) not what you first think of as Vegas, the shapes and colors, but the larger environment, the massive space, the openness and the quality of light. You must get close and be quiet to see the layers in his work.” She laughs. “Just like the city itself.”
For Sommerhauser, Las Vegas has proven to be a productive site for his career. In just the last year, he received the Saxe Award from the Pilchuck Glass School, a Nevada Art Council Artists Fellowship, and was nominated for the prestigious Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Biennial Award. Galleries around the city and as far away as Germany have shown his work. He is happy about all of that, but what excites him? Opening the kiln to find that his glass flooring has turned out perfectly. He is excited for what’s next.
What’s next is his solo show at the Michele Quinn Fine Art gallery, which will mark the reopening of this downtown art venue. The space could not be more perfect for Sommerhauser’s concerns with the stories of our interiors: It is an old house.