A second look at the revived LVAM collection in the newly reopened Marjorie Barrick Museum reveals new intrigues and pleasures
While working as a docent at the Venetian’s ill-fated Guggenheim Hermitage Museum, I had the strange and wonderful privilege of hosting student tour groups. Void of self-conscious ramblings, these tours were eye-opening: kids are astute observers and, truth be told, say the darnedest things. After greeting school children under the bubbling putti of the frescoed Venetian lobby, we’d spend the next hour or so moving through the galleries, stopping at relevant pieces as I coaxed conversation from their impressionable young minds.
Every tour had its moments, but one stands out from the rest. While organizing a group of predictably aloof pre-teens, a girl of about 12 asked, “Are we going to see real paintings?”
Puzzled, I assured her that real paintings were, indeed, in her immediate future. She squinted, unconvinced. Our first stop on the tour was a luminous Rembrandt, and she asked again: “Is this a real painting?”
Eventually it became clear that she thought we were looking at a reproduction — a poster of the painting. She had never seen a “real painting” — and a quick survey of the other students revealed much the same. Cue corny music as I pulled all of the students as close as possible to the canvas’ surface to point out the delicate shadows cast by Rembrandt’s more effusive brush strokes, physical evidence of the painting’s veracity.
Who knew that the whipped-cream peak of a 350-year-old dollop of oil paint could blow a 12-year-old’s mind?
Drooling with an equally blown mind before the frenetic peaks and valleys of Michael Reafsnyder’s dense acrylic cacophony “Confetti,” I am reminded of “real” painting’s heartier pleasures. Looking at art just feels good. It’s not supposed to hurt, it might make you confused or angry, but good art thrives and so do its viewers. Who knows why or how the girl and her compatriots had managed to go 12 years without seeing a “real painting.” There’s a first time for everything, and theirs was a thrill.
Reafsnyder’s “Confetti” is part of the eclectic exhibition “Into the Light” at UNLV’s recently renovated Marjorie Barrick Museum. “Light” marks the museum’s premier not only as part of the university’s Department of Fine Art, but also as custodian of the Las Vegas Art Museum collection. It is a beautiful trifecta — the Barrick, the Department of Fine Art, LVAM — a momentous turn of events expanding the local roster of high art venues and with it the opportunities for looking at art.
Culled from LVAM’s collection of roughly 200 works of art that have been in storage since the Museum’s closing in 2009, “Light” is a painting-heavy mixture of old and new works by a wide range of local and national artists. Given the diverse scope of the collection, UNLV Donna Beam Gallery Director Jerry Schefcik’s curatorial strategy for the exhibition was to foster a series of conversations. By identifying subtle (or not so subtle) ways in which two or more pieces might exist in dialogue, Schefcik has shaped an experience in which a viewer might easily insert herself into the exchange. Never intimidating or condescending, navigating “Into the Light” is as rigorous as a game of Chutes and Ladders.
With that in mind, I suggest beginning with a monologue rather than a conversation. Which brings us back to “Confetti” heckling from its own little slice of heaven near the entrance of the exhibition, its small size unsuccessfully masking a big personality. Easily mistaken for a painter’s palette, it is a frenzy of thick acrylic paint and heterogeneous colors exuberantly sloshing across panel. The drama of such painterly pursuits is punctured by the inclusion of what every serious painting needs — a smiley face with large lavender antlers oozed straight from the tube. Reafsnyder’s painting trips you as you walk by, pokes you in the eye, and then tickles you in the ribs for good measure. The Ab-Ex physical comedy of “Confetti” is a beautiful way to begin “Into the Light,” inspired in its passion and generous with its humor — a necessary tool when visiting any art exhibition.
The piece holds its own opposite comparatively muscular work by David Ryan and Bradley Corman, by contrast a more minimal introduction to “Light.” The taut sculpture/painting tight rope navigated by each artist is accentuated by Schefcik in a pairing whose forced marriage heightens this dynamic to a crescendo. Ryan’s clean, bright abstract painting “NV 316 NHJ” consists of panels that appear to flatten layer upon layer of cartoon thought balloons, thick and sculptural in their perceived two-dimensionality. Simultaneously, all subjectivity is erased from Corman’s austere machined aluminum triptych “Tropo III (for Anssi),” three long and lean rectangular slivers that move sculpture from the floor to the wall. A ruthless show of curatorial showmanship, this pairing is a doozy.
From here, it is impossible to resist the pull of the north gallery, a Pop and candy concoction of mostly UNLV graduates. More of a party than a conversation, this grouping offers a juicy slice of UNLV’s Dave Hickey era. The influential cultural critic spent several years teaching at the university, and a simplistic articulation of his aesthetic celebrates the beautiful over the conceptual. Southern California car culture-inflected hard-edge is the dominant vibe, and Yek’s “The Dream (Orange)” vibrates distractingly from the corner. A concave panel mesmerizes in shimmering sherbet acrylic, irresistible to the eye and soothing to the mind.
Things get quieter in transition to the south gallery as the exhibition shifts in tone, a series of hushed tête-à-têtes that open into a collection of figurative work often in muted colors or soft memories. An historical dialogue between paintings by John Clarke and Robert Beckmann dominates the room. Clarke’s “Venus and the Guitar Player” gives ’70s-era hippies a dreamy art historicism in contrast to the dark romanticism of Beckmann’s apocalyptic flooding of the Las Vegas Valley, “The 100 Year Flood.” Theirs is the broadest conversation in a room full of detailed realism and modestly scaled intimacies.
Coiling through to the architectural and conceptual center of the Barrick Museum, I find myself in a tiny space at the feet of “Bahiana,” by Mary Cady Johnson. All of the work in this space has what Schefcik describes as a vintage feel, painted or drawn by lesser-known artists mostly in popular styles of the ’50s and ’60s. “Bahianas,” with its bright colors and loose brush work hinting at figurative expressionism, is identified by Schefcik as the first work of art acquired by LVAM and the first numbered in the collection. There is something tender and vulnerable about the painting, working so hard at something it perhaps never achieves. Every piece in this tiny central gallery is earnest and thoughtfully crafted, whether a crushingly delicate graphite rendering or jazzy thick paint on cardboard, each wears its heart on its sleeve. Relationships based on formal concerns or content dissipate into a lovely and earnest whole. “Bahianas” may be the kernel of the collection, but this gallery is the essence of the exhibition.
Is a painting only “real” when it’s seen in a museum or gallery setting? Far from it. But the immense intellectual and spiritual pleasure of marinating in the simple act of looking at something, an act afforded and promoted by institutional and educational settings, is incomparable — and infectious. It can start with Michael Reafsnyder, but quickly bounces out of the gallery into street art and casino carpeting and neon signs.
There’s so much to see. Aren’t we lucky to have a museum again in which to see it?
“Into the Light” is on exhibit through Dec. 15 at UNLV’s Barrick Museum. However, the museum will be closed until Nov. 19 for a lighting upgrade.
Mon-Wed, Fri, 9a-5p; Thu, 9a-8p; Sat, 12-5p. barrickmuseum.unlv.edu