In which we create a collage portrait of collage artist Anthony Bondi, whose work once captured — and helped define — the Vegas zeitgeist. What’s he been up to since?
Robert Hughes’ colossal art-history doorstop, The Shock of the New, tells us that collage, as a technique of high art, began with the Cubists early in the 20th century. It was their way of introducing bits of the real world into their work. From there it became a vital creative method, ideally suited to a century of unprecedented change, rupture and recombination. These days you can see a collage sensibility everywhere — from art galleries to DJ mashups to music videos.
Now, zoom in on Las Vegas, where collage artist Anthony Bondi, subject of this story, has been cutting, pasting and recontextualizing for decades — not just images, but sculptures, even people.
So we decided to collage him.
LET’S MEET THE ARTIST!
Begin with Bondi himself: thin, grizzled, gray and amiable as he lets me into his book-lined house in downtown’s Huntridge neighborhood. His most distinctive feature isn’t strictly physical, it’s the way he talks — imagine an off-kilter Jimmy Stewart, his speech recursive, shambling, pinging with imaginative caprice through a vast menu of topics: art history, say, or Fremont Street or cyberpunk culture. “Everyone does a Tony,” says his friend Ginger Bruner, doing an uncanny Bondi impression one November night at the bar Velveteen Rabbit. I eventually ask other people. They do Tonys, too. It really is a thing.
Bondi made a local name for himself in the early ’90s with intricate collages (which he made using what was then the latest medium, the color copier) that fused his love of Vegas history with a sure sense of its deeper postmodern meanings to capture something essential about those fast-morphing, growth-woozy times. With the rise of themed resorts, Vegas itself was becoming a collage, not only architecturally but culturally too. There were the stirrings of a coffeehouse culture, ground-zeroed at Enigma Garden Cafe on Fourth Street (for which Bondi created a memorable series of fliers), and a sense that anyone with a creative project could find some traction. Art critic Gregory Crosby: “(Bondi’s work) was very much part of that whole DIY aesthetic that centered on Kinko’s, where you would find poets putting together chapbooks, punks turning out ’zines, bands creating fliers and artists like Bondi turning out gorgeous, ready-to-hang works of art. ...” Bondi’s stood alone, though. “Nobody at the time,” Crosby says, “was creating collage work in Vegas on that scale, with that flair, or with that visual intensity.”
Soon, the artist was organizing “Mr. Bondi’s Soundhouse,” multimedia happenings that collaged art, music, theater, video, people and free-range weirdness into a mix Bruner remembers, fondly, as “surrealism on the hoof.”
But as the ’90s faded, so did his visibility. Now, after a long absence from local galleries, Bondi has resurfaced. His newest work, sexy and enigmatic photos shot in his pool, appeared this fall in the now defunct RTZ gallery. And a smallish but potent selection of his old collages hangs in Sin City Gallery through Dec. 23.
INSIDE THE “IRON CURTAIN” WITH ANTHONY BONDI
Tsss tsssss tsss … on the recording, it sounds like the rattling of a mildly irritated snake. In reality, it’s me moving through the mass of tiny chains comprising an installation Bondi calls “Iron Curtain.” At the moment, it’s installed — well, stored, really — in his backyard, which is raked by chilly breezes on this November afternoon.
This is where I’ve come to ask, What has Bondi been doing for the last decade or so? This thing is part of the answer: making kinetic, interactive, whimsical sculptures for Burning Man.
“Iron Curtain,” for instance. It’s a 20-foot rectangular frame densely hung with strands of metal beads. Bondi calls it a “tactile-immersion” something or other. You walk through it. No, you push: The chains engulf you, inhibit your movement, pull off your glasses and muffle Bondi, who’s slogging a few feet ahead and saying something about “… response to … environment … completely different …” The experience is disorienting in a fun way, and, indeed, it’s completely different from his collages — there’s no ruminative distance between art and viewer, no white-walled gallery hush. Burning Man is about interaction, which, for Bondi, made it a natural extension of his “Soundhouse” happenings.
“If you don’t walk through this,” Bondi says, “it doesn’t have any meaning. The look of it doesn’t convey what it’s about.” The experience is the art.
A LESSON IN HOW MEANING IS CONSTRUCTED
Sin City Gallery owner Laura Henkel saunters up to a collage titled “Touchdown,” part of Neon Metropolis, her show of Bondi’s work. An image of diver Greg Louganis in mid-dive has been pasted over a photo of the long, vertiginous face of Hoover Dam. To Henkel, it’s a comment on the sexiness of perfected form, whether it’s a human body or large-scale engineering. But a man who attended the gallery opening was reminded of the bodies of suicidal jumpers that his father — a longtime coroner, apparently — had to remove from the dam’s base. They were pulped corpses, the opposite of Louganisy perfection.
Taken aback by that dark reading, Henkel says she called Bondi over: You’ll never believe what this guy says about your work …
“Yeah,” Bondi told her after the guy explained, “that’s exactly what it’s about.”
Now, weeks later, Henkel throws herself protectively over the image. “No! Leave me my unicorns and glitter!”
TIME OUT FOR A WEIRD BUT INSIGHTFUL METAPHOR ABOUT ANTHONY BONDI’S BRAIN
“I think his mind works on a number of levels,” Bruner says. Citing The Fantastic Voyage, she thinks it would be fun to shrink to molecular size and be injected into his brain, just to see what it looks like. “I imagine it being a weird castle, with a lot of rooms and different stuff happening at the same time — and every now and then, all the doors open and everyone comes out and it all mixes up.”
OKAY, BACK TO THE GALLERY
Take a close look at “Tourist Zone,” a 1994 piece hanging in Sin City. Under a skyful of classic neon, people — some in suits, others naked — mill around walls and portals of a vaguely Eastern architecture. It’s Bondi’s witty way of asking, in an environment (like the Strip) where themed architecture cues your temporary identity, what are you when you’re between resorts? Generic? Naked? (It was a particularly compelling question at the time.)
It’s also visually rich. “You actually kind of want to go into the piece,” Henkel observes, her statement resonating with the impulse that would eventually see Bondi set aside these collages for Burning Man.
Other pieces — one titled “Neon Museum,” another that paired an image of Venice with the Stardust sign years before the Venetian was built — seem prescient in hindsight. “Their visionary aspect just blew me away,” Henkel says.
[HEAR MORE: Listen to Anthony Bondi and others discuss Burning Man on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]
A few minutes later, she indicates “Touchdown” again. “Unicorns and glitter!” she insists.
YOU KNOW WHAT’S GREAT ABOUT HAVING A BACKYARD?
Space! When you create oversize whirlygigs of art, you need room to build, to lay everything out. But that’s front-end thinking. What about the back end? “What happens is, the old projects start taking up ever more space,” Bondi says. His patio and yard are crammed with elements from some 13 years of Burning Man projects — a spinning wheel of feather dusters here, a dead robot there, a dismembered merry-go-round. It’s like a museum of discarded whimsy. He notes the sole empty spot on his porch. “That’s all I got left. If I put some old piece there, I’m outta luck for a new piece. I’m pretty much filled up.”
That wasn’t a problem this year; he skipped Burning Man to stay with his ailing mother.
PRESS CLIPS FOR NEON METROPOLIS
•“Brimming with Las Vegas charisma and neon artifacts, this collection of images captures a pivotal moment in local history conveyed by an artist deeply connected with a city and time he was living in.” — Jenessa Kenway, CityLife
• “Bondi turns cliché Vegas into elegant and thoughtful visual compositions with layers of depth.” — Kristen Peterson, Las Vegas Weekly
IN THE BEGINNING
His first collage was 1989’s “Fission Convention,” showing a nuclear cloud billowing just beyond the old Convention Center. He had no intention of making another, he just wanted to see what mischief he could make using the stunning new technology of the color copier.
But even as he worked on it, he knew his artwork — until then confined to the black-and-white drawings he’d been doing since childhood — would change. The potential to manipulate images, any image he could copy, lit him up. “I was waiting tables,” he recalls, “and of course I didn’t have any money, but I gave every penny I had to Kinko’s in one day, then I’d go make some more tips and come back tomorrow and shovel more money at ’em,” sinking $50, $100 into each picture. “Obviously my life changed. I could feel it changing. It was a wonderful moment.”
An aside: He never used Photoshop on the collages.
A QUICK ANECDOTE
Local writer Geoff Carter: “In the summer of 1995, a friend of mind from Los Angeles came to visit, and I took him to see a Bondi show at some gallery or another. Earlier that day, my friend had won $300 playing the slots ... and he handed every penny of it over to Bondi for one of his prints. That’s my enduring impression of Tony. Somehow, and probably despite himself, he lends balance to this town.”
Carter does a world-class Tony, by the way.
IN WHICH WE USE THE PHRASE “THE JIGGILATOR”
Collage sensibility is all about reuse and recontextualizing, and Bondi’s pool, of all places, is a study in this. At one end, he’s fashioned various hoses, nets and other bits of freakishness from old Burning Man projects into a backdrop for the photos he’s working on these days. He points to a stand of whiffle balls. “That was part of ‘The Jiggilator,’” he says. (What’s “The Jiggilator”? See for yourself: anthonybondi.com.) He points at a batch of plastic reptiles. “As a Burning Man project, that screen of snakes was a failure. But it’s had a great life since Burning Man.”
The photos, nudes enmeshed in this exotic collage, link conceptually to Vegas production shows. He’s intrigued by the interplay of blatant artifice and the fleshily real. “The artificiality that was always an element within Vegas shows sat adjacent to, ‘My god, she’s got bare breasts!’” Shown this fall, the pictures got mixed reviews. “Lackluster compositions,” CityLife judged.
A NOT NECESSARILY COMPLETE LIST OF JOBS ANTHONY BONDI HAS HAD
Crop picker, movie theater doorman, furniture mover, liquor stock clerk, liquor delivery driver, office gopher, busboy, waiter, keno writer, keno accountant, janitor, linen washer, art gallery attendant, stock market investor.
This list depresses him, and it shouldn’t be read as a resume of subsistence jobs he’s taken in order to devote himself to art, though he did devote himself to art. He never found a sustainable career, and has often found himself flat broke. “This might be picaresque from a distance,” he says of his wide-ranging resume, “but close-up it was no fun.” He inherited some money a while back, but that’s gone; he earns a few dollars from a toy patent he came up with. So making the leap from relative poverty to full-time artist wasn’t that hard, he says. He’s getting by on intermittent commissions, some sales and hope.
A QUOTE ABOUT ART, MONEY AND BURNING MAN
“The Merry Go Down — I would guess I have about 15 grand into projects like that. They were my primary focus for many years. That would be my annual expense for art.”
IN ANTHONY BONDI’S GARAGE
Remember “Iron Curtain”? In Bondi’s garage is a smaller version, recast in tube form for smaller participants. “It turned out that children really liked it,” he says. “So maybe it wasn’t a piece of art, maybe it’s a toy.”
He hopes eventually to turn it into a line of playground equipment.
SAD THINGS ANTHONY BONDI HAS TOLD ME
“I never became a painter. I just drew, pencils and pens, black and white. So the world said, ‘Too bad, Tone, you don’t do color, you suck.’ But these are beautiful drawings! ‘We don’t care.’”
“I had every hope and expectation that doing this work would lead to a commercial art career. Well, that didn’t work out.”
“Here is my employment history in a snapshot: I’m on a bus on my way to sell some blood. I find myself quoted on the front page of the Sunday RJ making some pithy comment about something. My need to go sell some blood remains the same.” (Circa 1997, he says.)
RANDOM QUOTE THAT DIDN’T FIT ELSEWHERE
“Anthony Bondi is my favorite Las Vegan,” says local writer Matt Kelemen. “The fact that he built a water fountain in front of his house for all the neighborhood to use” — which is true, it’s right there, next to the sidewalk — “says it all.”
Well, maybe not all, but quite a bit.
EVERYONE DO A BONDI!
From somewhere in the bowels of YouTube, Bondi sends me a link to a video of uncertain vintage — late ’90s from the looks of it — titled “Do Your Bondi.” In it, several people from Bondi’s old demimonde take turns imitating him. “That video made me feel great,” he says.
People still imitate you, I tell him.
“Really?” He pauses. “I didn’t know they were still doing it. That makes my day!”