WELCOME TO the first issue of Fifth Street, Desert Companion’s weekly e-mail newsletter. Fifth Street, as you know, is the original name of Las Vegas Boulevard. To my mind, that fact has always served as a neat emblem for talking about the true personality of Las Vegas beyond its name tag. And that hints at the spirit we hope animates the Fifth Street newsletter — sharing stories, observations, and riffs with a decidedly local lean into depth, insight, and context. If you’re a reader of Desert Companion, you can expect the same insightful writing and wit, but we also hope to use this weekly digital format to engage more casually — even playfully — with the subjects and topics we cover in the magazine. I can go on and on, but I’ll let you discover Fifth Street for yourself as I end this note with an eponymously apt walk-off line, something like: Enjoy the ride!
I’ve referred to KD Matheson’s paintings as otherworldly more times than I can count. It’s easy shorthand for works that, with their biologically aberrant humanoids, unearthly moodiness, and thick sci-fi gestalt, suggest an imagination wired to a private SETI array, scanning the galaxy for signals. So it’s a bit trippy to realize how thisworldly they really are.
“Growing up here, in the desert, I had such a strong bond with this region,” Matheson says by phone, his voice surprisingly gentle for an artist whose work exhibits such an unnerving edge. We’re chatting ahead of his exhibit, Diversion Immersion, at Core Contemporary, and he’s telling me about the depth and mystery he draws from Southern Nevada’s desert — “There’s a type of energy I pick up on, a primordial power and magic” — and how it has shaped his art.
Judging by his body of work, the desert serves him less as a mood board of natural color inspirations or conventional anthropocene anxieties than in a deeper, more divinatory capacity. As the nearest mad prophet or French semiotician will confirm, it’s an environment rich with uncanny significance: philosophical, psychological, mythical, mystical. In their extremity, intimations of deep time, and blankness demanding to be filled, deserts have fostered many outsize human behaviors: religions, mythologies, Las Vegas.
This is where Matheson begins to diverge from other artists who’ve been influenced by the desert. His signature move has been to route that mystical power source through a live feed from what he terms “the collective unconscious,” that humid psychological hive where mankind hatches its gods and monsters. Where mythologies lurch to life. However out-of-this-world the grotesque inhabitants of a painting like “Psion” seem to be, with their beaks, segmentations, and appendages, he sources them from deep in a shared inner space.
Body parts merge or distort, and frequently enter or emerge from organic apertures; if something looks phallic or sexual, you should probably take it that way.
To Google up a screenful of Matheson’s artwork is to feel a premonitory slither at the borders of the subconscious, whether it’s the knowing grin of the lizard-thing in “Nibiru” or the snouted predator of “Ikos”; the menacing cosmic freakshow of “Unicorn” or the nightmarish WTF of “Anthropoids.” Rooted in the spectral overlap between our imagination and our id, these scenes manifest our weirdest fears, desires, and taboos. It’s a strange place, Matheson’s netherzone, given visual kick by what Core Conteporary owner Nancy good calls “the ferocity of his approach.” Body parts merge or distort, and frequently enter or emerge from organic apertures; if something looks phallic or sexual, you should probably take it that way. This could all be taking place in an inscrutable, ritualistic past lost to archaeology, or in an unimaginably distant future; he wants his art to bridge those possibilities. And despite how all of this sounds, much of it is weirdly comic.
Art critic Dawn-Michelle Baude, writing in the Las Vegas Weekly, once described Matheson’s work as “an encyclopedia of symbols.” It’s full of stylized cultural references — ancient, tribal, supernatural. But, he says, when he evokes, say, a Balinese mask, a Hindu god, or an indigenous petroglyph, what he’s really after is access to the universal unconscious whatchamacallit that informed their creation. The better, one presumes, to confront us with twisted visions of our deep selves.
Don’t ask KD! “A lot of times they just come out like that,” he allows wryly. “I’m pulling things from my imagination. I’m not overtly conscious of it when I do it.”
You can macro-dose on this stuff in Diversion Immersion, opening August 26 at Core Contemporary in New Orleans Square. Not exactly a retrospective, the show’s creative intent is cued by the title, devised by Good, in particular the word “immersion.” To overcome what she sees as a shortcoming of previous Matheson exhibits — hanging his pieces along white walls dilutes their cumulative payoff — she plans to group everything into “vignettes.”
“Visitors will be surrounded by walls created by his art,” she tells me in an email, “into which will also be placed his sculptures, as though they are springing out of the two-dimensional scenes.” It sounds as if every square inch of Core’s sizable space will be packed. In theory this unconventional staging will thicken the art’s idiosyncratic presence while highlighting its threaded mysteries, consistent world-building, subtle social relevance, and, especially, one wishes, those comic aspects.
“Hopefully,” Matheson says, “it will take you into the kind of mindset where you will experience different mental landscapes,” an outcome that seems all but assured.
“I don’t fit into any one slot,” he responds when asked about his relationship to art history. While Baude found elements of his work reminiscent of classic surrealist Hans Bellmer or macabre British master Francis Bacon, Matheson’s pieces are rarely watermarked by the same academic concerns as most high-end art these days. He notes that he’s usually categorized with visionary/outsider or street art, the sort of lowbrow precincts where you’ll also find the artist he’s probably most often compared to, the late H.R. Giger, of Alien fame.
Given the hermetic twilight ambiance of Matheson’s work, you might assume he’s leaning in to quarantine time. Not really. “Up and down,” he responds when I ask how he’s dealing with The Moment. After the big shutdown, it took him a while to regain his creative equilibrium, and he does what he can to maintain it. “It’s best if I stay away from too much media stuff,” he says. “My brain just goes bonkers.”
Which isn’t to say that his work, for all of its (argh, I’m gonna say it again) otherworldly aspects, ignores the belligerent realities of this planet.
That’s profoundly apparent in a painting such as “Liberation,” from 2003. Matheson’s reaction to the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq — propagandized at the time as “liberating” the country — it depicts a sky packed edge-to-edge with falling bombs; inches below crowds the doomed populace, seeming one missile for every victim. Their faces don’t register fear but rather incomprehension or, more heartbreakingly, resignation.
He responds this way, he says, to “psychically charged periods.”
On a less blatant wavelength, you can find a “sly” but confrontational social awareness in a lot of his work, Good says. “I believe KD invites us to look at what scares us (whether it be gender issues, sexual orientation, racism, oppression, civil breakdown and unrest, etc.), break down those fears into bits and pieces, and then he guides us into reassembling them into something almost comical (that's the sly part) and most definitely more approachable.” Maybe that’s why figure after figure stares coolly out of his canvases, fixing us with their opaque, challenging gaze.
It’s hard to imagine a more psychically charged period than the present. “My antennae have picked up” on COVID-19’s terrifying, terraforming energies, he says. Hints of 2020’s grim reality have crept in his sketchbooks, where he’ll leave them for now. “I’ll work them out later,” he says. They’ll soak in the Jungian brine, mutate, accrue meanings, and maybe find their way onto a suitably strange and beautiful canvas.
DIVERSION IMMERSION, paintings and sculpture by KD Matheson
August 26-November 7
Core Contemporary, 900 Karen Ave. #D222
Despite the ongoing clamor of immigration as a political, social, and judicial issue, immigrants themselves are often invisible to us, says Michael Kagan, a UNLV Boyd School law professor and director the of the school’s Immigration Clinic. His book The Battle to Stay in America, newly out from the University of Nevada Press (and reviewed by Chuck Twardy in the August issue of Desert Companion), is his attempt to change that. He recently fielded a few questions from Fifth Street.
Was there a specific incident, experience, or case that prompted you to write this book?
Back in 2018, I sat down to write some legal scholarship about the state of immigration law. That's usually my job as a law professor. But I just couldn't do it. Something much more personal came out instead. We'd been through a year and a half of Trump at that stage. The family separation crisis was in the news. I realized that many people were just waking up to the cruelties of our immigration laws. But I thought that a lot of the struggles I was seeing around me were still hidden. I ended up writing something that tries to tell a story, but also explain in blunt terms how our immigration system malfunctions. And I wanted it to be both local and national. It's about Las Vegas specifically, but really it's about the whole country.
What is most urgent or important for Las Vegans to understand about the reality of immigration as it plays out here?
I really thought about Las Vegas as a character in the book. But I also wanted to capture that a lot of us don't really see the immigrants in the community that we are a part of. That was true for me for many years, even though I was teaching immigration law here. A point I wanted to get across is that the attack on immigrants has often been invisible, but immigrants are also invisible for many of us, even in a city where one in five people was born in another country. Even people who are not xenophobic can sometimes think of immigration as a peripheral issue, as a distraction. And that's part of why immigrants are so vulnerable. When immigrants are under attack, it's really an attack on the heart of our community, and we need to respond accordingly. In a way, this book is only narrowly about immigration. It's really about what it means to be a neighbor, to be part of a larger community.
The book tells the story of one man from Las Vegas who was put into the deportation process after being late to pay a ticket for a broken brake light. That was his worst criminal offense, ever. A lot of people have had trouble believing that our police would tear a man's life a part over something so small, but I think more people — more white people — are becoming able to see it. I hope that's a positive development. On the other hand, I wanted to tell a story about the fight over immigration on the frontlines, but as I was writing it I didn't know how the story would end. And I still don't. The book ends in late 2019. In 2020, the Trump Administration has piled on more and more rules to make sure no one can immigrate legally. The system is now engineered to only exclude, detain, and deport. The battle is still continuing, you could say.
Do you have any hope that the situation will improve in the foreseeable future?
Well, I'm an immigration lawyer, and our job is to worry about what's around the next corner. In some ways, our role the last three and a half years has been to hold the line for as long as we can and to defend as many people as we can until help arrives. Hope doesn't come naturally when you're doing that. But here's what I can say: First, people are a lot more able to see the cruelty of our immigration system now. That's a first step toward change. Second, right now the polls look encouraging that we'll have a new president in January. If Biden does win, though, it won't be a victory. It will be a relief. It will mean that the worst is over. But a whole lot of work would have to be done afterward before we could say our immigrant neighbors are really safer. We know now that our country is vulnerable to electing a racist demagogue. We can't ever forget that vulnerability. In the last chapter of my book I offer some ideas about how to reshape immigration policy and politics. But I also say that engaging in that line of thinking feels like an indulgence. The immediate, urgent thing is that we have to change the president. For the sake of my own kids. For the sake of our neighbors. And then we will have a whole lot of work to do.
Podcast lovers like me are feeling vindicated, our maligned media of choice having turned out to be the perfect pandemic pastime. Listening to a show while baking bread, scrubbing baseboards, or walking your dog for the zillionth time is the best multitasking escape, admit it.
Over the past five months I’ve enjoyed The Dream Season 2, Rabbit Hole, What You Don’t Know About … and others, but my favorite by far has been the Reveal special series American Rehab, produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Those two credits tell a lot about this program’s appeal; it’s an investigative-journalism work of art. American Rehab producer Shoshana Walter started digging into work-based drug treatment facilities with fellow Reveal reporter Amy Julia Harris in 2017, and the resulting story was a Pulitzer finalist. She and the rest of the team are knee-deep in Emmies, Peabodys, and Edward R. Murrow awards, and it’s easy to see why. I especially enjoyed when they drew back the curtain to show how the sausage is made. We hear producers driving around in the pre-dawn cold looking for businesses that employ workers from the rehab. We drop in on the hundreds of calls they made tracking down program veterans who would go on record. Without descending into navel-gazing, they illustrate the difficulty of their craft.
But the best part is what they uncover — not just jaw-dropping exploitation, but also cults, graft, kidnapping, and attempted murder (by snake!). For locals, Episode 4 includes a Nevada connection. There’s even a COVID-19 tie-in before all’s said and done. But the big question looming at the end of American Rehab is, how could this have happened? And what’s to prevent it from happening again?
1. You probably do this too: When a story clearly optimized for spectacle absurdity hits the national news cycle, I wonder: What’s the Nevada angle? Was a car or weapon or ridiculous crime prop purchased here? Is a local strip club name-checked? Do the charismatic crackpot’s breadcrumbs lead back this way? Such is the crossroads mojo and weird gravity of this state that so often the answer is yes. As it is in Review-Journal reporter Max Michor’s story about discredited COVID-19 conspiracist Judy Mikovitz. (She's the one famously accusing The Fauch of crafting the bug in a lab; her video has a distressing number of views.) Turns out she had a think-tank gig in Reno for a spell.
2. Novelist Tod Goldberg, whose Gangsterland novels feature a hitman turned Summerlin rabbi (see this excerpt from Desert Companion) sits down with Alta Journal for a rollicking video conversation about crime writing, the desert, and much more.
3. Sense the future squirming into view from the vantage point of 1970 with this zippy take on the seismic early years of George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic, in particular the visionary album Free Your Mind ... And Your Ass Will Follow, which just turned 50. “Is it possible that this album sounds heavier and crazier today than it did upon its release in July 1970? I think it’s very possible,” critic James Parker writes on The Atlantic Monthly’s website. “Seen from here, from this summer, Funkadelic looks like a pure phenomenon: a superb and lonely plume of emancipatory energy.” He sticks the landing by comparing the cultural tumult of 1970 to our own social and political convulsions. And if you can finesse your way around The New York Review of Books’ paywall, pair Parker’s brainy effusions with Namwali Serpell’s sharp piece on that cosmonaut of the Afrospace, jazz great Sun Ra.
4. Also from The New York Review of Books, this time in front of the paywall, here’s a fun piece I wish had a Nevada connection, just so I could bask in proximity to its rococo farce: Molly Jong-Fast wonders if her mother really broke up Martha Stewart’s marriage. (Her mother is Erica Jong, author of the famous-long-ago erotic novel Fear of Flying.) Turns out, not only is the past never really past, often it’s not even the past you thought it was.
5. For some comic, strange, wonderfully messy eye candy, check out artist David Fullarton, either at his Instagram handle @hughjanus (<— that should give you a sense of his aesthetic) or by plunging into his website like it's a dunk tank. Scott Dickensheets
Scene: August 3, 2020. A moonlit evening on the balcony of the Governor’s Mansion. Steve Sisolak stands alone, contemplating the night sky. He looks exhausted. Hours earlier, he gave televised remarks announcing the state’s new targeted phase of pandemic response, and — once again — urged Nevadans to wear masks, socially distance, and limit high-risk activities as increasing cases threatened a second viral wave. As the bright August moon rises, Sisolak is moved to spontaneous soliloquy …
Perchance we need a new slogan? Perchance that’s it?
Some clever, inspirant phrase to unite us twofold?
Lo, those many moons past when “Stay Home for Nevada”
Carried citizens young and old through Netflix’d, Nintendo’d nights.
In our hunkered homes, we found safety, succor, meaning,
Even the desp’rate dissolute deigned to sip quarantinis--
(Offstage, an EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT: Governor, your Raising Cane’s is here.)
Thanks, Jaqueline. Just checking email — more mean memes with jeers.
(to the sky) O! Would that I consumed nourishment
From the goodwill of mine own fellow Nevadans!
But no, that sour victual is a troubl’d Caniac Combo of chicken fingers
Far too spiced by fiery dissension and conspiracy videos
From YouTube channels with names like
“The Sovereign Citizens Liberty Network--
EXPOSING THE ILLUMINATI SINCE 2008!”
Whatever. O, paradox of truthers bleating their doom:
The least informed think they’re the smartest in the room.
Wrack! Bars roar to reopen; anti-mask Karens brigade Costco
Pleading oppression by inconvenience and something about 5G.
’Tis enough to drive one to fancies of furtive escape.
Moon! Sole companion, so mottled, motley and remote,
Would that I couldst alight on your milky sere expanses,
Far, if for a moment only, from the fractious rabble
Who tug and tear from ev’ry compass point like mistral gales.
Too foolish a fancy? Brief respite amid cool lunar dales?
Jaqueline, Jaqueline! Speed! Reserve the conference room!
Raise the rocket-man, Elon Musk. Perchance set up something on Zoom?
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.