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The art of the state

Rachel Stiff, "What's Up with the Sky?"
Photo Courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art

Rachel Stiff, "What's Up with the Sky?"

A sweeping new exhibit showcases the diversity, surprising similarities and sheer abundance of art being made across Nevada 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity …”

— Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Las Vegas/Reno, Reno/Las Vegas. The disparity between Northern and Southern Nevada is crystallized in the state’s two biggest cities, separated geographically by the massive Great Basin. A quick association with Dickens’ masterwork is mighty dramatic, but the attendant plot structure is no less complex. Every issue, from education and economics to transportation and culture, crisscrosses nuanced fissures traveling from Northern Nevada down to its southernmost tip. The divide can seem insurmountable, particularly from the outermost edges of its identifying topographical feature: the Basin.

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Reno is Art Town, and it is not messing around. It is beautiful, slow (by comparison to Vegas) and abundant.

A random summer evening in Reno can start with a leisurely stroll downtown past a buoyant metal butterfly, a brief respite to enjoy live flamenco guitar alongside hundreds of swaying bodies nestled on the banks of the Truckee River Walk, and end with a massive block party of performances, food trucks and art for the annual Mid-Town Art Walk. Reno celebrates the Art Town theme annually throughout the month of July, with music, theater and art events, but it is unquestionably a year-long mission.

Las Vegas is Aesthetic Town, and it is not messing around. It is “beautiful,” fast (by comparison with Reno) and abundant.

A random summer evening in Las Vegas can start with a high-voltage, one-night-only series of performances and art installations crammed inside Emergency Arts in Downtown, take a brief respite to enjoy the best frozen custard west of the Mississippi under the neon glow of the Stratosphere, and end with serious booty shaking alongside international revelers hosted by the best DJs in the world. Did I mention the neon glow? Yeah, more of that. Much, much more. And now, thanks to the Nevada Museum of Art, this evening adventure can also include a vivid sunset visit to “Seven Magic Mountains,” Ugo Rondinone’s temporary homage to Vegas’ bright, populist chimera.

Both towns are pretty fantastic. On paper it may not sound like much of a gulf, but in reality, connecting the dots can feel tremendous. Leave it to art to bring the people together.

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Tilting the Basin, the Reno-based Nevada Museum of Art’s exhibition featuring more than 30 of Nevada’s best and brightest artists, dislodges these fixed perceptions. Metaphorically, the title suggests grabbing that big beautiful bowl of a Basin, swirling it around and tilting it ever so. The Silver State’s art becomes a refreshing concoction disconnected from the qualification of place and reevaluated by the quantification of sheer volume. What does it all mean? Difference and distance don’t mean a thing. Nevada has a great bowl-full of awesome art.

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In 2014, Reno-based museum curator JoAnne Northrup and Las Vegas-based consultant Michele Quinn came together as part of the Las Vegas committee to bring “Seven Magic Mountains” to fruition. An interest in exhibiting work by Las Vegas artists at the museum also blossomed, through the support of Director David Walker, into the more ambitious plan of creating a snapshot of contemporary art-making in Nevada. After visiting more than 50 artists in their studios (what is surely a mere drop in the proverbial bucket of artists working throughout the state), Northrup and Quinn whittled the group down to Tilting the Basin, an exhibition that hopes to shine a light on Nevada art and artists while fostering stronger connectivity between the two regions.

So what does contemporary art look like in Nevada — at least according to Tilting?

With more than 90 pieces representing 34 artists, Nevada might be the only thing that ties the work together. It is tough to experience the exhibition without seeking out differences and similarities between the two depicted halves of the state, especially given the context of the show as “bridging” the two. It was the hot topic of conversation in and around the August 5 opening. How do the artists’ environments impact their art? How is place related to aesthetic? Who are the artists making work for? Are they part of a larger dialogue? 

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The work itself is as diverse as the people making it. And if the state boundary is the main connective tissue, then the landscape by extension sets a stage; the vast and desolate landscape of Nevada — or the sheer concept of space itself — is inescapable throughout the exhibition. But each region expresses this relationship a little differently — that’s where things get kind of fascinating. Recurrent in Tilting the Basin is a consideration of the marginal spaces where man and man-made environments intersect with the natural environment, as well as the fallout of that intersection. Northern Nevada artists in particular convey an acute sensitivity to the environment as subject, material, cohort, metaphor, victim or instigator.

There is a watchfulness, for example, to Northern Nevadan Russell Dudley’s two untitled nature photographs, a thoughtful and silent intimacy that slows the breath in its quietude. No sudden movements suggested. Each possesses a closeness to the subject that is very considered, a vision that presupposes familiarity such that the moments caught in the photographs would go unnoticed by less familiar eyes. An untitled portrait-like image of a tree trunk is particularly salient, a scrape or gash across the trunk documenting the residue of some unnamed violence. Dudley’s sense of isolation breeds a heightened awareness of his surroundings.

No less connected to the natural environment, featured Reno artist Katie Lewis takes a different approach. Lewis traces and retraces place through repeated actions. This can manifest in works like “2067 II SE-2167 II NE,” a massive, pinpricked compilation of simple white paper on the brink of disintegration, whose layers of tiny punctured holes mimic actual topographical features of her grandfather’s maps of Northern Nevada. Or the more conceptual documentation of “6359,8718,11284,4531,9143,” a delicately hung collection of string, each of which represents a single step taken on a given day.

Slow, methodical acts of possession and obsession weft and weave throughout the exhibition, perhaps most unforgettably in the work of featured Northern Nevada artist Galen Brown. Brown, a standout in Tilting, is an artist whose work spans the divide between the two regions, combining threads from both in subtle ways. In Brown’s studio in a storage unit — he lives in relative obscurity — the curators discovered a treasure trove. “No” is a six-year accumulation in response to his family’s house fire, a substantial montage of paper scraps and notes that repeat the word (or concept of) “no” over and over again. Similar in its material archive of time and process, “Sine Cere” is a mandala-shaped visual record of the artist’s commitment to a daily art practice, spanning eight years of drawings with simple no. 2 pencils. Overall, the fanatical veracity of Brown’s work is magnetic.

Brown’s lovely and refined “Trees” captures the environmentally conscious spirit of so many Northern Nevada works, but with a hypersensitivity to surface or aesthetic typical of many of the Southern Nevada artists. Brown often works with recycled materials, and in this instance cuts discarded Christmas trees down to the trunk. The remaining pole-like or whip-like form is transformed with relative simplicity — usually just paint — into whimsical, Seussian sculptures dangling from the ceiling. Abstract, organic, confident, refined: They possess an approachable, sophisticated abstraction that speaks to the larger art market. They could be found in any gallery in a coastal art center or featured booth in an international art fair, for good or for ill.

Southern Nevada’s Rachel Stiff is equally ambitious, and her landscape paintings are also a subtle admixture of northern and southern sensibilities. Stiff conveys an almost religious deference for the natural environment, while her work plugs into a consideration of provisional spaces in and around Las Vegas, where man-made environments disassemble, often suddenly, into the landscape. Mixed-media paintings like “Behind Lone Mountain,” “No Bluff” and the striking “Whats Up With The Sky?” incorporate translucent areas of line and color with flat, slick shapes merging and converging in an elaborate process of adding and removing pigment. In attractive, cool, pastel tones, the paintings are a meditation on place that reframe Las Vegas’ often jarring transitions from buildings to desert scrub into subtle mutations of surprising grace.

Brown and Stiff are unique in their unintended ability to merge characteristics or concerns of each region, but if Tilting is to be believed, Northern and Southern Nevada couldn’t be more different stylistically.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there appears to be a natural alignment of each urban area to its closest art metropolises (something many artists in the exhibition
pointed out, as well): Reno to San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest, and Las Vegas with Southern California. The Northern Nevada artwork is generally more ambitious conceptually, and raw in a good way — the relationship between subject, process and material is very direct. The Southern Nevada contingent has a technical refinement and a heightened conscientiousness for presentation and intention, as well as a generally more mediated aesthetic. A simplification of these ideas plays into preconceived notions about Reno and Las Vegas, but there you have it: authentic versus simulated. One could go on, but one could also make lots of artists very angry.


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So, what is so contemporary about all of this contemporary art?

While Stiff’s abstract and expressive if somewhat uniform style, for example, is in dialogue with larger trends in contemporary abstraction, the entire exhibition perhaps most succinctly reflects contemporary art-making through the sheer impossibility of pinning it down. Landscape and space are not the only themes of Tilting; there is identity, technology, craft, the body, a smattering of politics and even a dash of food porn. The art world is an amorphous moving target, now more so than ever, with shifting financial and creative centers, a critical spectrum of post-this and that-ism. Ultimately, Tilting the Basin is a grab bag of styles, mediums, content and motivation.

However, if visitors to the exhibition are curious for a taste of the most contemporary of contemporary American art, they need look no further than featured Las Vegas artist Justin Favela. Working in everything from performance and glitter to fibers and found objects (“Floor Sombrero”), Favela’s own life is his primary source of content. The Mexican-American artist mines his cultural experience in a way that makes piñatas and fiestas accessible for the white cube, exploring identity and identity politics with reverence and humor. Yet Favela’s work appears deeply informed by both contemporary practices and art history; his work may be the most art-historically savvy of any in the exhibition (with the exception of Las Vegas’ expert illustrative quasi-history painter, Matthew Couper). Overt references to canonical or significant works by Judd, Heizer, Suh and Rauschenberg are all present in Favela’s work. While the work would benefit from a pronounced stand on depicted stereotypes, the autobiographical element keeps it keenly current.

But this exhibit is about more than contemporary art. Ultimately, if the story of Tilting the Basin is one of bridge-building, then it is perhaps most appropriate to close with Chris Bauder. Born in Las Vegas, Bauder was educated at both UNR and UNLV; this artist is a product of the north and the south, thoroughly Battle Born. He also has really great work in the exhibition. The alluring “Untitled (pink balloon box)” sits composed and contained, a sterile glass case filled with glowing pink orbs. Although the three rows of electric breasts play on expectations of eroticism, the surgical precision of their presentation and placement is unsexy and unavailable, compartmentalized and packaged for limited consumption. What is sexy, rather, is the rosy radiance illuminating the pristine white case and surrounding wall; the sheer power of the female body, even in deconstructed form; a thoughtful use of materials and subsequent fabrication; the tease of intimacy and untouchability. It’s a marriage of the best of Nevada. 

Tilting the Basin is part of a larger effort to forge a creative community between Northern and Southern Nevada. “Seven Magic Mountains” was the first step. Say what you will about “Mountains,” you don’t have to love the piece to love that it is there. What’s not to love about a gloriously self-conscious sculpture by a world-renowned artist smack-dab in a scrubby, forgotten no-man’s land within view of the Las Vegas Strip? It’s kind of fabulous.

The Nevada Museum of Art is serious about creating more opportunities to experience art, and more opportunities for supporting artists, north or the south. It can’t do so alone. Partnering with Southern Nevada is essential to the long-term cultural vitality of the Silver State. Our big, beautiful bowl of art needs a bridge. And if Tilting the Basin proves anything, it’s that Northern and Southern Nevada make each other better and pick up where the other leaves off. To borrow a phrase, they complete each other — literally, if the map is to be believed. 


Tilting the Basin

On view at the Nevada Museum of Art through October 23; the museum plans to bring the exhibit to Las Vegas in the spring. Info: