REPORT: Reno/Las Vegas

A new survey shows the range of contemporary art in the Silver State.

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“untitled (Glitter Bud Light Cans, 6 pack),” 2016, Justin Favela
Found objects, glitter, and glue, 5″ x 9″ x 12″
Photo: Mikala Whitmore, Courtesy: Nevada Museum of Art

This summer, the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno is presenting (through October 23) what should prove to be a nationally recognized and eye-opening exhibition, as it is the first survey of contemporary art created throughout Nevada (the show will travel to a yet-to-be-named location in Las Vegas next year). The only previous exhibition to exclusively feature current art made by artists in the state was the very specific “Las Vegas Diaspora: The Emergence of Contemporary Art from the Neon Homeland,” curated by the renowned art writer and then UNLV professor Dave Hickey. That exhibition, which took place at the Las Vegas Art Museum (now closed) focused on Las Vegas, and featured only Hickey’s students. Oh, how things have changed.

When asked how this exhibition differs from Hickey’s, as well as how the area’s art scene has changed over the past decade, Michelle Quinn, the show’s co-curator and a Las Vegas-based art consultant, points out that not only does “Tilting the Basin” feature work made across the state, but also that the artists are committed to living and working in Nevada (as opposed to just having gotten their degree there). As such, it aims to “bridge the divide” between the state’s two major cities-Las Vegas and Reno-and represent the wide range of work being made from north to south. “It’s hard to compare [the two exhibitions], because that was a one-scene show; it didn’t have the diversity. It featured one aesthetic.” She adds, “We don’t just have one conversation happening now. There are lots of artists doing lots of different things. When Hickey left, it created a vacuum in the art world here, creating room for so many more different ways to work.”

Additionally, more artists are starting to discover that, while admittedly opportunities to show work are limited, one can be a working artist in the state. As Quinn’s co-curator, NMA art curatorial director and curator of contemporary art JoAnne Northrup notes, “Artists who are relocating from elsewhere recognize that they have more freedom being away from major art hubs like New York or LA.” As a result, she says, “There is some important work being done here.” Additionally, both curators point out that there are artists in the exhibition who hail from outside the United States, including from South Korea, Japan, and New Zealand, who chose Nevada as their home base. This is, much to many (most?) people’s surprise, an increasingly thriving and growing art scene, very much in communication with the contemporary national and international art dialogues.

Thus, a primary aim of the exhibition is to highlight for the local community the strength and diversity of the area art scene. Too, looking further afield, there is the intention to wake up the larger art world, which Quinn and Northrup are very much a part of, to what Nevada has to offer. Aside from calling Nevada home, the curators state that a key consideration when choosing artists was that they had to show that they are changing and growing their art practice. “They had to demonstrate that they are dedicated artists,” said Quinn, “who are pushing their abilities and not just sticking to a tried-and-true style.”

On show for “Tilting the Basin” will be over 90 works by over 30 artists, six of whom were chosen as feature artists: two from Northern Nevada-Galen Brown and Katie Lewis-and four from Southern Nevada-Justin Favela, David Ryan, Brent Sommerhauser, and Rachel Stiff. Absolutely, the work throughout is highly varied. Nor are there distinct lines that separate work made in the north from that made in the south. When asked how they differ, Northrup points to perhaps the northern artists leaning more toward nature, with the southern artists looking more at culture. But, she notes, such generalities are loose. For Quinn, there really were no common threads, which, she observes, “I think is a good thing. I’m happy that we don’t have ‘pebbly’ Reno work and a ‘flashy’ Vegas look.” That is, tired old stereotypes will be proven wrong here.

What is found in this show are textiles, sculpture, photography, painting, ceramics, installation, and more, in an enormous variety of mediums: rocks to aluminum, electronics to found objects, as well as more traditional mediums such as oil on canvas. In addition to the works on view at the museum, there will also be work online (by artist Megan Berner, who is posting a photo a day of the sunrise on her Instagram feed @megantron using #GoodMorningNV #TiltingTheBasin).

“Behind Lone Mountain,” 2015, Rachel Stiff, mixed media, 36″ x 30″
Photo: courtesy Nevada Museum of Art

Pointing to particular artists and works they are excited about, the curators mention the pieces of Justin Favela, who, a Mexican American, is known for the ways he creatively infuses his work with his Mexican heritage. Northrup notes his ability to create serious work but with a populist bent, adding that “he has a great sense of humor.” Northrup also cites the over 80-foot long (and 24-inch wide) textile work of Jen Graham, whose work quietly documents an ugly facet of life in the United States: specifically all the mass shootings to date this year, 2016. For each one, she embroidered details of where the shooting took place; she will continue to add panels as needed while the show is up. Also highlighted by the curators are works by Jeffrey Erikson, whose photography documents Northern Nevada’s changing landscape, including images of ant hills in the desert that are so large they are visible from space, as well as a “playful” installation by David Ryan, which will incorporate both ceiling and wall space.

This said, the overarching aim of this show appears to be celebrating a whole lot of good work being done in an unexpected place. Certainly the curators did their due diligence in picking artists whom they felt best met the criteria of expressing the quality and variety that the Nevada art scene has to offer. Going further, Northrup notes that for this show in particular, artists really pushed their boundaries. As one who has written about art in Northern Nevada for many years, I can attest that there is far more going on here than most people outside these areas (and because of the paucity of art venues, many people who live there) realize. There’s a wealth of good art, but it can be hard to find. Here’s a great opportunity to not have to work so hard to see it.

VIAchérie louise turner
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Chérie Louise Turner is a Berkeley-based freelance writer and also editor-in-chief for the San Francisco-based magazine, the Nob Hill Gazette. Her freelance writing has appeared in Tahoe Quarterly, Artweek, and ArtNews, among other publications. Cherie’s publishing experience includes serving as managing editor of Tahoe Quarterly, the editor-in-chief for Nevada Home, and the publishing coordinator for Hackett-Freedman Gallery. A former nationally competitive bicycle racer, Chérie is now also a competitive runner.