Dada Local: The Legacy of Dada Culture in Reno
As historical art movements go, Dada is one of the more commonly misunderstood. It’s much more difficult to describe the values, aesthetics and goals of Dada than, say, cubism or even surrealism. Dada is often ambiguous and subject to debate—arguments about what it means is half the fun. Part of the point of Dada is to disrupt traditional, accepted modes of thought.
A text panel in one of the University of Nevada, Reno’s Student Galleries South takes as close a stab at an accurate definition of Dada as possible: “From its founding in 1916 in Zurich, Switzerland, the art movement Dada was elusive, playful, experimental, simultaneously inclusive and exclusive, and overall committed to a sense of counterculture, attacking bourgeois values and institutionalized notions of art.”
UNR’s Student Galleries South—a somewhat hidden set of galleries tucked away in the Jot Travis building currently features three interrelated exhibitions all connected to Dada. The first is Not Everything Means Something, a solo exhibition by a Minnesota artist, Justin Quinn, who creates large works that seem to deconstruct audience expectations of language by presenting what seem to be large graphic signs or even full-length novels—but only featuring, for example, the letter E. It seems like text should be present, but with the single letter repeated disrupts any attempt to create literal meaning.
The second exhibition is called Dada Local: The Legacy of Dada Culture in Reno. It’s a group exhibition featuring work from a few different generations of Reno artists—including Edw Martinez, Mike Sarich, Erik Burke, Nick Larsen and Omar Pierce, Michelle Lassaline and Nancy Peppin. The work includes many different media—from paintings on canvas to found object sculptures, from videos to tapestries.
Tying those two exhibitions together and creating a sense of context, is a gallery with historical information about Dada, including periodicals, photographs, books and films.
The exhibitions were curated as a group project for a university class taught by UNR art history professor Brett Van Hoesen. Students in the class studied the history of Dada and original Dada artists, like George Grosz, Tristan Tzara and Hugo Ball, many of whom were very interdisciplinary and multimedia in their approaches to making art, and then found local examples of contemporary art descended from Dada.
“People really misunderstand Dada and use the term very liberally as [meaning] anything goes, like, ’That’s weird—Dada,’” said Forrest Pelsue, a student-curator, during a recent group interview. “’This work doesn’t make sense? Well, that’s Dada, so it’s OK. But there’s this whole history that does have a meaning.”
Some of the contemporary local artists represented in the show say that Dada is an indirect influence on their work.
“It might be several layers of removal,” said Larsen. “We might be looking at Edw Martinez, and he might be looking at the original Dada artists. Or punk is a good example.”
The visual aesthetic of punk—satirical, politically charged collages and cut-ups can be seen as a descendent of Dada.
One student in the class, Zara Wetterling, focused on the work of the Nada Dada artists, a loosely affiliated group of Northern Nevada artists who invoke the name of the 100-year-old art movement. Artist Carole Ann Rickets represents that group in the exhibition.
Van Hoesen said she sees the legacy of Dada in Reno, a city she describes as “a place where competing concepts of culture co-exist, where what might be considered subcultures elsewhere contribute to a dynamic popular culture.”
“Reno, or at least the students I work with, and their larger community, seem to be part of a world that in some ways is having an authentic engagement with what Dada as a historical movement was all about,” she said.