Art world wonder

We used to say the Nevada Museum of Art was pretty good for a small-town museum. Now we just say they’re knocking it out of the park, no qualification needed.

This and 11 other glided bronze animal heads make up Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold, an installation by China’s Ai Weiwei.

This and 11 other glided bronze animal heads make up Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold, an installation by China’s Ai Weiwei.


Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold and Tilting the Basin: Contemporary Art of Nevada are on view through Oct. 23. Anthony McCall’s Swell is on view through Jan. 17, 2017. Seven Magic Mountains is on Interstate 15, between Las Vegas and Jean, through May, 2018. For directions, visit For more information, visit

In May, the New York Times mentioned the Nevada Museum of Art as following in step with other small-city museums “trying to think outside the cookie-cutter approach to developing a program and a reputation at a time when art prices have made building a large, diverse collection almost a fool’s game.”

One of those non-cookie-cutter approaches has been to help shepherd new works of land art into existence, the most notable being “Seven Magic Mountains,” a $3 million piece consisting of seven stacks of Day-Glo boulders just outside of Las Vegas, by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone.

Another approach to raising the bar has been mounting ever more adventurous gallery exhibits while still maintaining an approachable, friendly attitude.

“Our curatorial approach is bifurcated,” said curator JoAnne Northrup. “On one hand, we aspire to present a variety of accessible exhibitions geared toward the general public—for example, our current American Impressionism exhibition—while also organizing exhibitions that appeal to a national and international audience.”

Light the way

One example of a piece with international appeal is an installation of projected light—a cone of light and a slowly rotating plane of light—made visible by fog in a dark room. The piece is titled “Swell,” and the NMA commissioned British-born New Yorker Anthony McCall to create it. McCall has been known since the 1970s for making “sculptures” out of projected light. They look like solid objects, and although viewers can tell immediately that they’re made of light, they have such a presence that it’s common to see people hesitate to “touch” them. Once they do, they’re often delighted by the improbability and the momentary disorientation of having passed through an “object.” McCall’s works are a magical mix of formal austerity and sci-fi fun that have been experienced at the likes of the Tate in London, the Whitney in New York—and now the NMA.

Bridging the divide

“Seven Magic Mountains” is not the only connection between the NMA and southern Nevada.

“We are embracing the South since we are the only AAM [American Alliance of Museums] accredited art museum in the state of Nevada,” Northrup said. “And we love our Las Vegas art-world peeps, whom we have gotten close to over the past couple years.” To that effect, she and Las Vegas curator Michele Quinn of MCQ Fine Art Advisory set out to forge a friendly north-south alliance. The original plan was to have Quinn arrange a small exhibition of work by Las Vegas painter/sculptor David Ryan for the NMA. But before that plan got off the ground, it grew more ambitious.

“David [Walker, NMA’s Executive Director] is always thinking big, so instead of a small solo show, he asked me if I could identify at least 10 contemporary Nevada artists creating accomplished work that was worthy of being included in a museum show,” said Northrup. “Michele and I partnered since she has a strong grasp on the Las Vegas art community.” The two proceeded to visit studios around the state.

“We were specifically looking for artists who aren’t the usual suspects, who were living and working in Nevada, and whose practice had shown a sense of evolution over time,” Northrup said. She and Quinn also put each artist’s work through their “Basel test”—Could they imagine it at Art Basel, one of the world’s most prominent art fairs? They had no trouble coming up with 34 artists, equally divided between north and south. Thus was born the exhibit Tilting the Basin: Contemporary Art of Nevada, which opened last week.

If it’s tempting to look for threads of regionalism or provincialism in this exhibit, good luck finding them. Rather than defining a “Nevada style,” what this exhibit does is place Nevada artists on a level field with national peers. The work in this show is so consistently engaging in so many different ways, it’s difficult to even pick out highlights.

What's it worth to you?

If you were simply to look at Ai Weiwei’s bronze zodiac sculptures, you’d likely have a satisfying visit to the NMA’s second-floor gallery. The work is a semicircle of 12 oversized, bronze animal heads, sculpted realistically but stylized just enough to be slightly startling and eerie, all glistening with gold sheen. Visually, it packs a punch. But the look of these sculptures is just the tip of a massive, political, historical iceberg.

They were made by Ai Weiwei, easily China’s most famous artist and probably the biggest deal in contemporary art ever to have shown in town. He has more Instagram followers than Reno has people. He’s had several shows around the globe just this summer. In one, he floated the life vests of refugees in a palace fountain in Austria, arranged into a lotus flower shape.

Ai is a vocal champion of human rights and free speech, and therefore not on super-friendly terms with the Chinese government, which detained him for 81 days in 2011 without ever charging him. (A 2012 film, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, tells that story. See “Keep you in check,” RN&R, Jan. 17, 2013.)

“This piece has so many levels of nuance and intrigue, that literally we could talk about it for days,” said Chip Tom, curator for Heather James Fine Art Gallery in Palm Desert, California, which owns this collection of zodiac heads, one of eight sets. He was calm but animated, strolling around the gallery in a suit. He only had an hour though, so here’s a short version.

In the mid-1600s, Chinese leadership changed hands. The peaceful Ming Dynasty—its art symbolized by tranquil minimalism, declined. The Qing Dynasty ascended—and switched up the look of things.

“They start adding elaborate doodads,” said Tom. “So you start seeing major carves of swirls and embellishments. So the whole thing starts getting overdone—and gilded. It’s a little like Louis XVI. More gold is better.”

The Qing Dynasty folks weren’t just fancy, they were foreigners, Manchus from Mongolia, not cool with the Chinese at the time, and pretty much still not cool with the Chinese.

Decades into the Qing era, the emperor, inspired by all the flair, decided to build a palatial, Western-style garden. He contracted two Europeans for the job. They built him a set of extravagant sculptures, all 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac atop concrete human bodies. The piece was a fountain and also a clock. The Europeans stayed at the palace for decades, running its complex mechanisms.

“The public never saw it,” said Tom. “It was just an emperor’s plaything.”

In 1860, the British looted and burned the gardens, destroyed the scupltures and stole their heads.

“Everyone forgot about them,” Tom said. Over a century later, in 1987, three of the heads appeared on the market. No one was sure what they were. Sotheby’s auctioned them for $180,000 each. Four more surfaced, and they quickly jumped in price to about $1 million each. Soon, their history came to light, but a disagreement arose.

“In the eyes of a Chinese scholar from 1980s, it was not a national treasure,” Tom said. For one thing, they’d been made by foreigners for foreigners. For another thing, they’d been basically a toy, not intended as a symbol for the people.

“A second century bronze is a national treasure,” he said. “This hybrid of a fountain and a clock, designed by Westerners, made by the Ching dynasty—it’s a lot harder to wrap your head around this truly being a national treasure.” At the moment, the Chinese population is divided over whether the heads are overblown kitsch or a national treasure. Tom, describing the argument, used the words “geopolitical battle.”

Ai Weiwei replicated the zodiac heads with all of this in mind, questioning the idea of what exactly is and isn’t a national treasure. So, behind the golden gleam and the gorgeously crafted heads in the second-floor gallery lie a lot of questions: What material things does a culture value? What values and ideas do those objects represent? And who gets to decide all of that anyway?

As usual, Ai has done one of the most relevant, urgent, practical things an artist could do. He’s articulated a specific idea from a specific point of view so precisely that it ends up raising universally relevant questions—making this exhibit apropos indeed for a museum that’s seriously upping its game.