For the ages
Eight influential older local artists exhibit their work at Reno’s youth-oriented arts center
Holland Project’s back-room stage, where tickets tend to be in the $5 range, has recently hosted the likes of “punk/psych rock ’n’ rollers,” L.A. Witch and Spoken Views: Youth Open Mic. Upcoming exhibits in its storefront art gallery include Young Blood, showcasing artists under 21, and the 2016 Scholastic Art Awards. And of the 180 entries listed on the musical Top 10 lists of staff, board and volunteers, this Gen X reporter can identify six. Since its inception in 2006, Holland Project has fully lived up to its mission statement, “Art, music, culture. By young people, for young people.”
So it might not come as a surprise that the artwork in the current group show, Resound, includes imagery with serious millennial appeal: fictional constellations made of pearls and tiny bird bones pressed into tar-covered canvasses, delicate watercolor paintings of a Twinkie and a Hostess Cupcake so reverently crafted they look like portraits.
What may come as a surprise is that the constellations are by Elaine Parks, a sculptor in her 50s, and the snack cakes were rendered by Nancy Peppin, a long-revered teacher and painter who passed away this year at age 70.
The exhibit, a tribute to the region’s veteran artists, also includes work by art professor Michael Sarich, retired professors Jim McCormick, Edw Martinez and Bob Morrison, and art-world vanguards Joan Arrizabalaga and Fred Reid.
Co-curator Michelle Lassaline said that even though Holland Project is decidedly youth-oriented, the term “all-ages” doesn’t just mean 18-21. Organizers have always looked for ways to welcome other age demographics. In March, for example, the group implemented an Art Patrons Program, asking collectors to commit to purchasing $200 worth of local artwork annually. Lassaline said, “We thought [patrons] might feel more comfortable coming to the all-ages space, knowing that maybe they’ll see some friends there. It was always trying to make it more comfortable for people to come in here.”
She and fellow curator Alana Berglund have both worked as art installers for the Nevada Arts Council’s Traveling Exhibition Program, which hangs exhibits throughout the state. Megan Kay, also a Resound co-curator, holds that position now.
“That’s how we met and recognized the importance of these artists,” Lassaline said.Mentors at work
Last week, Lassaline and Holland Project Art Director Alisha Funkhouser settled into a small, window-lit room with a couch that serves as a library to talk about the artists who’ve been their mentors and influences.
Artists are often asked, “Who are your influences?” The expected answer might be “Picasso” or “Dali” or some other universally recognized giant from art history, but often the real answer is: the people you share a studio with or sit in a seminar with day after day. As sculptor Edw Martinez put it, “It’s the person drinking a beer next to you.”
Lassaline, 25, who graduated with an art degree from University of Nevada, Reno, two years ago and has already established her career with local exhibits, an Artown commission and a fast-approaching residency in Switzerland, said the older artists haven’t necessarily passed down their styles and subject matters, but, more importantly, their work habits and processes.
At UNR, she studied under Sarich. Looking back at that experience, she said, “I see a kind of symbolism and iconography in his work that carries through in younger local artists’ work. It’s building your own iconography and these symbols or words that you carry out throughout your lifetime. Edw does that. Joan does that. Actually, a lot of these artists do that.”
Seeing Arrizabalaga’s animal head sculptures a few years ago was revolutionary for her, for a very simple reason. The heads are made from materials such as repurposed poker-table felt from a casino where Arrizabalaga worked for decades as a wardrobe director. The mere idea that professional quality artwork could be made from old fabric struck Lassaline as a revelation. Now she makes costumes out of fabric as part of her hybrid performance-sculpture-drawing projects.
Martinez, who was in the front gallery putting the finishing touches on his sculpture—a slatted, upright wooden crate filled with his trademark ceramic baby-doll heads—agreed, “I think our influence wasn’t on the work, it was as an artist, to do their art, not specific ways of thinking. Do I have devotees and protégés? I don’t.” But Martinez, who has visited the same town in Mexico to soak up its visual influence at least 17 times and has repeated that same baby-doll-head shape thousands of times over during his career, did inspire a lineage of younger artists, at least in their use of repeated motifs.
Funkhouser, 29, who also studied art at UNR and now teaches photography there, gave an example: “Nick Larsen’s work, he has these repeated visual tools that he uses over and over again.”
Lassaline and Funkhouser said that the most influential things their mentors passed down to them were a quality ethic and a work ethic.
“There’s this legendariness about them, but they’ve also sat in critiques with us and helped us develop our work, and so they just set this standard,” Lassaline said. “When I am going to show some work, I think, would I be willing to show this in Bob and Mike’s class? And what did they say to me while I was in class and I did show them work?”
Both curators said they appreciate their mentors’ expectations that young artists must figure out their own vocabularies, techniques and approaches. “The times when they reaffirmed what I was doing was when I was doing work I was really meant to do, and not trying to do something influenced by contemporary theory,” Lassaline said. “They really make us make the work we were meant to make.”
“Their teaching method, from my experience, was just to have a work ethic,” she said. “Put in the work, and then we’ll talk. If you don’t put in the work, then there’s nothing to talk about.”
In a 12-page ’zine that the curators published, comprised of each artist’s written answers to questions about their creative processes, work is an often repeated theme. The curators asked each artist, “How does your creative process begin?”
Ceramic sculptor Fred Reid wrote, “I go to the studio and go to work.”
Sarich quoted a popular imperative often attributed to John Cage: “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all the time who eventually catch onto things.”
“Mike [Sarich] always says it takes five years to flesh out one idea,” Lassaline said. “That’s really daunting.”
Despite the generation gap, the quality of the “Resound” artists’ work that the curators find most notable is how contemporary it looks, how the work of artists whose careers started in the ’60s or ’70s, whether it’s Twinkies, doll heads or architectural sculptures, still looks cool, even to the younger set sipping youth-friendly cider and hot chocolate at last week’s reception.
“Conceptually, we based our selections on artists who are still making work.” Lassaline said. “Mike’s pieces just came out of the kiln a couple weeks ago.”