Walt McNamara is shuffling around with a level and a focused expression in an upstairs hallway at Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center at the University of Nevada, Reno.
“As a sculptor, I always feel installing sculpture is similar to creating it,” he says.
He’s one of a handful of people fussing over canvas placement and glass exhibition cases and other final details of an art exhibit.
McNamara’s piece in the show is an abstract wooden sculpture, upright enough to hint at looking like a human figure. It has no face, but it does have a smooth, slightly curved, playfully exaggerated appendage that seems like a tongue hanging down to what would be knee level if the sculpture had legs. Anyone who knows Nevada art, even a little, could identify its blocky curves and rustic/urban sensibility as classically McNamara from 50 feet away. And it’s easy to see how this sculpture probably precedes by a few decades the sculptor’s sleeker, more assertively tooled works.
Same with McNamara himself—since the 1950s, when he was a student at UNR, (then just “UN”), his beard has gone from hipster length to shorter and whiter, and his gait, still spritely, reveals that he’s in his early 70s, but he’s still quick-witted and earnest and looks a lot like he did then.
Just like the exhibit he’s hanging suggests, some things change, and some things don’t.
McNamara is co-curator, along with fellow long-time artist Jim McCormack, of Far Out: The University Art Scene 1960-1975. It’s a collection of works by 28 artists from the ’60s and ’70s, including a few pieces all the way into the ’80s. It was conceived as a follow-up to last year’s Post-War Bohemians exhibit, which featured artwork from the university from 1945-65.
Co-curator Jim McCormick has long been known as a collage artist and retired professor. Back in the ’60s, he too was a student at UNR, where he made, large, pastel-leaning abstract expressionist paintings. Recently, he reminisced about the changes the art department underwent in the early 1960s.
Reporting from his couch, where he was taking a mid-day rest, McCormick remembered, “The day we walked into the Church Fine Arts Building, it was already crowded.” That’s the building facing Virginia Street that still houses the art department.
“Prior to 1960, the entire art department had been housed in four dilapidated Quonset huts tucked away in a corner of the University of Nevada campus called Skunk Hollow,” wrote McCormick in a detailed exhibit catalog he penned, which is available at the exhibit.
He said later by phone, “Reno in 1960 was 15 years past World War II, and the population started to explode at that point. People were moving in. A lot of kids came in from ranches, and there was a rapid increase in faculty size. It had been more rural before then.”
The university commissioned Vienna-born, Los Angeles-based Frank Lloyd Wright protégé Richard Neutra to design the Church Fine Art Building, which opened in 1960. When McCormack says the building was crowded, he’s not exaggerating.
As Edw Martinez, then a student, now a revered ceramic artist and retired professor, put it, “I used both the men’s and women’s restrooms as photo darkrooms.”
The artwork students and faculty members made then more-or-less mirrored what was going on nationally and internationally, as McNamara recalls it.
He says, “I think there’s always a kind of feeling in the West. Naturally there’s a Western bent to it. But it has an international quality. There were a number of good art publications. Everyone was aware of what was going in the world. There were strong connections to San Francisco, New York, and even L.A.” Students went on an annual bus trip to San Francisco to visit museums and soak up city culture.
A few things have changed since the ’60s. McNamara, who was curator of Sheppard Gallery for a couple of decades, then left the university in the ’90s to pursue his artwork independently, says, “Universities were very supportive of the arts then.”
Now, he says, “Let’s say the bureaucracy is a little thicker.”
In other ways, says Donnie Curtis, another exhibit co-organizer and Head of Special Collections at Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, the present allows more freedom than the past. She recalls the day when Joan Arrizabalaga’s slot machine sculptures were first debuted. They’re ceramic wall pieces, realistic likenesses of slot machines, with, says Curtis, “stuff coming out that’s not money.” (It’s ceramic dog excrement.) Officials deemed the work unfit to show entirely publicly, and it was first exhibited in a gallery kitchenette behind closed curtains.
“We can do anything we want now,” says Curtis. Those same slot machine pieces are featured prominently among library stacks now.
Lost in space?
Some of the artworks in Far Out are representative of the ’50s or ’60s. The requisite abstract expressionist style is amply represented, anchoring the exhibit in its time period, and the expression on a striking black-and-white portrait of Arrizabalaga—who was then a UNR student, later an artist and casino costumer—sums the more optimistic parts of the time leading up to the Summer of Love.
Some pieces look conspicuously modern. Sophie Sheppard’s grid paintings from the early 1980s would fit right in at a show at the Salvagery or Reno Art Works.
A few pieces are quintessentially Nevadan. In a sculpture of a farm yard, metal sheep are shaped like the state lain sideways. A ceramic sculpture features the legendary Virginia City prostitute Julia Bulette leaning out of a house the size of a cookie jar, surrounded by a garden of ceramic phalluses.
Several pieces, such as those by McNamara, Martinez, Larry Williamson and Bob Morrison, current Reno artgoers will identify easily. Others have evolved with the times. Jim McCormick, for example, who made those big, abstract paintings, later became known for meticulous collages.
The exhibit works like a coherent, complex survey of images, ideas, and stories that define an era. Far Out is edited to be balanced and complete. It’s a carefully selected survey that presents just enough comparisons and entry points to catalog a time period, without slipping into redundancy or ever sounding like Grandpa telling a story 100 times too many. It would fill a large gallery nicely. The “gallery,” however, is a dozen or so walls spread over five floors of computer labs, study areas and library stacks of the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center. It takes a little research and dedication to find it all.
The organizers, though, have made helpful efforts to make the exhibit more visitor friendly, despite the fact that it’s tucked into corners of a potentially confusing space. Artists and curators offered docent tours during the opening reception, and visitors who arrive post-reception can pick up a brochure, which provides something of a self-guided tour, at the building’s info desk. Jim McCormack’s exhibit catalog is a fun compendium of tales from the past. Like the one about Edw Martinez leg-wrestling Jack Kerouac in the No Name bar in Sausalito, Calif.