State of the art
Is there such a thing as “Nevada art”? The NMA’s 2005 Triennial is one way to look at the question.
Toby Kamps talks over the phone from his office in Portland, Maine, about his trip to Reno. “They put me up at the Silver Legacy. Super-fun. I got a flaming shoeshine,” says the director of the Institute for Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art.Kamps is the juror of the Nevada Musuem of Art’s 2005 Nevada Triennial.
“I look down, and my feet are on fire—blue flame-balls around my shoes. He had just torched them to get them warm to get the shoe polish to go in, and I just remember sitting there, thinking, ‘I love this town.'”
There are plenty of reasons for people in (or interested in) the arts to love this town. And this state. With some rents still in the triple-digits, plenty of elbow room and a long-standing “do your own thing” ethos, Nevada is fertile ground for art-making. In studios and basements all over the state, artists are churning out work of just about every medium and style.
But a lot of this artwork doesn’t get into the public eye. Not locally, anyway. In Reno and Las Vegas, there are a handful of galleries (like Stremmel and University of Nevada, Reno’s Sheppard) for highly accomplished artists, and there are several venues for artists just starting out, but for those in-between, the opportunities are limited. Since there’s not much of a mid-level showcase, Nevada artists often dive into the national (or international) art market and seek exhibition opportunities in other cities.
The 2005 Nevada Triennial is a rare chance (every three years, if things go according to the NMA’s plan—or until some deeper-pocketed gallerists show up on the scene) to catch a substantial glimpse of what’s been going on in the state’s art world. The two-part exhibition features the work of four well-established Nevada artists and 47 “emerging” artists. (An “emerging artist” is about as easily definable as, say, a member of the “middle class.” In artworld-speak, the term refers to those who’ve begun climbing the career ladder but haven’t yet ascended to the rung where they get their choice of two brass rings: fame or paycheck. In other words, almost all artists.)
The Nevada Triennial descends from a long tradition of mega-exhibits. The Venice Biennale first showcased the hottest in contemporary international art in 1895 and still represents what’s hot off the world’s easels (or foundries, sewing machines, video cameras or computer monitors). Since then, biennials—and the slightly more manageable triennials—have become all the rage. Istanbul, Turkey; Johannesburg, South Africa; Havana, Cuba; Cairo, Egypt; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and Kwangju, Korea, all host these high-profile international exhibits every two or three years, and there are specialized versions like ceramics and photography biennials. Some cities and museums host biennials that focus more on art from their own regions.
The Triennial‘s most direct ancestors are the somewhat annual juried exhibit the NMA used to hold, beginning in 1968 and the Nevada Biennial, which lasted from 1988 to 1996. The Biennial was a joint venture between the Institute for Contemporary Art in Las Vegas (now defunct) and Reno’s NMA.
“We put it on hold for a time, as we reconsidered what we were attempting to accomplish with the Biennial,” says museum director Steven High, of the event’s nine-year hiatus.
The current incarnation of the exhibition is billed as “a critical examination of the visual trends and artwork created by contemporary artists working in Nevada,” according to the museum’s Web site.
Toby Kamps acknowledges that the “contemporary” bent means a lot of well-made artwork was excluded from the show. But nobody will argue that the art world was built on fairness.
“I’m a curator of contemporary art, which carries with it a certain kind of, I guess you’d have to call it an agenda,” Kamps says. “And that is that I’m interested in things that are kind of pushing the envelope, trying something new.”
But anyone’s grasp on exactly what contemporary “Nevada art” is—or even if it’s useful to try to define such a thing—is tentative.
The Triennial is more of a snapshot of the state’s art scene than an attempt to describe it comprehensively. There are many versions of what Nevada art is. Wally’s World: The Loneliest Art Collection in Nevada at the Nevada Historical Society is a more meditative, landscape-focused view. The Capital City Arts’ Initiative’s upcoming What’s Up? will try to get a handle on where the local art scene is headed by focusing on work by artists under 28. [Full disclosure: Author Kris Vagner has a photograph on exhibit in Wally’s World and is writing the catalog essay for What’s Up?]
If the Triennial is a “snapshot,” it’s taken from a particular angle with a particular kind of lens. It’s impossible to cram everything into the frame, but the Triennial does resemble a pretty extensive group portrait.
Following the Venice model, the museum invited four “featured” artists who’ve passed the “emerging” phase and given them each their own mini-exhibit of four or five pieces each.
The other 47 artists were selected by Kamps. He came up with a few criteria to apply to about 1,000 or so slides that artists paid $10 apiece to submit.
“I look for, first of all, technical skill,” he explains. “Then I look for a kind of inspiration … channeling something new or making something happen in a really interesting way. Then I look for also just a rock-solid idea.”
Those can be in just about any proportion, Kamps says. In the end, it’s the hard-to-define “wow factor” that really grabs him.
Now that the whole rambling array by 51 artists is installed in the museum, Kamps can point to a few Nevada-specific trends.
“Obviously, the amazing landscape that you guys have figured very large in the work I looked at,” he says. Samuel Davis’s black-and-white “photograph” shows a saw-toothed sea creature floating in a barely-cloudy sky above Southern Nevada’s basin and range. Mark Brandvik’s stark painting, “La Concha Redux,” lifts the undulating 1959 architectural wonder of a motel out of the clutter of the south end of the Vegas strip and makes it hover in comic-strip-flat, blue-green space.
The blatantly subjective nature of these Las Vegans’ sharp-witted representations is right in line with a “sociocritical or satiric” theme that caught Kamps’ eye. He found Nick Van Woert’s “1 bdrm, No bath, 48sf” particularly hard-hitting. It’s a replica of one-person homeless camp.
Kamps says the inclusion of artists like Chris Carnel, whose specialty is extreme-sports photography, signified a lively, youth-culture influence in a lot of the art. (While the artists represented range in age from barely legal to modern mature, a remarkably high percentage of the area’s professional artists are students or recent college graduates.) Carnel applies his sports-magazine approach to subjects like dogs running through a hallway in his laugh-out-loud-funny photo, “Hotdoggs.”
If Nevada art has a defining feature to write home about, it’s what Kamps calls, “the kind of home-grown thing.”
Artist in major markets like New York or Los Angeles work in a veritable pressure cooker of “the latest thing.” Kamps (who, despite the new East Coast address, has been keeping his finger on the pulse of new art from the West for years) says there’s more room to experiment here. “There’s kind of a cowboy spirit and, with it, that kind of hard-boiled irony that you would get in a Western place.
“The art world needs the authentic, original thinkers,” he says. “And it seems like there’s room for that in Reno and Nevada. … People are taking chances. Not afraid to wear their heart on their sleeve or test out a bold, slightly more inner-space approach. I’ve got a lot of respect for that.”
“I think this community also is learning about contemporary art,” says museum director High. Given that, High and Kamps agree that Nevada artists, in general, are forced to be more clear and accessible than their major-metropolitan counterparts. That’s not without its risks; art and artists can get provincial fast. But Kamps finds this populism refreshing.
“In these artmaking centers, you’re kind of making it for this little coterie of other artists, and I think artists in Nevada … want to communicate. They want to reach real people and engage the real world.” He cites Jeff Johnson, the Reno artist whose business card looks state-issued and reads “minister of inert gasses.” Johnson’s wall piece “Battle Born and Breaking Hearts Since 1864” mixes enough symbolism (and emits enough light) to keep the attention of just about anyone. A nude, blond, neon bombshell fits perfectly into the outline of the neon state, connected by an umbilical-like cord to a smaller, beer-sign-like Nevada, framed in sage branches.
Hurray for Nevada indeed. But, ultimately, Kamps says, Nevada art isn’t much different than art anywhere else.
“Everybody’s hyper-connected,” he says. “These days, we’re all cosmopolitans.”
“What [the Triennial] does,” says High, “is it documents an interesting point in time.”