Street smart

Rob Owens

Rob Owens poses with a photo from his exhibition, <i>Reno Inside Out</i>.

Rob Owens poses with a photo from his exhibition, Reno Inside Out.

Photo by AMY BECK

Rob Owens’ Reno Inside Out is on display at 241 Ridge St., through May 6, with an artist’s reception on Friday, May 4, at 6 p.m.

Buried deep in the small houses, old mansions and vaguely presumptuous restaurants of west-central Reno sits an office tower. Tucked in next to the alley of this office, Rob Owens’ BFA thesis project pops in the darkness, casting a ghostly glow out through the first floor glass windows. There are dozens of internally lit photo boxes showing downtown buildings, framed in plain black, sitting atop stacks of grey cinder blocks, in an arrangement designed to mimic the streets of downtown Reno. It’s sort of like a levitating rat maze topped with stainless steel. The labyrinth represents every block south of Fourth Street, east of Virginia Street, north of First Street and east of Arlington Avenue.

Walk in and look over the photos. The first, a picture of Reno Tattoo Company’s store front, blends chintz and trashiness, sort of like a low-budget Grease set. Another shows the Eldorado Hotel Casino parking garage from street level. The casino’s lights and shiny metallic façade clashes amusingly with the street below, brimming with minivans.

Owens’ best work concerns the Intown Motel and the Imperial Bar. In the former, an old woman is visible through dirt stained windows and ancient floral print curtains. She seems almost to melt into the motel’s walls, where bicycle tires have scarred the white paint and the very sidewalk seems to be melting. What is that woman thinking? In the latter photo, the viewer comes nose to fist with an exceptionally brutal piece of architecture. Instead of mere windows, the Imperial Bar uses lightly corroded plates of steel around its door. Naked welds dot its front like acne scars. Even the curbs, crushed by years of careless drivers parking poorly, crumble in front of the Imperial’s harshness. The city of Reno banners hang tattered from light posts.

Offsetting these, different photos capture subjects as serene as a vine-covered, granite church on West First Street and the Masonic building nearby.

“I wanted to show this place like it is,” says Owens. “I could have made it ugly really easy, but I didn’t want to.”

A former welder and full-time photography enthusiast with a gray beard and a love for discussing head-melting aesthetic concepts, art and office politics, Owens has created the sort of display that can really play with a viewer’s sense of space.

“Normally a city block is like a sculpture,” he said. “They are positive space. The streets are negative space, like canyons. I reversed that space.”

In layman terms, a real building blocks line of sight, while a street does not. In Owens’ project, he sets the pictures up so that the “street space” is full of pictures and the “building space” is where you can walk. If you’ve ever played an old video game and gotten stuck inside a wall, Owens’ project will give you flashbacks.

He made the displays through an ingenious process. With a normal, narrow angle lens, Owens took 10 pictures of each subject and then stitched them together to create the illusion of grand scale. If you look closely, you might even find one or two of these seams. This process also allowed Owens to get rid of all the people that normally inhabit downtown Reno. You’ll not find a single pedestrian.

This is the fourth in a series Owens has created by playing with perspective. Before he photographed Reno from below, above and from in the middle.