Under the influences

John Molezzo

John Molezzo at the Keno Motel, which he likes to photograph.

John Molezzo at the Keno Motel, which he likes to photograph.


John Molezzo’s Biggest Little City is up at Sierra Arts Gallery, 17 S. Virginia St., through Aug. 30. For more information, visit www.sierra-arts.org.

“When you’re 18, if you don’t want to get the hell out of wherever you are, there’s something wrong with you,” says Reno native John Molezzo. If that’s where his story as a professional artist begins, his exhibit at Sierra Arts, Biggest Little City, gives away the ending: He’s been back with a vengeance for a while now.

Molezzo was born in 1964. As a kid, he was a confirmed daydreamer who loved the seediness of downtown Reno and environs.

“I used to get in trouble as a kid,” he says. “Mom used to say, ‘You have to get your head out of the clouds.’”

As a father of three, he has plenty of help remembering how his own childhood perception combined the literal and the fantastic.

“As a kid, everything’s bigger than life,” he says. “Just seeing the name Bucket of Blood Saloon [in Virginia City]—it seemed like the most amazing place to go to.” His youthful imagination ran wild with images of what a place with such a name could possibly contain.

At 11 or 12, Molezzo learned to shoot black-and-white film with his parents’ manual Nikons and Canons. He shot photos for the Bishop Manogue High School yearbook.

As a teen and young adult, he immersed himself in the writing of Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard and Sam Shepard and developed a taste for films from the ’70s and earlier. “Scorsese, Humphrey Bogart, Orson Welles.” You can practically hear his pulse quicken when he mentions A Touch of Evil: “It’s like some kind of master palette.”

As soon as he was old enough to act on his wanderlust, he followed his curiosity to Portland for film school, then to San Diego, where he was involved in theater productions and shared a warehouse space with some buddies. They formed an anything-goes art group, and Molezzo drew busy pictures on canvas. “Kind of like Basquiat or Hockney,” he says.

When discussing his work, Molezzo lists his influences spontaneously. Among them are Picasso, Van Gogh, and photographers who cataloged different periods of 20th-century life with intensity: Richard Avedon; Edward Weston; Weegee.

“That all just mixes in with your psyche and it stays with you in certain ways,” he says. “You don’t always know how. You become obsessed. You have to take pictures.”

He also likens making his collages to writing stories: “You figure out the characters, the setting, then just let them go.”

His own story brought him back to Reno in 2000 with a family and a full-time job as a court reporter. His sense of fascination hadn’t waned a bit. He remembers, “When I started shooting Reno it was like I was seeing it new all over again.”

He shoots downtown motel signs and street scenes to rearrange later in Photoshop. He’ll often paste images together into a cacophony of neon and nightfall.

“Some have 120 layers,” he says. He prints the images on canvas and adds accents with oil paint or bold, black wax crayon. They come off half documentary, half fantasy, romantic and realistic, distinctly unironic, and celebratory of all Reno’s grit and glory.

“To me Reno has so many looks, so many images.” Some of his works have an indulgent, Times-Square dizziness. Others, a shot of a motel parking lot on a gray, winter day, for example, are sparse almost to the point of Hopperesque. That piece has a distinct sense of anticipation, as if it could not remain devoid of human drama for more that another few seconds, a way of seeing things he honed in film school.

“Reno just lends itself to the cinematic type quality,” he says. Not to mention fiction, documentary, and collage. Or, in Molezzo’s words, “Reno is the perfect place for the confluence of influence.”