Transient Landscapes Notes from the Curator's Talk

Scott Dickensheets
(The following is based on a Q&A — which I have liberally tinkered with, including adding some of my own questions — with Kristen Peterson of the Las Vegas Weekly)

Why did you choose the subject of impermanence? 

Last year, in my capacity as deputy editor of Desert Companion magazine, I profiled an art photographer named Marshall Schuettle. A lot of his work grapples with transience and permanence — marginalized people in tenuous situations, a social infrastructure that feels like it could collapse at any moment, fleeting intersections of desire and cityscape, but sometimes juxtaposed against majestic landscapes evoking unchanging time. And that got me thinking: How much art have I seen that addressed transience in a specifically Vegas context? Transience, after all, is a major force of change in Southern Nevada. Answer: Not an overwhelming amount that I could recall. So that's why I chose transience. As for landscapes, I just wanted to throw in that extra wrinkle, an implicit challenge to the artists to rethink what "landscape" means in the context of Vegas transience.

Regarding the artist selection: Did you choose from your personal favorites or from those who have tapped into the ongoing transformation of Las Vegas in prior works?

You will not be surprised to learn I had no coherent artist-selection strategy. I mean, it's not like I knew what I was doing — I'm a journalist, not a professional curator. So I took several approaches. In some cases, I knew exactly which images I wanted from which artists — Robert Beckmann's painting from St. Thomas, and Linda Alterwitz's composite photo of Maryland Parkway, for instance. In others, I looked for artists whom I knew worked in or around the theme: Brent Holmes, Erin Stellmon, D.K. Sole, Gary Mar, the Vegas Vernacular crew. And still other selections resulted from me wondering, What would this artist do with this theme? A giddy dice-roll, basically. Thus, Jw Caldwell, Sean Jones, Jared Africa — wild cards from whom I had no idea what I'd get. And with others, Justin Favela and Abigail Goldman coming specifically to mind, I wasn't going to let my one and probably only chance to curate an art show pass without shoehorning them in somehow.

Gee, Scott, that's a pretty ... eclectic group of artists.

I was very conscious of creating spectrums — of media, of approaches, of artists of different statures. So, at one end, we have, say, the incredible technical mastery of Alterwitz and Schuettle and, at the other, these cool street-corner sketchbook drawings by Gary Mar and the wild vision of Jared Africa, which is like a William Burroughs tat sleeve for your eyeballs.

I had some formal concerns, too: I figured the old-school painterliness of Beckmann's canvas would set up an unusual conversation with Mar's improvisational drawings. Sole's wispy, barely-there assemblage, which, in its fragility and material (stuff she found in the street), pretty much enacts the show's themes, counterpoints nicely with Favela's memory-drenched commercial sign. (Favela: "The design is from a hand-painted 2-D sign on the window of Juarez Border Food restaurant on Eastern and the 95. It used to be a KFC when I was younger. It represents the past, present and future in so many ways!") And Favela's sign jibes well with the signage documented by the Vegas Vernacular team. Likewise, the hard documentary edge of the Vernacular work contrasts nicely with the soft documentary of Mar's streetscape sketchbooks.

A show like this can't help but be a hodgepodge. But here's the thing: I love a good hodgepodge. Clashing juxtapositions! Disjunctive associations! Interrupted narratives! It mirrors my experience of Las Vegas: Stand on any corner of the Strip and what you experience isn't a tidy thematic unity, but rather the bombast of competing visions. The same thing happens Downtown, though on a different wavelength.

You’re a writer very much invested (personally and professionally) in the arts. How important is it to generate dialogue through art, particularly when it comes to topics such as impermanence?

You know one thing I love about visual art? A painting doesn't have a comment thread. Your experience of it can't be immediately hijacked by trolls getting off on their ability to "dialogue." So any discussion happens at a remove. Hopefully it does happen, and certainly around a topic like transience, which has such profound impacts on Vegas. And the stated goal of Nevada Humanities is to do precisely that. Of course, part of me resists the idea that art's gotta have that civic-duty dimension. That part of me would prefer an exhibit that clips a squirting flower onto its lapel, walks up to a Real Big Issue and says, "Here, smell this." But I recognize that art has the power to reframe ideas in a way that might get you to think. Look at Sean Jones' incredible graphic memoir. Even as you're beguiled by the incredible drawing, draftsmanship and storytelling, you're jolted, viscerally, by the tendency of things we love to go away.

How do you feel (intellectually and emotionally) about the constant revolving door of residents, visitors, buildings and structures? Do you think that impermanence here breeds a different type of person and transforms newcomers?

In my easily bored headspace, I theorize that the continual churn of residents, structures and institutions creates a greater potential for strange recombinations, new ideas, new cultural opportunities. That's good, right? Tony Hsieh certainly thinks so, at any rate. So did the pro-growth amen choirs of the boom years, when they'd tout the 5,000 new residents who came here every month, but rarely mention the 2,000 or 3,000 who left. So, in what still passes for real life, transience can have a solvent effect on the community. It's a force multiplier: Whatever problem is at hand, from foreclosures (still a problem, even with the economy turning around) to education, transience makes it worse. Ask educators about the problems inherent in so many children changing schools, cities or countries. So I think there's a very real social cost to transience. 

Will this exhibit mourn, celebrate, contemplate or dissect the ideas of Vegas and do you expect some artists to take a broader philosophical approach (or do you see those two as one in the same)?

It will do all and none of those things. This exhibit is heavily influenced by one peculiar factor: I’m not a professional curator. Unschooled in the presentation of visual ideas, I didn't try to wind a suite of complementary works around a main theme to present a sustained investigation of it. Rather, this show is more like a handful of cool art jabbed mercilessly into that theme until it squirms. Or, for a less violent metaphor, it may be useful to imagine this show as a Transient Landscapes pinball machine, in which I hope viewers will carom off of each artwork in an unexpected direction, then ping off of another, and another. The grand takeaway will be whatever it is; I just want people to have a good, engaged time looking at the work of these terrific artists.