The Neon Homeland

Last weekend, I was in Michigan not seeing any art. My plan had been to delve into the Art in America from May still waiting to be broken into, but I absentmindedly forgot almost all of my reading. I came across Bringing Down the House in the paperback section of a Sea-Tac bookstore and remembered a recent Art-to-Go post about the movie adaptation of this book (thank you to Regina and to Carolyn Zick for recent posts on Peripheral Vision, by the way).

So, I picked up the book, but en route to finishing this quick read (not the highest quality of writing, but at least more accurate in terms of race than the movie), found myself wishing for the February issue of Art in America, which included a report on the Las Vegas Art Museum’s Las Vegas Diaspora: The Emergence of Contemporary Art from the Neon Homeland, an exhibition curated by Dave Hickey that includes work from 26 of his former students from UNLV ( “Report from Las Vegas: Sin City Slickers” 63-67).

Christopher Knight briefly discussed the exhibition (now on view at the Laguna Art Museum through June 1), highlighting Tim Bavington’s Step (In) Out, a piece outwardly reminiscent of neon signs. However, he notes:

“The studies show how Bavington orchestrates his pictorial compositions. Musical scores are used almost as found objects, with the colored stripe pattern following a dispassionate logic worthy of Conceptual master Sol Lewitt. The results are anything but cool and common-sensical.” (“Around the Galleries”, LA Times, 21 March 2008, Part E, p. 20)

False appearances are key aspects of representing the seemingly utopic Vegas. Bavington’s seemingly random bands of bright colors are in reality entirely systematic and methodical, created by transposing musical compositions into stripes varying in hue and width based on the notes of the song being translated. Oddly similar to the way the MIT students of Bringing Down the House created false appearances of frivolous, drunk gamblers as they signaled across the casinos to one another and in coded dialogues while counting six decks of cards at a time, both representations suggest (as does author of the Art in America article Kirsten Swenson of UNLV) that there is something more to Las Vegas’s contemporary art scene than one expects from fake Venician canals and 1990’s American excess.

The similarities between these two disparate works bearing relationships to Sin City bring to mind the book I did remember to bring on my flight, The Conspiracy of Art by Jean Baudrillard. In his 1995 essay “Aesthetic Illusion and Disillusion”, Baudrillard argues,

“In coming to pass, all of the utopias of the 19th and 20th centuries have chased reality from reality and left us in a meaningless hyperreality, since any final perspective has been absorbed, digested, leaving only a residue of a surface without depth.” (120)

Las Vegas typically appears to be the perfect place to find an absence of depth. However, the artifacts and representations of this bizzare place may in actuality be worthy of further pursuit; perhaps they are even as faithfully deceptive as the images and ideas found within the city’s portrayal that take on the questions of underlying truths.