Las Vegas Sun

October 19, 2021

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Sort-of-wearable art on the cheap

But be careful sitting in ‘99 Cent Only Dress Shop’ clothes


Tiffany Brown

Artist Robin Barcus-Slonina works on her installation at Atomic Todd gallery, informally called the “artistic sweatshop,” with help from friend Benoit Beaufils and gallery owner Todd VonBastiaans, foreground, in the Arts District on Sunday. The pieces in “99 Cent Only Dress Shop” reflect the artist’s interest in consumer culture; she often uses nontraditional materials in a whimsical, inventive fashion.

Click to enlarge photo

Barcus-Slonina, top, works on her installation "99 Cents Only Dress Shop." The dresses include a whiffleball dress, a casino chip dress and a sponge dress. She says she starts with an attraction to objects, then plays with them to see how they work in a sculpture.

Click to enlarge photo

A dress made of sponges, top, is one of Barcus-Slonina's artworks. A portion of the Easter egg dress hangs on a stand.

If you go

What: “99 Cents Only Dress Shop”

Where: Atomic Todd, 1221 S. Main St.

When: Artist opening 7 p.m. today. The First Friday reception will be from 6-10 p.m. Friday. Call for appointments.

Admission: Free,

Robin Barcus-Slonina walks in the back door of Atomic Todd gallery on Main Street.

“Mama went shopping,” she says, plopping bagfuls of whiffleballs next to a pile of rainbow-colored dusters on a silver lamé ’60s couch.

At the front of the gallery, the “artistic sweatshop” is scattered with hot glue guns, at least 400 plastic eggs, pliers, safety pins, hula hoops and scissors. Eventually, two tanned and ripped “laborers” stop by to help out: performers Benoit Beaufils of “Le Reve” and Ross Gibson of “Mystere.”

Toiling away to an ABBA song, they don’t qualify as overworked, underpaid, mistreated sweatshop laborers, even though the sun burns through the corrugated plastic covering the west-facing windows and creates an incubator effect. They take off their shirts and keep working. They have a lot of eggs to prepare for the dress Barcus-Slonina is making.

“My advice to you is, ‘Never make a sponge dress,’ ” Barcus-Slonina says, looking down at what seems like a stiff suit of arms. The patchwork of multicolored sponges constantly changes shape, a frustration for the artist, who is having more success with a dress being made of casino chips.

The dresses are part of an installation/working exhibit at Atomic Todd. The exhibit, which opens tonight, invites visitors to meet the artist, watch her work and even try on the dresses. It will culminate May 21 with a fashion show.

Nearly all the thrifty garments are made from items that came from 99 cent stores and are an amalgamation of two previous projects by Barcus-Slonina: her “State of Dress” project, in which she created dresses from environmental materials common to individual states (a pine cone dress from Maine, a prairie grass dress from Iowa and a corn dress from Minnesota ...) and dollar store sculpture she created in Chicago, where she realized the mom-and-pop dollar stores on every corner were integral to the environment.

She bought hundreds of dollar store items, turned them into formal sculpture, then held an exhibit at Open End Art Gallery in Chicago.

The show at Atomic Todd, known for its arty/crafty/theatrical/kitsch approach to art, is her first solo show in Las Vegas since she moved here two years ago.

A graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she makes a living by body painting models for high-end clubs and exclusive events. She met Atomic Todd gallery owner Todd VonBastiaans when she volunteered at “Obstacle Art,” an interactive miniature golf/art installation he orchestrated.

With “99¢ Only Dress Shop,” she says, she’s not trying to hit people over the head with the sweatshop references or consumerist couture or the sponges, dusters and other stereotyped women’s work items used for some of the dresses.

“The messages are so inherent I don’t really need to force the issue. The way I try to get these messages across is through humor.”

Her job, she says, is to make the work and leave the interpretation to the audience. The gallery is also exhibiting fine art prints of her “State of Dress” works.

“I go by what attracts me visually, attracted to that object, play with it to see how it would lend itself to sculpture. You go through art school and learn to master certain materials. I like to start the process all over again, like learning how to connect Easter eggs.”

With her performance art background, theater connections and the help of VonBastiaans, who is testing mannequins and mirrored cubes and installing a mirror ball, the show is sure to be another success for Atomic Todd.

Her time in Las Vegas will be spotty. She’ll have dual residency between Las Vegas and the road. Husband Jim Slonina, formerly of “Le Reve,” just ran off with the circus, or more specifically the touring Cirque du Soleil show “Kooza.” Barcus-Slonina will soon join him, leaving behind memories of the casino chip dress, which is the Nevada dress for the “States of Dress” project.

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