Las Vegas Sun

October 17, 2017

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‘Wasteland’ studded with gems

An open-air museum, if you know where to look


Sam Morris

This is a 1981 sculpture by Claes Oldenburg titled “Flashlight” on the UNLV campus Saturday, Jan. 12, 2008.

During the selection of an artist for the Gateway to the Arts project there was talk about raising the city’s profile in the art world by bringing in well-known, museum-quality artists.

Many argued that it would invigorate the community and let outsiders know we’re not exactly asleep in what is often dubbed “the cultural wasteland.”

With internationally acclaimed Dennis Oppenheim working on the gateway project and comic artist Ivan Brunetti working on a graphic narrative on thirst for Las Vegas Boulevard downtown, we’ve been feeling a little, well, giddy. On top of that, we have Seattle-based environmental artist Buster Simpson and Arizona artists Barbara Grygutis and Kevin Berry creating art for the trails at the Flamingo Arroyo Wash.

But with all the excitement, we can’t forget some of the gems we already have, including works by Fletcher Benton and Deborah Butterfield in Summerlin, and by Claes Oldenburg at UNLV.

There were, of course, temporary, site-specific works by Jenny Holzer, but their ephemeral nature left us with only a really great memory.

Oldenburg’s “Flashlight,” which anchors the grounds between Artemus Ham Hall and Judy Bayley Theatre, ushers us into the dark halls at night and is well-known to students and concertgoers — even if many aren’t exactly sure what it is.

But ask anyone about the Benton and few can say exactly where it is.

Brought in by developer Mark Fine, who was then with the Howard Hughes Corp., “Folded Circle” received quite the party when it arrived.

“It was the most amazing reception I had ever attended,” says Paula Kirkeby, a Palo Alto art dealer and friend of Benton’s. “It was like a high tea with chamber music.”

Unlike “Flashlight,” Benton’s royal blue segmented disc, balancing on parts of itself in a bed of gravel and native brush, sees little action behind the Pueblo Medical Center. It’s hidden by the back of a strip mall, a small parking lot and the side of a gated apartment complex — a peculiar place for sculpture. But lucky are those who serendipitously cross its path.

The Benton and the Butterfield were brought here because somebody thought we needed them, that they could somehow enhance our lives.

OK, it’s not like we have a Richard Serra in town or an Ellsworth Kelley. But there is a collection of loved and not-so-loved art brought into the community solely for us to ponder, adore and complain about.

(Las Vegas also boasts a large collection of public art by local artists — but that’s a story for another day.)

For those who want to play, here’s a list of the big names, smaller names, controversial names and their works — and we’re not talking Dale Chihuly’s “Fiori Di Como” at Bellagio.

1. Claes Oldenburg, “Flashlight,” 1981, steel painted with polyurethane enamel, UNLV, 4505 Maryland Parkway, Las Vegas

Oldenburg, who was a major player in the pop art movement, is the highest-profile artist who has created public work for the Las Vegas Valley. His sculptures are planted in public areas throughout the world and in collections of notable museums, including New York’s Guggenheim. “Flashlight,” created to represent a beacon for the arts, was a gift from Reno banker Robert Hawkins, whose funds were matched by a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

2. Fletcher Benton, “Folded Circle,” 1992, welded steel sculpture, Pueblo Medical Center, 8551 W. Lake Mead Blvd., Las Vegas

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This is a sculpture by Fletcher Benton titled “Folded Circle” at 8551 W. Lake Mead Boulevard Saturday, Jan. 12, 2008.

The inaugural piece of the Summerlin Community Art Program was brought in by the Howard Hughes Corp. Benton gained prominence in the 1960s and ’70s with his kinetic sculptures and later with his static work. Museums with his work include the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

3. Deborah Butterfield, “Setsuko,” 1994, Inner Circle Drive near Library Hills Drive, Las Vegas

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This is a sculpture by Deborah Butterfield at 1635 Village Circle Drive Saturday, Jan. 12, 2008.

Butterfield is an American sculptor whose abstract horse sculptures are made from wire, cast bronze or scrap metal. “Setsuko,” made from cast bronze that replicates driftwood, is displayed in a formal bed of gravel, surrounded by hedges and benches at an office park. Butterfield’s work is at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “Setsuko” was brought in as part of the Summerlin Community Art Program.

4. Rita Deanin Abbey, “Spirit Tower,” 1993, Summerlin Library, 1771 Inner Circle Drive, Las Vegas

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This is a sculpture by Rita Deanin Abbey titled “Spirit Tower” in front of the Summerlin Library Saturday, Jan. 12, 2008.

The work of Abbey, a Las Vegas artist and former UNLV professor, is well-known and widely respected locally, but Abbey is also gaining ground outside of Las Vegas with her public works. “Spirit Tower,” made of Cor-ten steel, is a bold, monumental and beautiful structure that commands attention at the entrance to the Summerlin Library. The conceptual, abstract piece reflects geological behavior and relates to the surrounding landscape. “Spirit Tower” was commissioned by the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District.

5. Alexis Smith, “Scarlet Letter,” 2005, Sahara West Library, 9600 W. Sahara Ave., Las Vegas

Smith, a Los Angeles artist, was commissioned to create a mural for the Las Vegas Centennial. The mural prompted passionate opposition by a member of the Las Vegas Centennial Committee who believed its inverted “A” and its title gave a negative connotation to Sin City. Smith’s public works in Los Angeles include works at MacArthur Park and the Los Angeles Convention Center. She’s been featured in exhibits at the Whitney Museum, the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art-Los Angeles.

6. Lita Albuquerque, “Obelisk at Noon,” 1987, Green Valley Civic Center, Sunset Road and Green Valley Parkway, Henderson

Albuquerque is known for her earthworks, sculptures and paintings. Her “Obelisk at Noon” is a towering minimalist monument that aligns with a tiled ground surface. The work was brought in by American Nevada Corp. and Robert Kraft Architects. Museum collections include the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art-Los Angeles. Recent projects include “Stellar Axis,” an art installation on an Antarctic Ice Shelf, initiated by the National Science Foundation.

7. Luis Jimenez, “Vaquero,” 1990, McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas

This vibrant fiberglass sculpture of a Mexican cowboy waving a pistol and riding a blue bucking bronco typifies the emotion of Jimenez’s robust and vibrant sculptures. Jimenez has public works dotting American cities and his sculptures are in museums including the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo. This piece was brought to the county by the McCarran Airport Arts Advisory Committee.

8. Lloyd Hamrol, “Serpent Mound,” 1988, Green Valley Library, 2797 N. Green Valley Parkway, Henderson

Made of concrete and porous rock, this abstract serpent reflects the valley’s natural landscape. Hamrol has public works in cities including Los Angeles, Washington, Phoenix and Seattle. Museum collections include the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum in Washington. “Serpent Mound” was commissioned by the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District.

9. Seward Johnson Jr., bronze statues, 1988-1993, Green Valley Parkway between I-215 and Sunset Road, Henderson

This American sculptor is recognized for his commercial realist works and has taken a few hits from art critics, particularly when the Corcoran Gallery, whose director was quoted as saying that Johnson “might be the best-known artist no one knows,” staged an exhibit that featured Johnson’s three-dimensional versions of Impressionist paintings. His sculptures of businessmen, laborers and other everyday people are in public spaces in major cities. Sculptures representing tennis players and families dot intersections and sidewalk areas throughout Green Valley. American Nevada Company, which is owned by the Greenspun family, brought them here. Some regard the works with reverence, appreciating their decorative realist aspects. Others see unintended irony.

10. Haluk Akakce, “Sky Is the Limit,” 2006, Fremont Street Experience, Las Vegas

This obviously is tourist territory, but technically it fits as public art for the community because the city used park funds for the Experience’s four-block canopy, which caused a protest in 1997 by the Laser Vida arts group in which families and friends picnicked and played catch on the mall. The Viva Vision canopy is the largest LED screen in the world and has featured works by local and national artists. Its longest-running work was a piece by Turkish artist Haluk Akakce, who teamed with Creative Time, a New York-based nonprofit art organization that represents innovative work. Akakce’s installation was commissioned Las Vegas’ Arts Commission as part of an ongoing partnership, Lightscapes, between the Arts Commission and the Fremont Street Experience.

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