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June 24, 2017

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Artist’s answers are blowin’ in the wind

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Sam Morris

I was really just curious to see a big wood floor on top of another wood floor … just to see how it would look,” artist Brent Sommerhauser says.

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Sommerhauser's 300-pound, 8 1/2-by-11-inch paper tower in his exhibit at the Donna Beam gallery has fallen twice.

IF YOU GO

What: “Amidst: An Exhibition of Recent Coercions”

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday

Where: Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery, UNLV

Admission: Free; 895-3893

A wood floor behaves like a sheet of paper in a breeze. A stack of white paper stands defiant against the wind.

The floor seems light. The paper is heavy. A fan blows in the distance. Mission accomplished for artist Brent Sommerhauser. Yet somewhere he is still asking, “What if ...?”

It’s what he does.

“Amidst: An Exhibition of Recent Coercions,” on display at UNLV’s Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery, is a collection of answers to an ardent curiosity that has turned his studio into a laboratory. That curiosity keeps him playing with materials — often salvaged bits of architectural interiors — and “recontextualizing” objects merely for the sake of doing so, and sometimes for the poetry of it all.

But creating the unexpected goes beyond basic curiosity for Sommerhauser, whose artistic path can be easily read: He received his bachelor’s degree in psychology and his master’s degree in art, and he’s a trained glass blower with a knack for carpentry.

While in a graduate program in Columbus, Ohio, he began thinking about ways in which interiors of architectural spaces have been used to describe psychic or mental space — from Emily Dickinson’s poetry to Carl Jung’s theories about memory. Soon Sommerhauser was cutting holes through walls and floors in homes set for demolition as a way to coax out some of these ideas floating around his head.

The reshaped, reinterpreted elements became works that he saw as a merging of psychology, poetry and stories. Some were site-specific pieces. Others made their way into galleries.

Sommerhauser never strayed far from that launchpad, though “Amidst” is more playful than narrative.

The exhibit is about coercing materials. Its theme is wind, more specifically, forces that are made visible through the reaction of objects. Ambient field recordings of wind (composed by Christopher McFall) are piped through an ultrasonic speaker.

The 8 1/2-by-11-foot wood tile floor mimics a piece of paper with a corner turned up by the wind. Smoked glass balloons, titled “Ghosts,” are defined by their hardened strings pulling the balloons, dangling from the balloons or suspended as they whip in midair.

Hundreds of pencils were glued together to form a block of wood that was carved into a pair of hands set atop a writing desk where a fan blows a piece of paper against the hands, creating a drawing from the pencil lead, all of which is a result of Sommerhauser’s original questions: “What would happen if I glued 2,000 pencils together? What happens if I cut that in half? What happens if I start grinding on it?”

The exhibit is sort of a continuation of his solo last year at the Clark County Government Center.

But for that show he focused on making invisible forces seem visible. In “Amidst” he focuses on what happens when invisible force collides with visible material.

And then there’s the oddity of wood floor as paper:

“I was really just curious to see a big wood floor on top of another wood floor of a different color in a gallery space, just to see how it would look,” Sommerhauser says.

The stack of paper?

“It wasn’t some really heavy conceptual statement. I’ve just never seen a stack of paper that tall. Other artists were a stone’s throw away. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, but he used huge sheets or stacked it by a wall.”

So the nearly 300-pound paper tower, titled “Still,” is a paper tower and not an office supply ode to John McCracken. But you’d best be quick with this one. The tower has fallen over twice and Sommerhauser is leaving town for a few weeks.

“At some point it will just be a pile for the remainder of the exhibition.”

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