Beckmann, Unger get intellectual about Las Vegas

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"The Three Graces," by Robert Beckmann

Last night, Vast Space Projects held a cross-discipline dialogue between artist Robert Beckmann and author Douglas Unger about the elusive and enigmatic identity of Las Vegas. The event coincided with a retrospective of Beckmann paintings that runs through June 15 at the Henderson gallery (730 W. Sunset Road). Beckmann's work uniquely articulates a complex city whose rise and fall and resurrection underscore human horror and delight, emptiness and fantasy, frailty and desire.

“Las Vegas is the pop culture, imaginative fantasy of America,” said Beckmann, whose work has earned several Nevada Arts Council fellowships. “We can understand the unreal by living here.”

Indeed, Beckmann’s paintings have a surreal yet playful quality reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s dark comedic absurdism. The survey includes pieces from Beckmann’s Vegas Vanitas series, for example, which blend old world-inspired, Turner-style landscapes with iconic Las Vegas buildings inserted into the setting. The juxtaposition makes for a jarring contrast of the natural and man-made worlds. Interestingly, buildings repeatedly serve as representational societal, cultural and human totems within Beckmann’s universe; they physically, metaphorically and compositionally carry the weight of his artwork, which is steeped in renewal and reinvention. Architecture can often inform and shape a community's collective consciousness.

People are scarcely seen, by comparison; despite this, however, Beckmann’s paintings still have a richly layered humanity, littered with regret and triumph, vulnerability and invincibility.

“Las Vegas is a city of second chances and redemption,” said Pulitzer Prize finalist Unger. “Las Vegas gives people a chance to remake their lives.”

Indeed, Las Vegas attracts a motely mix of forlorn people in search of rebirth and stardust dreams.

I admire the frank honesty of Las Vegas,” Unger said. “Even though it’s a city of representation, it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a false fantasy.”

Beckmann’s paintings deftly juggle the fake versus real. But, make no mistake, the paintings have a genuine and arresting power. One work, for example, depicts the stalled Fontainebleau project standing alone on the Strip, with a lone palm tree traffic island in the foreground. The hulking building is an empty husk of evaporated dreams and a glamorous vision unrealized; it underscores overreaching aspirations that occurred the city’s real estate boom that later went bust. It’s a grand and imaginative construct of blind ambition and financial failure, phony fortune and real ruin.

“The disjunction can be fun and healing,” Beckmann said. “Maybe Las Vegas is just a training ground for craziness.”

Hunter S. Thompson couldn’t have said it better himself.