We encounter a series of classic Vegas motels such as the Desert Inn or the Thunderbird, 1950s vehicles parked out front, women in period attire hailing cabs or walking by seeming to confirm a vintage Vegas postcard experience. Except the longer you look the more you realize certain elements are out of place: there’s a large snowbank in front of the Thunderbird and the mountains behind the Desert Inn are sheer folds of linen curtains.
The images turn out to be excerpts from postcards deftly modified through collage by local artist Anthony Bondi and forming lively compositions and fanciful Vegas narratives for his exhibit “Neon Metropolis” at Sin City Gallery. Peering at the images from the side reveals the barely perceptible, surgically precise application of clippings from fashion advertisements, swatches of fabric, clumps of sand, snow, tracks of water, bits of neon – curling arabesques of pink Maybelline lipstick winding about a model clasping her hat - all melding seamlessly with various postcard backdrops.
Bondi began crafting the postcard series back in the ’90s, exhibiting a few images before being pulled away to explore kinetic sculptural interests. During a recent studio visit gallery owner Laura Henkel persuaded him to allow her to show the entire series. Grouped together, the images revive old Vegas, visiting familiar places that have since changed and ideas still relevant today.
Looking at three kids astride camels in front of a blocky beige building, parents snapping photos, we see the ghost of the recently closed Sahara casino. In “Tourist Zone,” we visit old Fremont Street, pre-digital dome, appearing as a charming mixture of Vegas and Raphaelite painting with nude figures meandering the space in the midst of figures clad in gray suits and Vegas signage; Vegas Vic watching the scene from on high.
Commenting on the nude figures, Bondi explains each resort entered is a “hat” put on by the visitor. “Identity is pliable, only a matter of choosing a hat. If I’m at Caesars, I’m ancient Roman…at The Mirage; I’m a Polynesian and probably wear a grass skirt. Who am I in between resorts? I am naked. I have no theme, no identity.”
Nude figures await their next vacation identity.
Nearby, in the work “Adjacent Vegas Resorts” casino themes assume corporeal form. A lion growls towards the outstretched fingers of a grass-skirted tropical dancer; their exchange is nearly bisected by an approaching crusader on horseback. The trio of figures provide a vivid literary approximation of a Las Vegas Boulevard intersection that seems as if, at any moment, may spring apart. Sweep of a sword, a final snarl and grass shimmy, each icon turns to depart, going their separate ways out into the desert.
A couple of works verge upon clairvoyant, envisioning locations that did not yet exist. Predating the construction of the Venetian casino by seven years, “Crossroads” pairs a harbor of Venetian gondolas and buildings with the Googie-era Stardust sign in the background like a diamond-studded cloud. The work compares the improbability of a city built in the desert with the equally improbable city built largely upon water, while also looking at the architectural harmony achieved in Venice through blending of the disparate elements of Venetian Gothic architecture and Spanish Moorish influences.
“As Venice found harmony in combining many conflicting styles of architecture, we may find a way to harmonize the conflicting styles of architecture found in Vegas,” Bondi says.
Predictions continue with a work titled “Neon Museum,” made in 1992, which envisions preservation of retired neon signs grouped for admiring visitors who are reclining on benches, gazing at a night sky populated with blinking sculptures. The wrangling up of old signage had started recently in 1992, and four years later the allied Arts Council founded the Neon Museum, the completion of which would take another 16 years.
Nearby “Fission Convention” nods at Vegas’ atomic testing past with a luscious mushroom cloud blossoming in the sunset behind a 1950s Convention Center, while works like “Water Project” blend deserts of dry sand with a slice of arctic desert inserted in the center, a nod to issues of the present. The mixture of deserts, all devoid of vegetation, comments upon extreme climates, climate change and water shortages, all fledgling issues in the ’90s that have since grown in prominence.
Brimming with Las Vegas charisma and neon artifacts, this collection of images captures a pivotal moment in local history conveyed by an artist deeply connected with a city and time he was living in. The viewing experience is akin to opening a time capsule, objects of the past fondly picked up once more, made all the more strange and precious, colored by the present.
Through Dec. 23, Sin City Gallery, 107 E. Charleston Blvd, Ste. 100. www.sincitygallery.com