Like a magical Orpheus, a brownish tortoise "Houdini" rests half emerged from a narrow burrow in a dry fountain bed, munching a pink bloom. Above, a pedestal holds a multi-pointed abstract star, the rigid geometry clashing with a pair of classical nude figures. The odd mixture feels like a backyard fictional casino model.
Living in this city, residents quietly absorb the spectacle, glamour and magic of Las Vegas and find it taking root and popping up within their homes, objects and lives.
Inextricably linked to Las Vegas through friends and family, artist Kristine McCallister is able to locate and pull out the charming Vegas mystique within mundane moments.
Talking about her new exhibit Paradise, currently on display at Brett Wesley Gallery, McCallister reveals her process and a few stories leading up to the creation of some of the paintings.
Jenessa Kenway: The exhibit statement says its about the lives of Las Vegas locals, which leads me to think there may be some really interesting back stories behind some of the pieces. Could you tell me about one or two of the stories that inspired works in the show?
Kristine McCalister: I will speak of Houdini. I went to my friend Richard Hooker’s home. His backyard was filled with desert cacti and I arrived at the right time of year to catch a rare blooming. During our visit, Richard’s desert tortoise, Houdini, emerged. Richard had rescued desert tortoises for years. Houdini is the only one he has now.
JK: What a perfect name for a tortoise.
KM: It was a magical experience for me. Richard fed him the cactus flower. It was also obvious that this was Richard’s composition or still life … carved pedestal a friend of his from New Mexico had made … men holding up the heavens while a tortoise emerged from the underworld. I knew immediately that this was his story.
JK: There is a strong narrative quality to your work that seems theatrical, dramatic yet also snap-shot casual. What’s your process for selecting your material? Perhaps you occasionally alter your source material (adding in a mask later, shifting a figure?) to increase the surreal tension?
KM: Process. That is something we are always in. My relationship to Las Vegas has been a long-standing process. Las Vegas intrigues me. I am always seeing a painting. None of the still-life paintings were altered. When I arrived at (Wayne Wilson’s) home he had his collection of hats and shoes, ala Charlie Chaplin. He is an incredible clown. I stepped into the backyard and saw his pool and knew I wanted to work with this setting. He immediately joined in with the concept by putting on his suit and getting in the pool. At one point when I was home in my studio I tried to impose an idea on the work by manipulating the image with two photos; one image he was still, the other he was approaching it. I was going to combine his still body with the moving shadow. I abandoned the idea because I wanted to stay with what was true, not ideas.
JK: The still-life paintings are also portraits of Las Vegas people viewed through their objects?
KM: The still-life paintings are all random aspects of what people have gathered to their life. The iPhone became a tool. I have been painting for over 30 years and this is the first year that I worked from photographs. There were some challenging aspects working from photos that eventually created new growth in my work. I took quite a few photos and selected the compositions I felt were most powerful. “The Pig and Whistle” was how my friend Steve’s desktop was looking that day. He is a bit of a hoarder, but he hoards antiquities and is a bit of a relic himself. There are fascinating stories behind each piece he acquires. It was this painting that gave me the idea to paint the still-life portraits and masked portraits of people. It is also Steve in El Rey, wearing some of his collections!
It wasn’t until all the work was assembled in Las Vegas that I understood how cohesive the entire show was. I could see that I had been painting what people love about being alive because life is so fleeting and precious.
JK: Yes, the objects we display around us are small alters to the experiences of life.
Through Nov. 30, Brett Wesley Gallery, 1112 S. Casino Center Blvd., www.brettwesleygallery.com