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We choose you
Story by Scott Dickensheets and
Photography by Bill Hughes
Lots of artists “end up” here. Couple Matt Couper and J.K. Russ targeted Las Vegas with a particular goal: to live, work and love as artists
1. Never mind that the Stratosphere Tower looms in some of Matthew Couper’s paintings, as though it’s heavy with specific meaning. That doesn’t mean he’s quite figured out how the two years he’s spent here have affected his art.
“I still haven’t got done processing my reaction to Vegas,” he insists. Something about cultural displacement, perhaps? (He’s from New Zealand.) That’s the sort of thing the paintings themselves will reveal to him over time. For now: “You just have to trust that your instincts were right,” he says.
“The money thing,” observes his wife, artist J.K. Russ, referring to the symbols of corrosive capitalism cropping up recently amid the bones, primates, alchemy and other iconography he uses in his work — bold, symbolic canvases executed in a Spanish colonial style retooled for the 21st century. “That is really a direct response to being in Vegas,” she points out. (“Vegas” comes out as “Vai-gus” in their New Zealand accents.)
Couper nods as he lounges in his studio, which sometimes doubles as the living room of their downtown apartment. Everywhere there’s the stuff of artistic production: drop cloths on the floor, source images on the walls, unfinished pieces awaiting attention. Russ sits a few feet away, in the kitchen; her studio is down the hall, in a spare bedroom where she snips images from girlie magazines and old album covers to assemble collages that explore gender and sexuality.
She’s clearer than her husband about what moving here has meant for her work: “In a lot of ways, Vegas was the perfect place for me to come to,” Russ says. You can see it in the desert creatures that have crept into her collages, snakes and arachnids worn as jewelry by the languid women in her images. Couper sees it, too. “They’ve become much more direct,” he tells her.
2. You’d love their place — it’s practically a shrine to the creative life, to the belief that art should be woven into your everyday world, to inventive space management. If Couper wants to show you one of his finished pieces, he has to gingerly peel it out of a roll of paintings stored on the hallway floor. Wow, you think, they even have art underfoot.
The apartment itself is deep in old Vegas, down an alley in a neighborhood Tony Hsieh hasn’t bought yet. (Theirs is the unit with the small painting on the door.) Soho Lofts rises not far away, a brawny reminder that downtown never stops dreaming of an urban cosmopolitanism to call its own. But there’s some righteous street art nearby, too. And bail bondsmen. Wedding chapels. The Arts District. City Hall. The dishabille charm of Main Street. At night, they can see a wink of light from the Fremont Street Experience.
It’s that sense of in-betweenness, and the open-ended narrative of possibility that comes with it, that largely explains why Russ and Couper chose Las Vegas two years ago when they abandoned the smallness of their native New Zealand. It’s not like they aimed for L.A. and overshot the landing, either — this was a deliberate choice.
3. Consider that for a minute: Let’s go to Sin City and make art.
Counterintuitive, yes: Other cities boast more cultural infrastructure and star-making power, which, with their talent and experience, they might’ve taken advantage of. But Russ and Couper believed they would find extra creative latitude here precisely because Vegas isn’t burdened by that stifling apparatus. They’re free to “feed off of what’s here,” Couper says. “Los Angeles is established, jaded; going there we’d have to start at the bottom of the ladder.”
“There’s more opportunity here,” Russ adds, “if you’re willing to put in the time and effort to make something happen.”
“They could have gone almost anywhere, and it would have been easier on them, at least financially,” says artist Brent Holmes. “But they made what I think was a more difficult choice — almost as a challenge.”
4. Of course, Russ and Couper aren’t the first to seek creative license in Vegas — the tag cloud of their ambitions (“opportunity,” “freedom,” “pioneering spirit”) resembles that of pretty much every incoming artist since Bugsy Siegel — but they’re making the most of it now, having worked their way very close to the center of the city’s visual arts scene, with rising profiles and a subtle but undeniable influence.
If you’ve lately been to any art event more public than hanging a picture in your living room, chances are you’ve seen one or both of them. Matt, slight of build, shaven of head, intense of eye, perhaps talking about the art in that unmistakable Kiwi accent; Jo, maybe taking notes for her blog (jorussfotodiary.blogspot.com), perhaps talking about the art in that unmistakable Kiwi accent. (They’re “intimidatingly smart,” Holmes says, and can genuinely drop the deep art-history knowledge.) Gallery openings, exhibit closings, lectures, parties, informal get-togethers — they’re always looking, always talking.
“They kind of noticed me after my show at Blackbird Studios in 2011,” Holmes recalls. “They thought maybe we had something in common and were like, ‘You wanna come hang out and talk?’”
“If I have a question about art or the gallery, they’re the people I go to right away to bounce things off of,” says Shannon McMackin, owner of Henderson’s Pop Up Art Gallery.
And there’s substance beneath the networking. Earlier this year, Russ had a well-received exhibit of her collages in the Sin City Gallery, “The Desert of Earthly Delights,” and she organized the Contemporary Arts Center’s important Off the Strip performance art event in September. Couper has exhibited in numerous shows here and elsewhere. (His Facebook friends are often treated to posts from cities where he’s hanging something of his in a gallery.) He’s got a pair of big shows in New Zealand coming up, mostly paintings that deal with his time here.
5. In that way, conversation by conversation, show by show, piece by piece, they’ve become prominent among a vanguard of newly pronounced talent — artists such as Holmes, Filipino painter and performance artist Jevijoe Vitug, fabric artist Eri King and others who, if they stay, will be pillars of the scene. The core group bonded during the run-up to the London Biennale, a performance-art event many participated in this July. Now they get together often, to talk shop or plot the future. They may have little stylistically in common, Vitug says, “but when we talk about art, it’s as if we’re on the same page.”
“They’ve had a strong influence on the direction my career has taken,” Holmes says.
Russ and Couper’s timing has been fortuitous. Thanks to such developments as the Emergency Arts complex, The Smith Center, a revitalized First Friday and Zappos’ promise of downtown as a creative-class playpen, the arts scene is experiencing one of its periodic fevers of excitement. There’s once again a sense that something homegrown might jump the city limits. People meet, formally or casually, to talk about the state of, the needs of, the future of Vegas art. Russ and Couper are among the leading voices in those conversations, gently supporting the idea that Vegas is poised for bigger things without trying to dictate the details. Theirs is a soft influence.
“They tend to add an air of legitimacy to whatever they touch,” Holmes says.
6. At this point you might be feeling saccharine overload — they just sound too good to be true. Well, it gets worse: “They’re nice, too; they’re not assholes,” Holmes will tell you. “As we speak, Matt’s at the (Contemporary Arts Center) drilling holes in the wall to help other artists hang their work, instead of getting ready for his shows in New Zealand.” There you have it.
Their appeal is surely enhanced by the fact that they’re a couple. It’s romantic and charming that two people have twined their lives around one idea, wholly invested in the art life — down under, Russ often worked as a graphic designer. Here, they’re both full-time artists.
“I’ve always admired couples like that,” McMackin says. “I think it’s amazing, two people just making art, surviving off of their work.”
“When you see hard-working people like Matt and Jo,” says Vitug, “who are full-time artists with no steady income coming from here, but who have managed to stay here and continuously do ambitious project, it gives you confidence that there is still hope here.”
7. There have been some distinctive phases in the discussion of what constitutes a Vegas style of art. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, smart people talked about risk as an artistic theme, the way certain art could link casino wagering to the apocalyptic gambling represented by the Nevada Test Site to various social issues. A French theorist or two later, it was all about the Spectacle or the Simulacrum — did you know Vegas was all about the authenticity of artifice? Then came Dave Hickey and his poetics of beauty, expressed in a preference for hard, gorgeous surfaces that echoed the high-tech shimmer of the Strip.
Yes, that’s a vast simplification, and sure, it’s riddled with exceptions, but it does get at the way the local culture regularly feels an urge to bust out a national presence, as if Las Vegas is an aesthetic inheritance it would be foolish to squander. We’re at that point again.
“It’s become kind of a challenge,” Couper says, “working out what could be an aspect of the arts scene here, and contemporary practice, that’s regional — that’s reacting to the region, but the region is a total global experience. The Strip is about the whole world put in one place.”
8. If the idea of a new Vegas regionalism sounds cool, specifics about what it might entail are still maddeningly vague. “It doesn’t necessarily have to have a Vegas look, but a Vegas feel,” Couper suggests. That is, a cultural and psychological content clearly rooted in ... well, what? The internationality of the Strip? Maybe. The thin line between marketing and art? Possibly. A determination to look at the unpretty machinations behind the pretty facades? Couper thinks so. But, he adds, “the Vegas feel hasn’t been unpacked yet.” And in the absence of a French theorist to do that for us, we’ll have to leave it up to the artists.
“We can’t do what L.A. can do, or New York or Houston or Austin or Chicago,” Holmes says. “So (Russ and Couper) are working on, ‘What can we do that no one else can do?’ And that’s just a really big, big, important question.”
Not just for these two, either. “It’s got to come from an attitude of the artists,” Couper says. Which suits this couple just fine. “What I keep discovering about Las Vegas is that you’ve got to be kind of entrepreneurial in your thinking about how things work,” Couper says. “Just because it’s worked somewhere else doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work here. Which is a good thing; I really like that.” In other words, Vegas is a blank canvas.
On the floor of his studio, Couper rolls out several of the large canvases he’ll send to New Zealand for his shows there. They are intellectually complex, layered with allegory. In “Retrograde Cabal,” a quartet of pop culture aliens (E.T., Alf, the alien from “Alien” and Roger from “American Dad”) smoke and drink in the shadow of Vegas — visitors using the city for their own self-destructive purposes before moving on. Aliens, caught between worlds.
On one level it’s Couper’s response to the couple being told when they got here that they shouldn’t think they could change an arts scene that didn’t really need them. On another, like most of his work, it adroitly mixes high concept with low culture, an international perspective with city-specific images, the sacred with the profane, all executed with tremendous skill. Much, you might say, like Vegas itself.
He carefully rerolls his paintings and prepares to send them out into the world.
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