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Iconic Vegas painter and muralist Robert Beckmann is back in town after many years away — with a fresh eye for a very changed city

“Have I told you about St. Thomas?” the artist Robert Beckmann asks. You mean the apostle? The Virgin Island? Not even close. “It was the town founded by the Mormons in 1856 that went underwater when Lake Mead was formed,” he says. Oh, right! In that case, no, you have not. Plucking his smartphone from the table at Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza on Sahara, Beckmann finger-spins through the hundreds of photos he stores in it, stopping at an image of a painting in progress. The screen is small, its resolution inadequate for the viewing of fine art, but you can see a square of dark brown paint that’s clearly a building awaiting more detail, surrounded by skeletal tree limbs, a mottled sepia background.

The waitress approaches through the clatter of a Friday late-lunch crowd. “Hello, Robert!” she says in what sounds like a light French accent; he must be a regular. He’s 71 and almost looks it, but there’s something boyishly reserved about him when he returns her smile. Not long returned after several years in Oregon, Beckmann is still re-triangulating his position in a city he lived in for upwards of three decades before he left.

Back to his painting: “It was the hotel in St. Thomas,” he says. He got the image from an old photo taken before the floodwaters. Tapping an index finger on a patch of empty background, he says he might paint CityCenter’s doomed Harmon Tower there. You begin to get it right away: Two ruined hotels, potent symbols of hospitality rendered inhospitable by human neglect or folly, separated by decades but maybe united on canvas in a statement about vulnerability in a world of large, uncontrollable forces. Much of his work can be “read,” its conceptual content teased out, in this rather literary way. And since Beckmann assigns every aspect of his art as much symbolic weight as it will bear, a building is rarely just a building with him. The potential meanings multiply: Buildings stand in for our defenseless bodies, psyches, families, institutions, even society. (If you took the underwater-ness of St. Thomas as an economic metaphor, you’re right where Beckmann wants you.)

So, in answer to the question I asked when I sat down, that’s what he’s been up to lately: Trying to come up with fresh ways to capture and metaphorize the essence of a place he’s already painted — and, as a muralist, painted on — more prolifically, variously and deep-thinkingly than pretty much anyone else who comes to mind.

You can see for yourself with House and Home, a exhibit of his old and new work that opens May 4 at Henderson’s VAST Space Projects gallery (vastspaceprojects.com), Beckmann’s first solo exhibit here in years. As the title suggests, the work is mostly united by a preoccupation with the rich artistic potential of structures and our places in them. “These things are all about being vulnerable in Las Vegas,” Beckmann says. “Whether it’s mortgages being underwater, or the fallout of nuclear testing. The other common denominator is the house, or home. Which is an extension of ourselves. It protects us. At the same time it’s vulnerable, to the economy, earthquakes or whatever.”

But because it’s a mini-retrospective, the show also underscores how diverse his approaches have been over time. There’s the unblinking forensic gaze of The Body of a House, his monumental series based on government footage of a home being razed by an atomic blast at the Nevada Test Site (this show will feature outtakes from Body, as the final series resides in Reno’s Nevada Museum of Art). There’s the brainy pastiche of his Vegas Vanitas series, in which he inserted features of Las Vegas into landscapes inspired by Old Masters. There’s an unsettlingly lovely image of a nuclear explosion.

If the exhibit also makes clear how much he’s drawn from Vegas subject matter, VAST gallerist Shannon McMackin says it would be a mistake to view the paintings in purely local terms. “His works require a much more thoughtful look to understand that they are loaded with concepts that extend well beyond the Vegas Valley,” she says. “This is what makes him such an important artist. He is inspired by a region that is loaded with conceptual metaphors and works with them, but on a much larger scale.”

Consider a canvas like “86’d From Paradise,” from Vegas Vanitas, in which a tiny Adam and Eve are exiled from the Strip into a vast wilderness. It has a locals-only cleverness (Paradise Township as Paradise!), but it’s really a carefully considered inversion of the Eden story that poses searching questions about our founding myths: What is paradise? What are right and wrong? What is man’s relationship to nature? After all, it’s Sin City, a place founded on temptation and congenial to serpents, that pulses warmly with life and sociability — a sense of home. And nature, far from being typically pastoral, is dark, impenetrable, terrifying. These are ideas are at play anywhere.

“When we started talking about a show, I was really drawn to his earlier work in the Vanitas and Body of a House series,” McMackin says. “It seemed timely with his return to town and to what was currently going on with our economy, to look back at these concepts in a new body of work.”

Oak

Writing on the wall

“I’ve lost track,” Beckmann says as we loiter behind the Dula Senior Center, an ancient civic building on Bonanza. I’ve just asked him how many murals he completed during his years here. He guesses: “Somewhere over 250,” an astonishing number, though some are probably better classified as “painting projects” than murals — wayfinding color stripes in high schools and the like. But many have been large public or commercial commissions: at McCarran International Airport; in such resorts as Bellagio, Mirage and the Rio; in banks and on government buildings.

Indeed, it’s an irony of Beckmann’s career — though not a bitter one, he says, perhaps convincingly — that he’s probably better known in town as a muralist than as a studio artist, a situation we’ve come to Dula to contemplate. Somewhat absurdly, we’ve bulled through two fire exits and one uncomprehending clerk to access this rear lot so we could look at … the grimy, dreary, utterly empty back wall.

Years ago, one of his earliest murals undulated up and down this dull expanse. He put it up with the aid of high-school students in, what, 1977? He pulls the whole thing up from memory: “It was 30 colors — 10 rainbow colors, plus 10 lighter variations and 10 darker ones,” he says. “When we were doing it, the people going by were honking their horns and going, ‘Yeah!’” Repeat a couple hundred times and you have the makings of a remarkable visual legacy.

Except some don’t last, of course. The Dula piece has been gone longer than it existed. Plenty of his murals exist only in photos and his memory. He says that doesn’t bother him; it comes with mural work. It’s not meant to last forever. 

Still, it’s tempting to use Beckmann’s own tendency toward metaphor — in this case, artwork erased from public view — to pose a few searching questions: Does it irk him that Beckmann the muralist has in some ways overshadowed Beckmann the fine artist? Did he get his due from the Vegas arts community? After all, it took an institution in Reno, not here, to recognize the stature of The Body of a House, and Vegas Vanitas has yet to be similarly acquired. Did any of that contribute to his departure for Oregon in 2005?

Departure

An artist’s stature is a tricky thing to measure, of course. “For all the people he butted heads with, and there were many, a lot of people still respect him,” says artist Fried Sigman, a longtime friend of Beckmann’s who now lives in Florida. “As much as Las Vegas recognizes its artists, he’s gotten it.” Among other things, he’s received several grants and awards from the state, and plenty of column inches in the local media over the years. As to proper acknowledgment, “If you ask him, he might say no,” Sigman says affectionately. 

But Beckmann regularly mentions Tibetan Buddhism in relation to the creative process, and talks openly — to me, for this story, but also in earnest emails to the circle of mostly younger artists he’s taken up with since he came back — about art’s capacity to heal, both personally and socially. (This put him at odds with the prevailing mood of the Dave Hickey years, when the influential art critic, then headquartered in Vegas, championed an aesthetic of visual pleasure and had little fondness for art that attempted meaning or, especially, healing.) 

So, as we wander behind Dula in the late-morning sun, trying to get out to the front — turns out fire exits don’t open inward — he won’t cop to much bitterness. The mural work? It paid the bills while keeping him out of academe and in the real world of casinos, schools, student helpers and municipal projects. That kind of reality-engagement matters to “an old leftist” who, as a young man, hosted informal art classes for poor kids in his Chicago neighborhood. “It was always an absolute joy,” he says of mural work, “because it was real. Real stuff.”

And he says he left Vegas not because he couldn’t find a home in the arts scene — although he never made real inroads with, say, the university crowd — but because the mural work was drying up and because he was newly married and she wanted to go north.

Well, okay, there’s this: “I think there are people out there who have condescended to me because I don’t have a style or whatever,” he allows, softly. “But I think that I’ve come up with a lot of original stuff over the years.”

The watchman and the spy

“There are two different heads I have,” Beckmann says. “One is my mural head and one is the studio head.” He’s sitting in a spare room of the house he rents in a distant precinct of Anthem, a neighborhood he lightly mocks as full of old people. In the suburban fashion, his house looks like all the others, but inside, his is surely the most singular home on the street. Art is everywhere — in progress on the living-room walls, set out for quiet rumination in a spare bedroom, stored in the kitchen, the master bedroom, the closets. (It’s my journalistic failing that I didn’t check the bathroom.) This is where the studio head does its thing.

Beckmann isn’t immune to the vulnerabilities he depicts; he returned from Oregon last year because his marriage collapsed and he needed a place to live and a new mindspace to paint from. 

The Vegas Graces

Vegas seems to have helped. We’re looking at “The Vegas Graces,” a dark blue depiction of Flamingo and the Strip, minus the neon glare. The three graces are arrayed across its midsection: a construction crane, the Statue of Liberty from New York-New York, a ghostly, translucent Blue Angel. Growth. Freedom. Risk.

It began as a straightforward depiction of the Strip at night. “But as the paint began to drizzle down on the surface here, it took on this emotional tone, which became something else. There was sort of a sadness that happened; an elegiac quality, if you will. When that happened, somehow, the Blue Angel somehow played into this — the spirit that hung over Vegas as a protective angel, maybe — but is she really there?”

He’s serious about that two-minds business; he’s got a thing for the creative potential of opposed dualities. He mentions them all the time: Chaos vs. order. Right brain vs. left. Thinking vs. feeling. (He quotes Horace Walpole: For the person who thinks, the world is a comedy; for the person who feels, the world is a tragedy.)

One of his favorite dualities comes from painter Jasper Johns, who suggested there are two kinds of artists: the watchman, who essentially keeps tabs on a factory that turns out items in his recognizable, market-friendly style; Warhol, for instance. Then there’s the spy, “where you’re part of the culture, but at the same time standing outside the culture, observing it, commenting on it.”

That’s how he sees himself, for better (artistically) and worse (financially). He settles into a chair in his art-stuffed living room, and smiles. “I’m not interested in making product.”

House and Home: The work of Robert Beckmann

May 4-June 8 at VAST Space
Projects gallery, 730 W. Sunset Road, vastspaceprojects.com. Reception 6-8 p.m. May 4


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