Sin City Gallery Goes Big With Immersive

Gallerist Laura Henkel is taking a shrewdly calculated big chance with a daylong “art happening”

Laura Henkel | Photo by Krystal Ramirez

Laura Henkel | Photo by Krystal Ramirez

Size doesn’t matter to Laura Henkel. Her Sin City Gallery, a contemporary art venue that features provocative works (she bristles a bit at the descriptor “erotic art”), is located in one of the Arts Factory’s smaller spaces; it’s all but hidden behind the new Downtown Crown pub. Sin City’s annual juried show, 12 Inches of Sin, features works no bigger than a diagonal foot. She doesn’t even like to take up much space, as a rule of living; she called a 36-foot sailboat home for the better part of seven years, and was content to do so. “It was a little slice of heaven,” Henkel says.

Yet Henkel, and Sin City, always seem to make a big impact. The 12 Inches show, now in its sixth year, draws hundreds of submissions. Last year she crowd-funded four books of art compiled from past 12 Inches shows; the fifth book comes out this year. Now, the gallerist is taking a shrewdly calculated big chance with Immersive, a daylong “art happening” that spills out of Sin City Gallery into the Arts Factory’s west parking lot on April 9. Hundreds of pieces of sexy and provocative art, from photographs to mixed media pieces, will be on display, complemented by a series of live performers that includes Madame Estrella, a professional dominatrix.

If this sounds like a coming-out party to you, you’re not far from wrong. Henkel wants to destigmatize provocative art by literally bringing it out into the open. “It’ll be a full day of enjoying the weather, enjoying the lifestyle, enjoying culture,” she says, stressing the last word.

Immersive kind of feels like an occasion; a victory lap. How many years has Sin City Gallery been open?

Since 2010. Why I opened up an art gallery in the worst economic climate, in one of the hardest-hit cities … You know, it just felt right. And I’ve really become a part of the community, here in the Arts District. It’s very exciting to see what’s about to happen here.

The Pecker and The Virgin by Stewart Freshwater

“The Pecker” and The Virgin by Stewart Freshwater

It really is a one-of-a-kind gallery for Las Vegas.

The work that I show here is sophisticated. It’s designed to appeal to modern provocateurs.

That phrase, “modern provocateur.” What does it mean?

Over the years, I’ve learned that the phrase “erotic art” tends to come across a certain way, and not in the right way for most people. If I present a piece of art, and I say it’s “contemporary art,” and they say “it’s erotic,” that’s fine. But if I come out and say “it’s erotic,” it’s not so fine. “Modern provocateur” is basically an expression I’ve coined with an art historian and curator in New York. Erotic art really hasn’t had any evolution within the genre. There are other art forms that continue to evolve, but erotic art has not, and it has this really negative stigma to it.

“Modern provocateur” is really a contemporaneous term that not only talks about a kind of art, but it talks about lifestyle, about societal mores. Art is always reflective of what’s around us, and modern provocateur reflects LGBTQ, reflects kink, reflects technology and media. It’s all-encompassing.

I actually have a written definition (of modern provocateur), and I really hope people try to take it apart. That means it’s caught on, and it can grow and evolve from there.

Is this genre finally gaining mainstream acceptance? There’s a big Robert Mapplethorpe revival happening at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art and the Getty Museum right now…

Yeah. The art that I present is more mainstream than people think. The way that this imagery permeates media, film, the Internet … it’s prevalent. And I’m ecstatic about the Mapplethorpe retrospective. Here you have two art institutions collaborating: LACMA will show all the kinky stuff, all the subversive stuff; they’re not holding back. And the Getty will be showing his flowers. (Laughs.) Something for everyone.

And look at Jeff Koons. Back in the early 2000s, Koons was doing his Cicciolina homages and sculptures and not holding back. He’s evolved to tulips and Snoopy dogs and so forth. So, yeah, it’s definitely more acceptable these days. But that goes back to “erotic art.” When you call it that, you’re reverting back to very Puritan thinking. We’re far beyond that. We are modern. And the fact that there are elements of this art that provoke—well, that’s what art is supposed to be doing.

What’s the worst reaction Sin City Gallery has received? “I don’t want this filth in my town,” that sort of thing?

Actually, I think I’m marginalized quite a bit, because of the genre. 12 Inches of Sin, for example, is now the largest international juried arts show in Nevada. The first year, we had 40 submissions from five countries; the second year, we received more than 100 entries and the number of countries doubled. We’ve had artists from 23 countries participate. The cultural director for the City of Reno was a judge (of the competition). Oscar Goodman was a judge. Next year, someone from the San Francisco Arts Commission will be a judge. It’s crossing over, and the books (of collected 12 Inches art) support that. I mean, we’re soon to publish our fifth.

But some people within our community tend to marginalize us. In the beginning, that bothered me, but when I Iooked at it from a professional perspective, I realized that the reach of what I’m doing goes far beyond Vegas. And when I receive an email from an artist in Slovenia, or New Zealand, or South Korea, I realize that I’m providing a mechanism for people to showcase their art who otherwise might not have the opportunity. And I’m doing it in a way that elevates the art.

"Miss Hepburn" by Michelle Mildenhall

“Miss Hepburn” by Michelle Mildenhall

Do you see Immersive as a kind of invitation to the community?

It’s more of an evolution. From the beginning, I thought we needed to have a celebration. Artists are traveling to 12 Inches from San Francisco and New York, and they’re coming to this gallery, which is an intimate small space. For the first year of 12 Inches I threw an event in the gallery, which was great. The following year, even more people RSVP’d from across the country and overseas, so we began doing a little show at Artifice. Now we’re even too big for that.

This year, I wanted to create an art happening that was a little bit more immersive. This isn’t a fair or a festival. It’s an art happening. I wanted to go a little bit broader: Yes, this is a celebration of those artists who’ve been invited to 12 Inches of Sin, but we’ll also have local artists and 12 vendors. We’ll have workshops and classes; we’ll have live music; we’ll have all kinds of performance art. People will be able to come and go. It’ll just keep escalating throughout the day.

Sounds great.

I just want people to celebrate this art, to support the artists and to take art home. And I hope it inspires people to want to participate as an artist. This is something that’s even bigger than me. People are saying, “Oh, you want this to be (New York art fest) the Armory Show.” I just think that everybody wants to come to Vegas. There’s a perception that you can be a little more mischievous here than you can at home. This is a perfect setting for it.


1 p.m.-midnight April 9, $20-$150, the Arts Factory, 702-608-2461; 21 and over.

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