Artist Cory McMahon’s curt sentiment is shared by so many in the Las Vegas arts community as the qualifications for public artworks become more restrictive on the daily. A native Las Vegan, UNLV MFA and interdisciplinary artist, McMahon’s “Space Available” exhibition at the Clark County Government Center Rotunda Gallery is getting the boot. Under an hour into its early morning debut last Monday, Clark County officially requested McMahon to vacate his work from the premises. In an informal email, Clark County Public Communications Director Erik Pappa characterizes the work as including articles of “refuse,” insisting that the installation deviated substantially from the artists’ original proposal and demanding he remove the massive and complex exhibition promptly.
McMahon’s original proposal clearly outlined his intentions to occupy the space with “free standing structures made of wood, Styrofoam, cardboard and ready-made objects such as folding tables, air mattresses, cases of bottled water. … These structures will serve independently as sculptures in addition to paintings and drawings that lean against the structures and/or stand on their own.” Stacked high by the artist in an ordered chaos, these collected objects speak to the space our things occupy and vacate as we move throughout our lives. And although some of the objects included may have appeared to be trash to the communications director, they were in actuality, all of McMahon’s personal effects as detailed in his brief artist statement: “These are all the possessions of Cory McMahon.” Some people’s stuff resembles a home store vignette, others look a bit more… lived in.
Disallowed from conducting a formal artist discussion, the dozen attendees to McMahon’s guerilla style impromptu artist talk last Tuesday wandered through the work in disbelief. How could the County push him out? UNLV Art Theory Professor Robert Tracy emailed a personal letter of support to the county, spurring artist and arts educator Wendy Kveck to send out a late-night email blast on Thursday with a call to send objections to county commissioners. Fellow artists took to social media with posts of solidarity, disappointment and encouragement but by Friday, McMahon was under orders to remove the work at high noon or Clark County staff would do it themselves.
It doesn’t matter that McMahon’s exhibit was approved by a panel of jurors a year ago. Or that the arts community has come out en force to stand behind his non-traditional piece. Officials made it clear that his work is not welcome, just as artist Christopher Jones’ towering interactive work, “Ursus Gloria,” was likewise disallowed after only a brief exhibition at the Rotunda Gallery in 2016 for, what the artist recounts, was an untenable noise disturbance.
Well-known artist Justin Favela is an expert at answering queries about his cardboard and paper sculptures, and even he has been sent packing. In 2017, Favela’s piece, “This Is Not Damascus Gate Variation by Frank Stella,” a large-scale cardboard replica of the original, was removed before the exhibit’s scheduled close at Las Vegas’ City Hall. According to the artist, the piece appeared “unfinished” to an anonymous complainant who objected to Favela’s signature repurposed cardboard patchwork showing on one side. When we reached out for comment on Jones’ truncated exhibition, we received no response. And in regards to the early removal of Favela’s work, when asked, City of Las Vegas officials simply did not recall the work or its fate.
Admittedly challenging, each of the works mentioned above did trace the edges of what we currently accept as art. The look of Favela’s recycled cardboard may not be pleasing to all viewers but world-renowned sculptor Tom Sachs crafted his own rise to fame in the very same material. The sharp smack of Jones’ shiny silver stapler in the relative quiet of the County offices was almost certainly disruptive, but where would we be today without artists like Yoko Ono, who used the disquieting sound of her own voice to engage her audience.
McMahon’s installation recalls the 2017 Jason Rhoades retrospective at the revered Hauser Wirth museum in Los Angeles, an artist whose most famous works are made from junked furnishings, discarded packing materials and bric-a-brac of all descriptions. All of these artists have helped define America as the starting place for new kinds of art, but only because there’s been a chance to see what they make. A few difficult works pushed out of public spaces by edict of anonymous complaint doesn’t, in itself, seem like a big deal, but it’s the cumulative effect that tells artists that City and County controlled programs and spaces are not open to experimentation; that new works will not be regarded as equal to their more traditional counterparts; that public art must always address only topics and conditions within which the entirety of the audience is comfortable or risk unceremonious removal. In short, the advancement of art must occur in private.
Thankfully advocates do exist, fighting the all-important behind the scenes battles to secure public spaces for works that may otherwise have none. The City of Las Vegas’ Visual Arts Specialists Rebecca Holden, Laura Aguiar Machado and Jeanne Voltura are just such friends to the new media artist, fearlessly bringing non-traditional proposals to their director and before panels of jurors for approval. As a result, the City’s Windows on First, City Hall Grand Gallery and Ariel Gallery, programs for which the visual specialists coordinate, are regularly host to uncommon performance artworks, light works and a vast array of materials and themes. Holden and Aguiar Machado, attendees at McMahon’s embattled exhibition, are the very personification of the patient, engaged and compassionate personalities required to empower artists who push conventional boundaries and the art world on to new horizons. Though they don’t always prevail, their director Ally Haynes-Hamblen believes the time and energy is well spent.
As McMahon’s work is under duress at a County venue just down the street from Hamblen’s offices, she’s still upbeat about the future of arts in Las Vegas. “There’s a lot of nontraditional work happening here in spaces supported by the City,” Hamblen says. “I feel like it’s a great opportunity and our responsibility to support new kinds of work.”
But after being ousted by Clark County, McMahon is certain that the solution for artists working in new mediums cannot be found within the confines of our current public art programs. “There shouldn’t be publicly funded programs if the people who have final say over those spaces don’t exhibit respect and sensitivity to the artwork,” he says. “I don’t think they’re promoting the possibilities of art or what art can be.”