What does happen in Vegas, anyway?
artist Gig Depio on being an outsider in the art world and what to do about it
Update, 3/9/16: Gig wrote this morning to clarify that when he was listing major arts amenities lacking in Las Vegas, he meant no insult to the UNLV Marjorie Barrick Museum, which not only exists but presents some great-looking programming. Highlights this season include staff picks from the permanent collection and an Ellsworth Kelly show through May 14.
On one hand, Las Vegas is a city of excess and opulence. It's where you go to go big. On the other hand, it's not all glitz. Once you step off The Strip it's just a normal place, where people do normal things, like go to water parks and eat good food in strip malls. And the art scene?
"We don't have collectors. We don't have any significant events. We don’t have a museum," said artist Gig Depio. In a metro area of two million, that's pretty unusual. Typically a city that size has a museum or two and a list of mid-level and high-end galleries. Vegas does have a hardworking core of artists and administrators, but the glamorous echelons of its scene suffered a cosmic bust that looks like it'd be hard to recover from. The Guggenheim Las Vegas closed in 2003, the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum inside the Venetian closed in 2008, and the Las Vegas Art Museum closed in 2009, citing "falling donations." DUST, an adventurous commercial gallery that showed consistently high-quality work, bit the dust in 2008 after a laudable five-year run. Star art critic Dave Hickey and curator and art historian Libby Lumpkin, his wife, who'd made strides in getting Las Vegas art on the national map, left town in 2010.
An art scene with this much of its ecosystem missing makes Vegas a tough place to launch an art career. It's hard to climb the career ladder when so many of its rungs are missing. (Here in Reno, the collective art-career ladder is missing its middle rungs too, but let's pause for a moment to appreciate how good we've got it up here. In addition to a small academic community with a noticeable pulse and an ambitious cadre of artist-run spaces, both of which Vegas also has, we have the luxuries of a bona fide art museum and proximity to Burning Man. That last one has brought us public sculptures, spiced up our downtown events [the number of fire-spinners per capita here is really something], and spawned The Generator. [Full-disclosure: I have been directly involved with the Generator.] And when things start to feel provincial in Reno we can skip over to Sacramento or San Francisco for the weekend.)
With Vegas' particular challenges in mind, Depio held a public conversation at the Nevada Humanities Program Gallery last week titled, "Why Art Now?" I called him to ask for an after-report. He put in in a nutshell — "The talk was essentially about everybody dividing up into their own groups." He'd like to see a less cliquish, more unified art scene.
That led to a conversation about his experiences as an outsider trying to gain a foothold over the last few years. Depio, who makes large paintings chock-full of references to immigration and consumerism, grew up in the Philippines, tried Boston and San Jose but found them too exclusive for his taste, and landed in Vegas in 2009. Since then, he said, "I think I've filed up a whole suitcase of rejection letters." In 2013, he almost gave up painting, but with encouragement from colleagues and mentors, he decided to persist. "Your painting doesn't matter if there's nobody looking at it," he thought. He wanted his work to matter.
In 2014, he had a gallery show at Winchester Cultural Center. "Before I had that show up at Winchester nobody knew that I knew how to paint," he said. But that one show broke the floodgate. Luxury Las Vegas magazine ran a glossy, six page spread. Las Vegas Weekly's Kristen Peterson, in a celebratory review, called Depio's paintings "loaded and decadent—not just with broad strokes and generous layers of oil but also with allegory, emotion and wit. They bounce between vignettes and sweeping narratives, each exploring contemporary life through globalism, immigration, social media and 24/7 news."
In 2015, he learned that he was among four artists in the state to receive the Nevada Arts Council's 2016 Artist Fellowship. He's since booked several exhibits in Las Vegas and Carson City, and he is scheduled to appear in the NMA's exhibit, Tilting the Basin: Contemporary Art of Nevada, which opens in August. He's also negotiating an exhibit in Los Angeles' Chinatown, where the gallery scene is thriving.
Depio's advice to artists working their ways up that ladder: "Presence matters. ... You have to show up. ... I see young kids who go into juried shows only, who just want to be recognized by their peers. I want them to go past that. Just make your art. Learn how to make a proposal. Learn the techniques. Or unlearn the techniques. Try to make a body of work that will blow people's minds, and that's it."
Depio's favorite Las Vegas art stops include:
The Barrick Museum at UNLV
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