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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The fine art of Las Vegas

Posted By on Wed, Jul 20, 2011 at 7:17 AM

“If Michelangelo himself painted the Venetian's ceiling, it still wouldn’t work.” -George Rodrigue

I first visited Las Vegas in 1994. It was the flashy Circus Circus sign that dropped my jaw, along with the restaurant at Caesar’s Palace, where the lights mysteriously illuminated from above as we opened our menus, yet lighted only George’s place as the bill arrived.

Vegas today dwarfs the mid-1990s, taking over-the-top to a new level. Many might argue the absence of art in such a place; yet my husband and I not only seek it, but also seek a role in it, during our yearly trek to the land of excess.

It begins with the 7:30 a.m. Southwest party-flight from New Orleans. On Friday George and I sipped coffee, folded origami, discussed a political biography, eaves dropped, and took notes, anticipating this post, as the folks around us snapped photographs, drank Baileys (or Jack Daniels), and derided or applauded Kim Kardashian’s new diamond and Edwin Edwards’ approaching nuptials.

A Money Game (Las Vegas flight entertainment)
  • 'A Money Game' (Las Vegas flight entertainment)

Other than the occasional restaurant theme, such as Picasso, Renoir, or Botero, fine art doesn’t work in Las Vegas, at least not on the Strip. Repeatedly over the years we visited museum ventures by Steve Wynn, Guggenheim and others, oftentimes the only visitors surrounded by millions of dollars in Monets and Warhols, replaced by empty galleries before our next trip.

“But if you install the same paintings in some nowhere place,” insists George Rodrigue, remembering Minimalism in Marfa, Texas, “then the artwork means something, and everyone pays attention.”

Viva Las Vegas
  • 'Viva Las Vegas'

Lines for such exhibitions stretch for blocks in other cities, but in Las Vegas millions of people pass by without a glance, in search of dueling pirate ships, erupting volcanoes, water acrobatics, and ‘a good machine.’

“Let’s face it,” George continued, “It’s hard for Picasso to compete with Garth Brooks.”

Friends in Low Places
  • 'Friends in Low Places'

Las Vegas, however, makes the unreal appealing, almost like one giant art installation. Packs of young girls run by the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty in coordinated minis; the best chefs in the world show off their five-star restaurants; and New York-quality shows and entertainers perform nightly.

  • 'Homeboys'

George and I compare the nightlife to home. In most cases, we prefer New Orleans, foregoing the pounding techno music (do they still play that?) of Las Vegas clubs, in favor of watching the ships on the Mississippi River from our back porch, as well as the occasional bar experience at Eleven 79. However, one locale did stand out from the others this trip.

  • Minus 5 Ice Lounge

At Minus 5 Ice Lounge we donned goofy hats and fake fur coats for an icy experience in an oddly comfortable 23-degrees Fahrenheit. Although known for their vodka cocktails, we tried the clear cranberry juice within ice-glasses, served from a carved ice-bar.

“You can’t put real art in Disney World,” said George, even as he posed by a nude figure carved from ice.

We gave in to the tourist trap, admitting we liked it, and we wondered about the possibilities of such a place in New Orleans. Throw in blinky rings and boas, and It’s hard to imagine a better locale for a holiday party or an escape from the summer heat.

Admittedly, I know little of the art scene away from the Strip. My friends Noel and Candace, who live in Las Vegas, tell me of an emerging ‘Arts District’ and a fun 'First Friday,' which sound similar to our own White Linen and Dirty Linen Nights (Coming up……August 6th and 13th).

Studying Frank Gehrys building plans with Larry Ruvo, 2009
  • Studying Frank Gehry's building plans with Larry Ruvo, 2009

In addition, Larry Ruvo of Southern Wine and Spirits recently opened the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, an incredible building by architect Frank Gehry where doctors and scientists make significant strides in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s patient care and research, while Ruvo showcases the work of great American artists.


Less than a mile from the Strip, the Lou Ruvo Brain Center is real, with real art and real accomplishments.

A painting by James Rosenquist recently installed in the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health
  • A painting by James Rosenquist recently installed in the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health

George and I are not gamblers or club-goers. We attend a show maybe once every three or four visits, opting for Tom Jones and Phantom over Carrot Top and Cirque du Soleil. We avoid, occasionally without success, the world-class shopping.

The Martians Have Landed (Las Vegas Fashion Show Mall)
  • 'The Martians Have Landed' (Las Vegas Fashion Show Mall)

We visit Las Vegas to look around. We linger at lunch and watch the people and the fountains, and we search, half-guilty, for the source of the appeal.

Unlike most of our travels, our Las Vegas three-day vacations are without museums or galleries. Viewed as a whole, however, the Las Vegas experience is art of the most contemporary kind, a complex installation of the contrived and outrageous.

For a few days, once each year, we happily take part.

Renaissance Dog 2011

Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)

*unless otherwise noted, all photographs by George Rodrigue, 2011

*thanks to twitter, this year's trip exposed us to the latest Las Vegas info and new friends, namely @24k and @VegasBILL

*also this week, I hope you enjoy “Gator Aid: Nude Swamp Women” from Musings of an Artist’s Wife

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