The experience of a place always starts with what you hear about it. And, unfortunately, everything that you hear about the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art is all mixed up in the hurt feelings locals seem to bear over the loss of the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum at the Venetian. So, by the time I first entered the gallery, I was primed for a small, square room with about four paintings cordoned off by a $50 cover. Lucky for us all, this is not the case.
Before I get to the good stuff, I’ll get this out of the way: Almost any art gallery could benefit from being bigger and cheaper; this one included. But it’s also the closest thing you’re going to get to a traditional art museum without the price of a plane ticket. And the $12 locals’ admission is about the same price as a cocktail. A fair deal, but what type of art are you paying to see?
Ahh, we’re finally to the good part. Bellagio’s new show, Figuratively Speaking: A Survey of the Human Form, goes against the tide. While art shows are traditionally tied together by a particular artist (Claude Monet) or movement (French impressionism), Figuratively Speaking is united by a theme (and a time span from the late 1800s to now). This type of grouping creates a disjointed, almost random feel, but it also offers a more surprising and interesting experience than simpler shows. That’s because it attempts to answer a question that traditional groupings cannot: How do different societies see the human form?
Credit: Vik Muniz
“Boy with a Pipe, After Pablo Picasso”
Bellagio’s answer starts with a video of a disembodied, blinking eye projected on a white orb (“Stepfather,” 1996 by Tony Oursler). This is the human form reduced by technology to the ultimate consumer-voyeur, able to do nothing more than see. Kind of like the way we consume the Internet, kind of like the way we consume an art show and kind of like the way security cameras consume us.
The robot eye contrasts sharply with pre-industrial Renior peasants, fluid Degas ballet dancers and a portrait by Chuck Close (“Paul IV,” 2001) that seems to be composed of human cells. There are also striking pieces by artists playing with the ready-made forms of the human body by re-creating famous paintings. For example, Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura presents himself as Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, questioning notions of race and gender.
There’s the obligatory pseudo self-portrait by the famous artist Cindy Sherman (Untitled, 1975), but it paled—with perhaps smug irony—in comparison to the piece that most stuck out and most stuck with me: A 40-by-45-inch black-and-white photo by Herb Ritts titled “Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Tatjana, Naomi, Hollywood.” Naked and selling nothing but envy, the models are posed in a seemingly natural pyramid grouping, clutching each other against the encroaching imperfection of the outer world. This is the type of image we’ve seen a thousand times over. (Indeed, Ritts was an illustrious fashion photographer.) And yet to pull this type of image from the magazines (and the “day-life” Vegas pools) and put it in the gallery is to invite critical reflection. In that reflection, the whole idea of the idealized form tumbles with one realization: These supermodels—so famous they’re referred to only by their first names—can’t even retain the perfection promised in the photo. Look closely at the gallery placard, and the photo is dated 1989.
In a city that trades as much in the currency of the human form as it does in gambling, this show is more than worth your time, especially if you’re one of those people who like to drink expensive cocktails and complain about the lack of art in Vegas. Then again, you could always just see it for Keith Haring’s Elvis.