Brush With Greatness?

Dennis Oppenheim’s paintbrush gateway to the Arts District set to open

Dennis Oppenheim

When artist Dennis Oppenheim, renowned for his challenging and often-ironic works, looks at Las Vegas, he sees a landscape whose image has real substance. “It has this sort of ring to me, this feeling of exuberance and excess and intoxication, of fantasy in the desert,” he says.

So when the opportunity arose in spring 2007 to design a gateway to Las Vegas’ 18b Arts District, his imagination took off.

After three years of work, the result will be unveiled Aug. 11 at 7 p.m. Two 45-foot-tall paintbrushes along Charleston Boulevard between Las Vegas Boulevard and Casino Center Drive will beam colored spotlights 1,600 feet into the sky. The lights will cross paths and create a virtual arch over the district. The paintbrushes, each of which cost $350,000, are built from galvanized steel. Colored LED lights are strung along the shaft and form the bristles at the tip of the brush; each bristle terminates in custom-designed searchlights.

Light is a relatively new element in Oppenheim’s work, one most would not have anticipated given his early projects, which were largely earthworks and performances. However, Oppenheim says, “Searchlights have always captivated me ever since I was a young boy seeing them streak across the sky.” In recent years Oppenheim has started to incorporate the color and rhythmic potential that light can bring to a massive object, creating not just “light” in the sense of illumination, but a sense of “lightness” as well. (The light “fountains” designed for the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston is one such example.)

As is often the case in public art projects, it was a struggle to reconcile the artist’s vision with budget limitations and the needs of the project committee. In October 2007, the Arts District committee in charge of the gateway project selected Oppenheim on the basis of a different proposal altogether, one reflecting his childhood fondness for Reno’s Virginia Street arch: two paint buckets pouring into one another, creating a rainbow of light above the district entryway. After Oppenheim’s selection, however, the paint-bucket project turned out to be well beyond the budget the city had stipulated in its request for proposals. Oppenheim returned to his TriBeCa, N.Y., studio to sketch alternatives, and “The Paintbrushes” were born.

In the Arts District community, some who were enthusiastic about the initial paint-bucket design wound up frustrated by the process. “I was just confused,” says Marty Walsh, owner of the Trifecta Gallery in the Arts Factory. “He was chosen for the other project. At the same time, when you think of where we were seven years ago, I truly am excited we’re getting this gateway and that people are celebrating the Arts District.”

In the end, the site-specific nature of this installation—its relationship to the Las Vegas landscape, atmosphere and mythology—succeeds. Indeed, that connection to the city, combined with Oppenheim’s genuine enthusiasm for the project, make it one of the most dynamic and exciting ventures in the 71-year-old artist’s career, which has included installations for the city of Los Angeles and Foley Square (New York), and exhibitions at New York’s Whitney Museum and London’s Tate Modern Gallery.

Though he anticipates that critics might disparage “The Paintbrushes” as “too spectacular,” Oppenheim shrugs them off. “I didn’t think of the word ‘spectacle’ when I created the piece. But it could be used. … I’m operating in an environment of spectacles. It’s a city of spectacles, one spectacle after another, where everyone is trying to create something more spectacular than the other, all competitive based on what fantasy one can bring forth.”

And fantasy they are, these paintbrushes, creating imaginary images in celestial space. “In a way they’re kind of obvious,” Oppenheim concedes. “How else would you define an art district than a paintbrush?” Some Las Vegans, in fact, have criticized the work precisely for this reason. But Oppenheim sees far more in the design, and in its meaning. “There’s a mystery to what a paintbrush can do,” he says. “Once you move it across the surface, it has a voyage; you’re holding it, you’re steering it, but it has the potential to surprise you as it commingles with paint on the canvas or paper. So projecting it into the sky, this dark sky, in my mind brought in this mystique, this mystery of the paintbrush projecting into darkness, not knowing exactly where it’s going and what it can run into, what it can illuminate.” Abigail R. Esman is an award-winning freelance writer specializing in art and design. She is based in New York and the Netherlands.

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