Pieces from the installation Those We Call Century, made of wood, metal and paper.
Walking through the home and surrounding yard of downtown Las Vegas artist Chad Brown, one thing is clear to me: The guy is completely hell-bent on elevating the spirit of a city he now calls home with a towering metaphor of survival.
Hundreds of delicately constructed, palm-size buds of wood and paper are stacked and arranged in a corner of one room, while outside his front door there are three plant-like structures freshly painted green. When Brown asks me to place his foot at the base of a 33-foot agave stalk and then stands it upright so that my neck strains from gazing skyward. I seriously wonder if the sculpture’s centerpiece is touching a cloud.
Indeed, Vegas may be suffering from myriad problems—massive unemployment, a destroyed real estate market, a higher-education system poised to eat itself alive, rotting husks of abandoned casino projects, Japanese radiation settling in, Vince Neil released from prison—but Brown insists things will get better. To remind us of Vegas’ historical and miraculous resilience, of the cyclical nature of existence with its guaranteed ups and downs, he has already installed Those We Call Century, a giant, elaborately conceived agave sculpture installation, inside the Clark County Government Center Rotunda Gallery.
The agave nevadensis is a plant native to the Nevada desert. Often called the century plant, its bloom occurs “once every century” but more accurately at the end of the plant’s life cycle, just before it dies, which happens every 25 years. Its roots survive, producing new agaves. This notion of death and rebirth, stamina and patience, appealed to Brown, 38, who was searching for a symbol to render in three dimensions. After discussing the agave with Von Winkle, a plant restorer at Springs Preserve, Brown found his metaphor.
Brown isn’t a Las Vegas native, but he possesses a fierce love for a city that he freely admits has adopted him as one of its own. Born in Dallas, he earned his bachelor’s degree in studio art from the University of Texas in 2001. He immediately went to Las Vegas to work on his MFA degree at UNLV, which he completed in 2006. Along the way, he picked up several awards for his figurative paintings, including the prestigious Wally Goodman and Patrick Duffy Best in Show as part of the 55th Art Roundup Juried Exhibition at the now-defunct Las Vegas Art Museum.
After graduation, Brown continued to teach at UNLV while receiving much press coverage and acclaim for his solo and group exhibitions, including a two-person show (Marked, with Seattle-based sculptor Etsuko Ichikawa) at the former Dust Gallery. I adored his 2009 solo exhibition, Your Move, at the Winchester Cultural Center Gallery. Brown now teaches at CSN and is represented by Gallery Neuartig in Los Angeles. He has put aside painting for the time being, choosing to work as a sculptor, with Century as his biggest project to date.
“I’m weary of making art for academics and critics and other artists,” he insists by way of explanation for his creative shift. “These days I’m more interested in having average, everyday people to see my work and hopefully respond to it. Maybe they’ll connect to it and maybe even think it’s cool.”
Brown is by no means anti-intellectual, however. Papers with mathematical formulas, measurements and late-night Da Vinci-inspired sketches lie strewn about, and then there’s, um, “The Coffin.”
“Everybody called it that when I was building it,” he says with a chuckle. “They were concerned about me. I don’t blame them, because I have some great friends.”
No alarm necessary, as the box in question is simply a steamer for woodworking and wood bending. It was crucial in the construction of Century, allowing Brown to create the incredible shapes comprising the young plants.
“I began working on this piece in September,” he says. “I did it on my own without any grants—but with some great assistants—and by paying thousands out of my own pocket. It’s my gift to the city and its people.”