Gazing upon the oil-painted canvases of Abraham Abebe, you get a powerful sense of the nondescript areas of Las Vegas. Sure, “nondescript” isn’t normally attached to Sin City, but that’s the point of Abebe’s new solo exhibit, The Other Side of Las Vegas, on display at Winchester Cultural Center Rotunda Gallery through Aug. 11.
Moreover, the show seems designed to answer a very specific question: Everybody knows the beauty of hotel-casinos on the Strip and along Fremont Street, but what’s the view like from the parking garages? In the eyes and hands of Abebe, 24, it’s a different, more melancholy beauty, yet beauty nonetheless.
“Electric poles, power lines, parking lots, afternoon shadows and light,” he explains during an interview in his tiny, canvas-stuffed 7 Palms apartment next to UNLV. “I’m fascinated with the aesthetic nature of these things, with examining Vegas from different vantages. I enjoy capturing some of the social and economic discrepancies between neighborhoods in, say, the Southwest valley and downtown Vegas.”
Indeed, The Other Side of Las Vegas offers a quotidian perspective on Vegas and depicts its unusual beauty. These are casual landscapes—rows of apartment complexes, a downtown grind joint, Fremont Street storefronts and boarded-up houses along 12th Street. And they’re shot at dusk or dawn, an artistic choice that imbues these structures with a forlorn aura.
“Abraham is an exceptionally talented painter,” says Wendy Kveck, who curates exhibitions for Clark County’s Winchester and Government Center Rotunda galleries. “What I’m drawn to in this particular body of work is the lonely tone of these deserted spaces and how far removed they are from an outsider’s view.”
Somber images of abandoned homes are beautifully offset by Abebe’s application of light and color, Kveck says. And sure, we’re all familiar with Vegas sunlight, but in The Other Side, Abebe calls attention to the sun’s ability to transform the mundane.
The eight-year resident of Nevada is a long way from home. Born in Ethiopia, he learned to draw from observing and copying illustrations of a talented older brother, also an artist. There wasn’t much in the way of art supplies and instruction, but Abebe honed his skills by drawing images from newspaper articles.
“Ethiopia is a poor, underdeveloped country,” Abebe says. “But it is socially well-constructed. People help each other and are always around when you need them. I’ve had to adapt a great deal to Nevada, where you’re not expected to know your neighbor.”
He moved to Reno in 2003, earning an associate of arts degree from Truckee Meadows Community College before transferring to UNLV in ’07. He received his bachelor’s degree in painting and graphic design last year, and begins work on his master’s in studio art this fall. He has exhibited his paintings in Vegas and Reno, but this show and his 2009 involvement with Australia’s Adelaide Fringe Invitational Exhibition are the highlights of his burgeoning career.
Abebe chose to study art and be an artist in this city because Vegas is “always on TV shows” and everything here is brand-new, forever young.
“It’s an energetic and diverse city,” he says. “I feel artistically motivated by living and working here.”
“For an artist who has been here a relatively short time, Abraham already sees the bleaching and flattening effect of our merciless sunshine,” adds Patrick Gaffey, cultural program supervisor for the Clark County Parks and Recreation Department. “He paints bleak urban landscapes, yes, but they possess their own beauty.”
Indeed, it’s probably safe to say Abebe is responsible for the only known oil painting of the temporary CityCenter Sales Pavilion, which was removed last year from its spot behind the Strip on the corner of Harmon Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard. He snapped the photo reference for the painting from the New York-New York parking garage before being kicked off the property by hotel security. Given his unusual appearance and striking hairstyle, it’s a wonder the FBI or Department of Homeland Security didn’t detain or interrogate him.
“I was kicked out of a lot of parking garages on the Strip,” he confesses. “They’d notice me taking photos of the campus from their own video cameras. To their credit, they never asked for my name or ID; they just told me to move along.”
In addition to painting, Abebe is a soon-to-be-published poet, who has written three collections of verse in the Ethiopian language of Amharic. (Sadly, there are no immediate plans to translate these books into English.) The first, the oddly titled Eggmel, will be published by a small academic press in Ethiopia and shows a more romantic, literary side of Abebe—or so he hopes.
“Ultimately, my goal is teach studio art back in Ethiopia, after I’ve completed my MFA degree,” he says. “I want to share what I’ve learned here in the U.S. It has been a long journey from my country, and I’m ready to take the next step as an artist.”