In the Black

Painter Jerry Misko turns off his trademark vibrant style and crowdfunds his latest mural project

For more than a decade Jerry Misko has served as our city’s foremost visual poet, forging a language of bright color and neon that evokes the Strip at night. Indeed, no one has embraced the vivid veneer of Las Vegas—its crackling energy and buzzing garishness—with more success than Misko. His work, like the city he calls home, explores highbrow ambition via the lowbrow aesthetic of signage.

That ambition and artistic sensibility have taken Misko, 38, everywhere within and beyond Vegas’ cultural boundaries, from co-founding the refined environment of DUST (the gallery he ran with Naomi Arin from 2003-08) to coordinating a mural for a Vegas episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. He’s exhibited at top galleries in town, and his work has been commissioned by everyone from Saks Fifth Avenue to the Las Vegas Centennial Murals Project. If there’s a prestigious art venture under way, Misko’s at its heart.

But now his work has taken a dark turn. Really dark. So much so that he’s calling his new downtown mural project Paint It Black, after the Rolling Stones song.

Dropping in on Misko at his downtown condo in the Ogden, nestled between El Cortez and Lady Luck, I catch him blasting his “black” playlist on a stereo system while priming a canvas. Pearl Jam’s “Black.” Squeeze’s “Black Coffee in Bed.” Soundgarden’s “Fell on Black Days.” He’s not wearing black nail polish or a Joy Division T-shirt—yet. But watching a maestro of Strip joie de vivre suddenly extinguish the lights forces me to ask the question: “Um, Jerry. You OK, man?”

“I know,” he says, laughing. “It’s the complete opposite of what people expect. I wanted to suck all the color out of everything, to just get rid of color for a while. I mean, black is just cool. But thank you for asking.”

What he’s doing isn’t super-flat back. There are textures, and Misko relishes playing with a shiny, glitzy variation of black that, once it dries, sears the eyes like visual afterburn. Clearly, he’s using his “black period” as an opportunity to experiment with abstract imagery, to exercise a different set of studio muscles. This is not Misko trying to be deep or providing commentary on a post-recession Vegas.

“Don’t think that it’s a metaphor for something negative about Vegas,” he insists. “There is more of an art-history motif happening here. I’m thinking about [abstract expressionist] Ad Reinhardt’s ‘black’ paintings. When I first encountered Reinhardt’s lush, black canvases at MOCA [the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles], it was a spiritual moment, like being in church.”

Unlike Reinhardt, Misko doesn’t see his own paintings as “the end of painting.” Conversely, he believes his black paintings—specifically, a triptych of three giant murals—can help Vegas’ cultural community forge a stronger bond by visually uniting “the Arts District south of Charleston, the Arts District north of Charleston and the Fremont East Entertainment District.” If it sounds like a project the city might have undertaken in better financial days, that’s because it is. Instead of shopping for government grants, Misko is seeking funding through the “crowdfunding” phenomenon known as Kickstarter, often described as “an online pledge system for funding creative projects.” In essence, anyone with Internet and a credit card can pledge money, with varying levels enabling the artist to give more to those who give more. The minimum pledge is a dollar, which gets you “Misko’s gratitude and the warm fuzzy feeling you get knowing you’ve helped bring something beautiful into the world.” Bigger pledges garner stickers, original paintings, cocktail parties and even murals.

The only catch with Kickstarter: Its rules stipulate “all or nothing funding,” which means that if you don’t reach your goal by the deadline, then none of the pledged funding is donated. On June 18, with 12 days to go before deadline, Misko reached his goal of $10,000. But he isn’t stopping there; Misko now hopes to “make Paint it Black a bigger and badder animal.” His “pie in the sky budget” is $25,000, and he has until June 30 to keep raising money (and giving rewards), with all of it now guaranteed. With additional funding, he can “expand the scope of the murals and add photo and film documentation of the project.” “I couldn’t be more excited to be funded by such a generous and supportive community,” he says. “It shows people truly care and are willing to invest in creative projects.”

Although Misko hasn’t selected the mural sites just yet, he’s “spoken with several interested site owners who are excited about hosting a mural.” He pops open his laptop to show me a mock-up of a proposed site, and says each one will be chosen based on the mural’s visibility and lifespan. Misko plans to rely on local vendors for supplies and Vegas artists for assistance. Funding goes entirely toward securing mural sites, administration, and any equipment rental and labor costs.

Misko is giving himself six weeks (Aug. 1-Sept. 15) to complete the three murals and include community-driven events on a few of the painting days.

“I think something big and black downtown would be awesome,” he says. “Of course, it’s not just black, not just a monotone void, because there’s all this other stuff going on inside that makes it interesting to look at.”

On second thought, maybe Misko’s murals make an ideal metaphor for downtown Vegas after all.

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