This summer, the departure of artist/UNLV professor Stephen Hendee ignited a firestorm in the art community. Amid the furor of sad fans and former students, one person made a disparaging comment about all this “hero worship.” The remark got artist Erin Stellmon thinking. She wondered who is a hero, what is heroic and whether the concept mattered anymore. This exploration resulted in her new show, Hero Worship, at Kleven Contemporary.
Consisting of 10 portraits and an installation, the show “looks at who we decide to prop up as a hero, and how we tear them down.” The collection combines ordinary workers and legendary Americans. It seems to be equally inspired by Stellmon’s parents, who worked 14-hour days at the family store, and by her pioneer forbearers, who were depicted in the film Meek’s Cutoff (2010), a true story about a wagon train’s grueling route across Oregon in 1845.
The 36-year-old grew up in the Pacific Northwest, but she has lived in Las Vegas since earning her MFA at UNLV. Her 2010 exhibition, Reign of Glass, at the CAC showcased her signature architectural abstractions.
Hero Worship demanded a different approach. In order to humanize her concept and honor her subjects, Stellmon turned to the intimate form of portraiture. “It’s a totally abrupt departure,” she laughs. “I haven’t done portraits since, let’s see, maybe 1995.” The first five portraits are photo-collaged people who are cloaked in the garb of mythological heroes. Medieval weaponry appears incongruously on a surgical nurse, mom and pop minding the store and a hotel porter, for example. Amusing imperial crowns alight on the heads of those who have retired. Behind the figures are words drawn in heavy graphite, like gravestone rubbings: snippets of résumés that seemingly sum up their life’s experience.
The next five pieces are 4-by-5-inch mixed-media light-box portraits of individuals who are part of American mythology, including steel-driver John Henry, author Laura Ingalls Wilder and Betty Willis, creator of the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. These luminescent portraits are drawn on a surface that resembles stained glass, befitting the subject’s elevated status. They carry their attributes (a sledgehammer or a rifle) like saints. The figures are rendered in bold, rhythmic and dynamic ink strokes, reminiscent of Raymond Pettibon.
A mixed-media installation, “Fallen,” connects the two sets of portraits. Cutouts of rocky terrain are mounted on the right side of the gallery. On the left, a fallen figure is covered in a swarm of insects. The imagery refers to journeys and “what happens when we let critics tear down our heroes and ourselves” Stellmon explains. The insects represent an inevitable organic process that parallels the ways our daily actions affect the lives of others.
An adjunct to Hero Worship is a blog (Your3Heroes.tumblr.com) that went online Oct. 1. Stellmon invited fellow artists to name three personal American heroes and explain why they mattered. The responses reveal how the label “hero” inspires or irks the contributors. However, Stellmon believes the term remains a meaningful archetype for most Americans, even if we are skilled at deconstructing it.
This show invites us to consider an expansive definition of “hero,” one that includes a person of integrity who is flawed but still admirable. Similarly, even if Las Vegans can be coldhearted, crass and lacking a true sense of history, Stellmon has hope for them. She believes the people here are resilient and mostly good. She points out that some of the finest people she’s met—smart, hardworking, honest and kind—have turned out to be homegrown locals. Some might even be her next personal heroes.