The last time I saw Las Vegas artist and professor Brent Sommerhauser was four years ago in a gallery on the UNLV campus. His installation—an eerie, audio-enhanced, man-size tower of paper reams—had collapsed moments before I’d entered the space. The impact was so loud I thought a car had struck the building. On hands and knees, he retrieved sheets, struggling to re-create the original structure.
That’s the inherent and very fun risk in a Sommerhauser show: You never know if his work will fall in on itself. Perhaps it might even fall on you.
Don’t bring a hard hat to Sommerhauser’s new show—part of the Locals Only series at MCQ Fine Art Advisory—though. You’d be better off donning a diving suit and oxygen tank since what he’s constructing is essentially a giant 60-inch-in-circumference sinkhole in a place typically reserved for blue-chip artists and the finest local artworks.
“I like dealing with natural forces,” he says over coffee on a bright spring afternoon. “I’m not interested in storms or natural disasters per se, just gravity and the elements.”
Indeed, Sommerhauser, 38, got the idea for his show after stumbling across a photo of a dam’s spillway. Bell-mouth spillways resemble inverted bells and are used to control flows from dams or levees downstream. During floods, spillways keep water from topping or damaging dams. Their maw-like appearance and the huge sound of rushing water make them seem like intimidating, ominous vortices.
“Building this piece into the house is a lot like working out a physics problem,” Sommerhauser says. “You’re dealing with external variables that you usually take for granted. It may seem apocalyptic, but it’s actually much calmer than that.”
Still, standing at the lip of his sinkhole is disorienting, to say the least. Unless I concentrate and resist the optical illusion that I’m about to be sucked in, I start to sweat. I’m scared to see the bottom for fear that the abyss might stare back at me.
An organic sculptor who finds inspiration in materials like glass, wood and water, Sommerhauser is drawn to projects that involve forces having their way with things. In his hands, familiar objects—sheets of paper, cavities in the floor—become unfamiliar, unsettling. Because the MCQ gallery is essentially an old downtown abode on Seventh Street, the house is, the artist suggests, a symbolic stand-in for memory.
“The poet Emily Dickinson refers to memory as a palace,” says Sommerhauser, whose own surname includes the word “house.” “The movie Inception had a tag line that referenced ‘the architecture of the mind.’ It’s a metaphor that’s definitely attractive to me.”
Constructing the bell-mouth began with a search for discarded and bent tuba parts, as the same mathematical formula for drainage applies to music-making: A tuba shell works equally well to suck things in and blow things out, apparently. Sommerhauser built out around the sinkhole, thereby extending its resonance and deepening its mysteries.
The hole is the show’s centerpiece. Sommerhauser is also including a few wind drawings (abstract, windswept graphite renderings with titles such as “Soft Drift”) and a beautiful, illuminated disc made up of cast glass that will also rest on the gallery floor.
“Installing a show is really my only chance to know if I’m able to pull off what I intended,” he says. “Every time it’s a little scarier: Is what I think is going to happen NOT going to happen? Generally, though, something interesting always occurs, even if it’s not what I intended.”
Like that collapsing tower of paper? As long as the perpetually yawning sinkhole doesn’t swallow me alive, I’m fine with Sommerhauser’s extreme art.