Enter the Waste-lander

Former Las Vegan Stephen Hendee returns with a sunny installation

Stephen Hendee is best known in Las Vegas for the public artwork “Monument to the Simulacrum,” a steel-and-acrylic sculpture lodged in Centennial Plaza at Fourth Street and Lewis Avenue, adjacent to the Historic Fifth Street School. Hendee rendered the jagged, LED-iridescent mountain with 3-D-modeling software, making it at once futuristic and ancient, dystopian and timeless. The artist returns to Vegas this week to unveil a new site-specific installation, “The Pinpoint Remains,” at the Clark County Government Center Rotunda Gallery. Vegas Seven recently chatted with Hendee, who left his UNLV art department job last summer for a professor position at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, one of the oldest and most innovative art schools in the United States.

“Pinpoint” draws inspiration from geologic formations in the boulders of the desert. Why rocks?

Certain formations of prehistoric rock and their strata provide a record of a time we can’t relate to. Compare them to the difference between centuries of recorded history and design, or decades of popular culture, and how these look relative to one another. The desert—barring direct signs of intervention like roads or mines—is a timeless natural spectacle that highlights our fleetingness.

Do you look at your Vegas years as time spent in a wilderness?

Well, I did identify with the characters in John Carpenter’s The Thing. In the film, the McMurdo Station research center exists in the frozen wilderness of Antarctica. Once the thing infects the base, no one is sure who is a simulation and who is real. It’s a really great film to watch during August in Vegas when it’s 115 degrees outside, because the characters inhabit an icy environment.

Safe to say you seem focused on rendering the virtual physicality of digital objects?

My goal is to make something spectacular that is believable, something the common viewer will commit to, even if they initially didn’t want to. The ongoing problem with digital art is that the machines used to generate objects can’t produce anything as enigmatic as what can be made by hand. I use computer programs to pre-visualize the construction methods of a project, which I then make completely by hand. As an artist, it’s a compelling challenge.

Is “space” a more artistically liberating concept than “place”?

Modernist architecture tends to be blank, a quality also present in the spaces of galleries or museums. They’re permeable, programmable, waiting for the next new idea to unfold. In Vegas, that same concept of plasticity has allowed for huge jumps in the logic of visual culture. There would never have been a natural showcase for the influential legacy of novel neon signage if not for the space and visual distances of the desert.

Looking back, your work tapped into the zombie/post-apocalyptic zeitgeist very early on. Why?

There’s a self-reflexive relationship that occurs when viewers see something beautiful and horrifying about all the rules of society breaking down in the midst of the unexpected. We see ourselves in the survivor’s story. No one really roots for zombies unless it’s to exact a hilarious dose of ironic moralism.

A site-specific sculpture installation sounds daunting. By “site-specific,” do you mean you’re adopting ideas from the space’s architecture?

“Pinpoint” is site-specific in that it was designed to use sunlight emanating from the main vertical window of the government center rotunda. The light will reflect the interior colors of the objects. That’s it.

Will “Pinpoint” be your final word on Vegas?

I was making this kind of work before I moved to Vegas, but my experiences here, with the landscape and the city, have certainly allowed for far greater exploration of ideas concerning color and light. Vegas continues to be worth responding to, and with the right opportunity I’d return to develop new projects.

How does your art resonate in Maryland compared to Vegas? Do you fit in?

I don’t have to worry about my art fitting in Baltimore. A number of my colleagues also live in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The East Coast art scene as a whole is very fluid and engaged in interdisciplinary issues in visual art, and in ideas that go beyond the specific cities that artists live in.

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