Cowgirl in the Sand

Heather Younger gets gritty with her new Donna Beam show

Arkansas blonde Heather Younger shows up for an interview wearing cowboy boots and a Western black-felt hat. Clearly the 26-year-old artist isn’t an uptight, Caravaggio-worshipping academic. She’s an ex-military brat who studied photography at Louisiana Tech before arriving at UNLV with an idea that a 24-hour town would make her a productive, serious MFA student and art instructor.

It did.

Initially lured by the spectacle, she quickly grew disillusioned. The Strip pushed her into the desert, where she began engaging natural resources—Mojave rocks, salt pans, water trails, animal bones. She strove to reconnect with her instinctive side, to strip away the civilized veneer many of us depend on to keep from going insane.

Younger’s struggle is chronicled in a new solo exhibit, This Is Not Too Much For Me To Handle, at UNLV’s Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery. It’s the first show at the gallery since it suffered flood damage in September. The exhibit is at once unmethodical and cohesive, comprising photography, sculpture, video and drawings. Examining the whole, you sense Younger’s efforts to tap her most human instincts in a place that clings to facades and denies time.

Examining pieces individually, you notice specific meditations. In one 20-minute looped video, Younger’s ungloved hands rub steel wool against a stone, washing it clean. It seems mundane until you absorb its symbolism: What else does man do but work to wipe away imperfections from nature? The rock-scrubbing visual grates and complicates a viewer’s simple notion of a pure wilderness. Is it something to be transformed or preserved, inhabited or sealed off?

The rock came from the Jean Dry Lake Bed, 20 miles south of Vegas, just east of Jean. Younger used to visit the site regularly and gradually saw the space as a rejection of everything that is the regulated wildness of Sin City.

“It’s so free,” she says of the lake bed. “You can drive as fast as you want, yell and shoot guns, and you don’t see anyone else around for miles.”

There was no audience when Younger, in the process of making videos and perhaps carried away by the lake bed’s liberating atmosphere, leapt from the driver’s side of her moving Ford Ranger, running herself over. (Darn boots tripped her!) Contused but unbroken, she called her mom in Harrison, Ark., who suggested an old-time remedy: Soak a paper bag in vinegar and apply it to the bruises. It worked, proving the artist a tough Ozark belle.

“I realized then that I couldn’t push things much further,” says a laughing Younger, who has previously shown her work in the new City Hall, Off the Strip and in downtown galleries Blackbird and Multiplexer.

If Nevada nature symbolizes uneasy momentum (rock-washing, truck-jumping) in her work, civilization means restless stasis, lively rigor mortis. One installation involves a twin mattress Younger sprayed with Epsom salts, which stiffened its surface into a cadaverous dream platform. Frozen, the object exudes a tense aura.

“I wanted to say something about time, rest and work,” she says. “In dreams, emotions are overwhelming. We release ourselves to address mysteries. We have autonomous experiences that speak to our anxieties. At their best, my dreams revert to the abstract ideas I can’t reach in my everyday.”

After her show and upon graduating in December, Younger will head to northwest Arkansas, where the arts community is booming thanks to the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

“My surroundings affect my work,” she says. “Part of me gets cagey in a bigger city. But I’ll always be drawn to the desert. The sublime feeling it gives is incomparable. The harsh desert demands a psychological space in which an artist can function honestly.”

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