Painting the Citizens of Paradise

Artist Kristine McCallister's new show depicts cultural notables of unincorporated Vegas

"Stranger in Paradise"

“Stranger in Paradise”

It’s a little-known fact that when tourists visit the Las Vegas Strip they’re technically occupying the unincorporated township of Paradise, which also contains UNLV and McCarran International Airport, making it among the largest un-municipalities in the U.S. And as Kristine McCallister confirms with a new show of paintings at Brett Wesley Gallery, Paradise is home to many Vegas artists, performers and entrepreneurs.

Rather than depict these local cultural figures through standard portraiture, McCallister captures their personalities through what they collect and sometimes hoard—masks, vintage neon signage, ceramic flamingos, even a desert tortoise. It can certainly be argued that Paradise is a deeply personal and highly quixotic series for the artist, since every painting here seems focused on quirky people and their ephemera. Look closer, however, and you’ll see an aura, if not the soul, of those who arrived in Vegas in search of freedom—and found it.

“Stranger in Paradise,” for instance, offers a bird’s-eye view of what might be a Cirque du Soleil performer wearing a dark and dapper suit, bowtie, bowler and sunglasses. Barefoot, he floats on his back in the blue, milk paint-swirled waters of his backyard pool. His pink, pertly inflated raft drifts uselessly beside him, casting rippled shadows below. I’ve never met this particular Charlie Chaplinesque entertainer, but McCallister captures the man’s playful yet relaxed personality, making me feel like I’ve run into him somewhere. Or will soon.

There is one subject whom I did, in fact, recognize. Despite a Mexican Day of the Dead skull-mask obscuring his face, Richard Hooker is alive and doing quite well in a work called “Underworld Civil Servant.” The former city arts coordinator and current owner of RTZvegas gallery in Art Square kneels in front of his patio statuary, a panting Chihuahua perched on his thigh. I’ve only met Hooker a handful of times, which suggests how expertly McCallister renders him, communicating his essence even as he dons a disguise.

There’s a ballerina who’s apparently a fan of the Denver Broncos and wears the helmet—clashing beautifully with her dance tights and shoes—to prove it. She dramatically poses before a house that boasts geometric painted shapes—yes, in Broncos team colors. I say posed, but there’s something about the vibrant energy and light in this portrait and the others, that lacks premeditation. It’s likely McCallister snapped reference photos of these Paradise residents before sitting down to paint them. Indeed, a collaboration between the artist and her subjects is evident.

The show includes still lifes—for instance, of the famous Hacienda Horse and Rider sign on Fremont Street—meant to provide an Old Vegas contrast to New Vegas’ movers and shakers. In any case, it’s refreshing to see a painter indebted to a Baroque realist like Rembrandt. And it’s oddly reassuring to know Paradise is populated by masked angels and good-humored demons—and everyone in between.

Kristine McCallister’s Paradise

through Nov. 30, 1-7 p.m. Wed-Sat, 1112 S. Casino Center Blvd., free, 433-4433,

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