The most critical thing you must understand about art. Las Vegas, Turrell, and Dali. Part 4/5 / by Viking

(The most critical thing you must understand about art. Las Vegas, Turrell, and Dali. Part 4/5)

One of my favorite places to travel to in the entire world is Las Vegas. The extravagant level of kitsch is actually impressive. It is so well executed that its attempt to “be genuine” is convincing and even charming. The irony of Las Vegas is how authentic it truly is. There is nowhere else in the world that rivals the levels of absurdity and spectacle. Despite this fact, there are facets of Las Vegas that that are absolutely exquisite, sophisticated, and iconic; it is a treasure trove of incredible art; a collection of some of the finest examples in the world. The challenge is to try to identify these hidden gems among the myriad of ostentatious world monument replicas, tacky facades, and oceans of shameless casino carpets. The good news is that such a contrast exists between these gems, and the world of Las Vegas that they are fairly easy to spot.


Among the numerous ORIGINAL artworks by Picasso, Van Gogh, Dali, and many iconic painters, there are sculptures by Chihuly, Oldenburg, Koons, Lin, and Moore. There are many other incredible works scattered throughout Las Vegas, but these ones in particular are arguably some of the most technically sophisticated works in terms of the physical techniques that go into their production.


There is a particular artwork in the Crystals Mall- an architectural masterpiece in its own right- that doesn’t displace the same sort of space that one would expect a traditional painting or a sculpture to. The artwork doesn’t sit on a podium in a room, or hang on a wall; it isn’t actually even about a physical object defined as art. The “art” in this work IS the experience that is mediated by the architectural space that it occupies, but exists in the perceptual realm of the mind. It functions much in the same way that a symphony orchestra does within an auditorium: the space is a critical component of the work, and without it, the artwork cannot be delivered to the audience. You will know you are experiencing this special piece of art because your eyes will begin to LITERALLY see things in a different light. The work that I am describing here is by a well-known conceptual artist named James Turrell. Turrell’s works exist within a genre of art called installation, and there are several of them scattered within different parts of the Crystals Mall building. The experiences are immersive and profound perceptual distortions of what you believe you are seeing vs. what you are actually seeing. The line dividing the real from the imaginary is for a moment, blurred.

James Turrell,  Akhob  (2013) For more information, click  here . T o arrange for viewing,  call (702) 730-3150. NOTE: The reservations are always booked for 3-4 weeks (yes, a month) solid, so call in advance. They are open Thursday through Monday, 11:30am - 730pm, closed Tues and Wed.   

James Turrell, Akhob (2013) For more information, click here. To arrange for viewing, call (702) 730-3150. NOTE: The reservations are always booked for 3-4 weeks (yes, a month) solid, so call in advance. They are open Thursday through Monday, 11:30am - 730pm, closed Tues and Wed.


But how does this fit within the definition of art? Installations are a form of art that are site-specific and function to transform the perception of a space in some way. Turrell’s works cannot be defined in terms of the traditional definition of art, but they certainly do fit within the over-arching concept of contemporary art. The answer to this question is within the Conceptual dimension. It is through this dimension that Turrell delivers his powerful and thought-provoking ideas about human perception and existentialism.

The premise of the conceptual sub-component is that an artwork can deliver an impression, or information that challenges the viewer to consider an alternate perspective. It is the formative idea or guiding set of principles that is physically embedded in the work, and must be decoded and understood by the viewer in order to be appreciated.

Rene Magritte,   La trahison des images  (1928)

Rene Magritte,  La trahison des images (1928)

Concept is often delivered to the viewer by creating either balance or tension between "iconic" elements. The iconography or iconic content is the superficial information delivered to the viewer; it is literally what the viewer is looking at or immediately experiencing. In “The Treachery of Images”, a Painting by René Magritte, (1929), there are two essential iconic elements: the pipe, and the words: "Ceci n'est pas une pipe.", French for "This is not a pipe."

It is the relationship between the iconic elements that create the iconology of the art. In this case, it is a highly semantic one. The viewer is being challenged with two opposing pieces of information- an image of a pipe, and a quote indicating that it is in fact not a pipe- and must draw a conclusion about the meaning of the work based on this tension. Is the pipe not a pipe because it is actually a painting of a pipe? Is the text even speaking about the pipe in the painting? Maybe the text is self-referential- it is the text that is not a pipe? Ultimately, as intended by the artist, the viewer will walk away with the impression that things are not always as they seem. Magritte comically makes light of this fact in the work’s title “The treachery of images”. The title is an amusing warning to the viewer, foretelling the frustrating task of attempting to make sense without adequate context or information.

In other cases, the iconography is symbolically referential to an idea or a period of time; for example, an image of a cross is one that is loaded with symbolic meaning and content. An artwork might explore an idea by creating an iconological relationship between this symbol and other pieces of iconography, but the viewer must first understand what the symbol means to access the work at this level. Dali’s works are a prime example and are often difficult to fully appreciate without an understanding his use of symbolic references. His compositions often include realistic icons and landscapes interwoven with element that are purely imaginary and totally impossible. The challenge of decoding a Dali is magnified because some of his symbolic references are deeply psychological were brought forth from the subconscious with the use of strong pharmaceuticals. Few will know FULLY what Dali is referencing without a significant academic background or experience dealing with this subject matter.

 Salvador Dalí,  The Elephants  (1948)

 Salvador Dalí, The Elephants (1948)

The conceptual sub-component is an important key to consider when attempting to understand an artwork. Even if you don’t find the technical aspect of the work to be remarkable or the work of art is downright ugly- it might actually have something to do with the work’s meaning. The adage “never judge a book by its cover” is particularly true with contemporary art; always attempt to decode and access the deeper content if you intend to truly appreciate it.

Stay tuned for the final part!