Breaking the Mold: Public sculptures reflect Las Vegas’ artistic past, creative future

Just a few decades ago, Las Vegas was a tiny desert oasis with a reputation for fun-loving debauchery. Today we’re a world-class resort city with state-of-the-art amenities and awe-inspiring creative endeavors that visitor-driven economies elsewhere strive to emulate.

Despite that brief history, Las Vegas has stories to tell. And what better way to connect with our artistic past and imagine our creative future than through the eyes of artists whose public sculptures provide multidimensional perspectives on our town? If you’ve passed them so often that they’ve faded into the scenery, hopefully these stories will help you see them anew.

Radial Symmetry
Photo by Anton

Radial Symmetry
by Luis Varela-Rico, Main Street, 2018
A pair of steel ellipses gently resting against one another at the repaved and redirected-to-one way Main Street is a marvel of modern engineering. Luis Varela-Rico’s 20 tons of expertly crafted metal is fashioned into seemingly delicate plates and welded together to create an airy, three-dimensional sculpture. His work, which was dedicated in September, was inspired by the Southern Paiute Tribe — the area’s first residents — and their basket-weaving techniques. Radial Symmetry melds the gentle curvature of the native basket form with the modern technology of plasma-cut steel for an enduring work that grounds us in our past and looks forward with fresh eyes.

 

CFA Garden
Photo by Brianna Hidalgo Photos + Films

CFA GARDEN
a UNLV Student Collaboration,
UNLV Campus, 2008
A seemingly simple stack of pale pink, 3-ton sandstone blocks, more often considered a between-classes hangout than a revered work of art, this site-specific sculpture is the very symbol of collaborative creativity. A final project for Professor Pasha Rafat’s 2008 Art In Public Places course, the CFA Garden was conceived by students in architecture, graphic design and studio arts as well as students from engineering and agriculture, at a cost of nearly $500,000. Emblematic of an effort that resulted in a lasting work of art and aesthetic campus improvement, the garden is still enjoyed daily just outside the doors of the Donna Beam Gallery. It serves as a reminder that putting our heads, hands and resources together is central to the achievement of cultural goals in the valley.

Monument to the Simulacrum
by Stephan Hendee,
Historic Fifth Street School, 2007
Stephan Hendee created a three-dimensional work dedicated to French art theorist and contemporary thinker Jean Baudrillard that both embodies the famous thinker’s attitudes on the iconic artificiality of Las Vegas and encapsulates the city’s ephemeral history. Erected as the Las Vegas Centennial time capsule on the grounds of the Historic Fifth Street School, Hendee’s metal mountain was dedicated in 2007 and re-opened in 2015 during celebrations that marked Las Vegas’ 100th year. Like so many Las Vegas icons before it, the work is more than a replica of a rocky mountaintop crafted not from the natural materials it represents but from metal and acrylic as a modern-day proxy. A testament to the faux realism of our city, it symbolizes the lasting impact of Las Vegas’ make-believe aesthetic both at home and beyond.

Monument to the Simulacrum
Photo by Anton

Pipe Dream
by Tim Bavington, The Smith Center, 2012
Internationally renowned artist and UNLV Lenahan, Saltman, Thomas & Mack Professor of Art, Tim Bavington is best known for his colorful stripe paintings depicting notes of songs. “Fanfare for the Common Man,” a 20th-century classical work by composer Aaron Copland, inspired “Pipe Dream.” But the artist — who was obsessed for more than two decades with spray painting candy-colored marks on flat surfaces — found the challenges of working in his traditional medium on a super-large scale in a vulnerable outdoor public space insurmountable. That caused a dramatic shift in Bavington’s art, launching him into crafting steel pipes and automotive paint into three-dimensional sculptures, which are now popping up in major metropolitan areas across the country.

Pipe Dream
Photo by Las Vegas Review-Journal

 

The Big Edge
Photo by Bill Hughes

The Big Edge
by Nancy Rubins, City Center, 2009
Made from 200 metal sailboats, canoes, kayaks and rowboats, this sculpture is immediately identifiable as the carefully engineered chaos of Nancy Rubins. Famous for her use of objects characterizing a humanity always in motion, like Las Vegas traffic, which flows 24 hours a day under the sculpture’s perch at City Center, Rubins specializes in supersized whirlwind compositions from airplane parts, children’s toys and boats of all varieties. The Big Edge is a local icon created using the unique views of on-going action inside luxury hotel rooms high above the Strip. Equipped with walkie-talkies and a patient staff of engineers, construction workers and art handlers, Rubins scurried between the upper floors of the then-under-construction City Center, directing the composition of her work. The result is a gravity-defying sculpture that is awe-inspiring from all angles.