‘Zen City’: Artist James Stanford turns Las Vegas glitz into ‘object of spiritual reverie’

The images created by James Stanford are mesmerizing. Built upon photographs of iconic — and often long-gone — Las Vegas signs and scenery layered upon one another, the photo collages resemble mandalas, representations of the universe found in Buddhism.

And if using images of Las Vegas’ glitz to create almost spiritual iconography doesn’t represent a melding of the sacred and the profane, what would?

Stanford is a native Las Vegan and pioneering local artist whose latest exhibition, “Shimmering Zen,” highlights his nearly 40 years of work creating photo collages that become more than mere visual trickery.

The show, which debuted in London last year, will run Sept. 21 through Nov. 24 in The Studio at the Sahara West Library. A hardback book featuring 150 of Stanford’s images also will be unveiled Oct. 13 at the Neon Museum, and images by Stanford have been incorporated into a fashion show in New York City by Las Vegas-based designer David Tupaz.

Stanford’s pieces begin with a cropped photographic image that he digitally manipulates to create a detail-filled symmetrical design. The image, and pieces of it, are layered upon themselves — one piece can contain 30 or more layers — using digital software and are then printed. The piece might be placed in a light box with LEDs behind it, or burned onto photographic paper via laser, printed on polished aluminum, or even fitted with lenticular lenses that create that image-changes-when-you-move effect found in Cracker Jack-box flickers.

Whatever the particulars of the technique, the result invariably is an image that’s kaleidoscopic, but also more than that, becoming a sort of labyrinth for the eye and the mind.

Stanford — who for years has practiced Zen Buddhism — says the process of creating the pieces is, for him, akin to meditation.

“Zen Buddhism is not a belief system. It’s a system in which you are asked to put down your beliefs,” he says. “Doing this work becomes meditation for me. I can’t help to have it be meditation, because I have to put down my discursive thinking in order to get into the creative mind.”

It’s no accident that many of his pieces take as primary sources photographs of Las Vegas. In his book, Stanford shares recollections of many of the places the pieces feature, and the combination of words, photograph and artwork are synergistic, giving each piece an interior life of its own.

“Not every piece is like that,” he adds. “Some (were used) just because of their formal qualities. They were interesting to me and they’ll make a good piece of art.

“I remember a few pieces used the Castaways. The Castaways had a (Jain) temple in back by the swimming pool. I used to go and cash my check and have a pull on the slot machine and a drink, and I’d chant in the temple. Where else could you do that? That is Vegas-only.”

“Shimmering Zen” is “a reflective work, where you’re taking things close at hand and making them into an object of spiritual reverie, rather than the dead, derelict signs I photographed,” Stanford says. “So there’s that transformational alchemy.”

Creating spiritual-like imagery out of Las Vegas scenes speaks to both the sacred and the profane, he says.

“What could be more profane than a derelict sign sitting and rotting in the desert that used to be part of enticement to people to lose their money? That’s pretty profane. Yet, you take that through a process of artistic alchemy and you transform that into something that inspires you, and it’s beautiful, then you’ve got something that borders on the sacred.”

“Shimmering Zen” runs from Sept. 21 through Nov 24 at The Studio at Sahara West Library, 9600 W. Sahara Ave. shimmeringzen.com