It all started in the desert.
The time: 2008, the epicenter of the economic earthquake known as the Great Recession.
The place: Palmdale, in Southern California’s Antelope Valley.
Artist Nicolas Shake, who had returned to his parents’ Palmdale home after studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, went jogging in the same nearby desert where, as a boy, he’d played and ridden his bike.
But something had changed.
Palmdale was just one of the cities — Las Vegas being another — where home foreclosures had dismantled neighborhoods and disrupted lives.
And while Shake jogged in the desert, he started noticing things.
Piles of broken glass. Tree branches. Clothes. Record collections. Photographs.
Intimate items, clues to lives that weren’t the same anymore — and people unable to bear the remnants of a life they were forced to discard on their way to a new one.
Their forlorn castoffs, however, became a catalyst — for Shake’s artistic impulses.
The results are on display at Henderson’s Vast Space Projects gallery, in “1 Is the Zero That Comes Before,” which continues through Feb. 1.
The second solo show for Shake (the first was at Los Angeles’ Western Projects), the exhibit showcases paintings, sculptures, even a temporary, site-specific collage of photographs — off-kilter Joshua trees, upside-down pleasure boats — the 32-year-old artist took when he was first exploring the desert debris that sparked his creative response.
Although the works featured in the Vast Space Projects show were created in the past six months, Shake has been pondering, and processing his reactions to the desert debris since his 2008 return to California.
At first, Shake took photographs as a reference for his paintings. Then, he began arranging, and lighting, piles of rubble, developing themes and imagery while working on his master’s degree at California’s Claremont Graduate University.
Some of the pieces on display have a direct connection with the desert — such as “Still Life With Three Shovels,” the most recent work featured, which was finished the week before the exhibit went up, Shake explains in a telephone interview from his base in Los Angeles.
Cast in “friendly plastic” — a medium that’s a cross between wax and Play-Doh — and augmented with “found dirt,” the sculpture has a recognizable shovel shape. But look closer and you’ll see it’s encrusted with other images, from palm fronds to tire tracks, that give it a mysterious, bottom-of-the-sea feeling.
That’s no accident, Shake says, citing “kind of a weird similarity between the desert and the ocean.”
Another sculpture, “Nothing Left to Glean,” depicts an upside-down shopping cart, strung with hand-dyed purple twine and mounted on two concrete blocks, never to roll again.
Shake casts his sculptures directly from objects found in the desert, he says. “They’re a little more recognizable” than his more abstract paintings.
But even those paintings feature textures and marks, including layers of paint that could be colorful skid marks, that reflect the show’s origins.
One of those paintings, the round canvas “Diminishing Monolith,” is 9 feet in diameter.
And while the size might seem overwhelming in a conventional gallery, Vast Space Projects’ 5,000-square-foot warehouse — complete with four roll-up metal doors that expand the sense of openness and flood the exhibit space with light — provides an appropriately expansive backdrop.
“Desert debris that shapes Shake’s work finds a natural context in a warehouse located in an industrial section of the Vegas Valley and surrounded by some of the last open desert in the area,” says Shannon McMackin, Vast Space Projects founder and director. “You can imagine any of the elements being scrounged from an adjacent, vacant lot.”
Shake finds power in Vast Space Objects’ warehouse venue.
“(It) allows me the freedom I only experience during the on-site arrangement in the desert,” he says, enabling him to explore “the volumes of objects and space, from the endless horizons seen in the desert where the work originates, to the matter upon matter demonstrated in the paintings and upended intimacy and usage of everyday objects in the sculptures.”
McMackin first featured Shake’s work in a previous exhibit, “The 10th Circle” — which was curated by one of Shake’s grad school professors, art critic David Pagel. (A video portrait of the artist, made while Shake was working on his master’s degree, accompanies the exhibition.)
Pagel also contributes an essay accompanying “1 Is the Zero That Comes Before,” noting that, “with their connection to the desert stretched to the breaking point, Shake’s latest paintings take us, simultaneously, in many different directions, traveling far and wide, or careening this way and that, as they ricochet around in the mind’s eye.”
When Shake first began to photograph the desert rubble he found so haunting, he did the creative hard work in advance, arranging and lighting the found objects with everything from Christmas lights to flashlights.
When he clicked the shutter, his work was done.
When he’s painting, however, “it’s not until the very end, when the canvas is done,” that the artistic process is complete.
For him, anyway.
“There is a point I want people to relate to,” Shake says. “But I’m putting my work out there for the public,” which may mean “I have to accept a slightly different interpretation.”
Contact reporter Carol Cling at email@example.com or 702-383-0272.