Neon Museum artist-in-residence looks for Las Vegas signs

Allison Wiese is always looking for a sign — and the look of a sign.

Both of which make Las Vegas the ideal place to look for inspiration.

That’s exactly what Wiese, the Neon Museum’s 2017 national artist-in-residence, has been doing for the past month.

She concludes her residency Friday with a studio open house at the museum’s downtown Ne10 Building.

Inevitably, visitors to her studio will find a neon sign: one that reads “Bicker,” then “Banter” in glowing script.

It’s part of a “an open-ended series that comes to me when it comes to me,” Wiese says, devoted to hallmarks of classic Hollywood comedies, from “Slap Slap Kiss” to “Spit Take.” (The latter being that magic moment when a surprising statement or action inspires someone drinking coffee or tea — or something stronger — to spit out their beverage in surprise.)

But open house attendees also will find tambourines with statements painted on them. (Sample: 16th-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s “The first step in the corruption of morals is the banishing of truth.”) Perhaps a swap-meet suitcase strung with tiny, blinking lights. And castings of blocks you might find in the patio walls of vintage Vegas homes — but made of sugar, not concrete.

Reflecting on her Las Vegas stay, “a month could be a lot of time — or not any time at all,” Wiese says during an interview at her Ne10 base. “I’m trying to spend time learning about Las Vegas.”

To that end, Wiese has explored various swaths of Southern Nevada, from the Strip and Glitter Gulch to the valley’s suburban edges.

Although there’s not much outward resemblance to her current base of San Diego, Wiese has detected “some similarities,” among them the “tourist economy” — and the impulse to alter the environment.

San Diego is “a coastal desert replanted to look Mediterranean,” Wiese notes, adding that Las Vegas specializes in inventing, and reinventing, itself, from an Old West town to a “cooler, more sophisticated” tourist draw.

“The physical space here is really interesting,” she observes, citing the juxtaposition of “a closed motel, which I find beautiful and interesting,” and an open-for-business casino.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Wiese never visited Las Vegas. “But as somebody who spent time as a teenager at Coney Island” she recognizes, in visitors to downtown Las Vegas, “such an intense goal of having fun.”

Two years ago, Wiese finally visited Las Vegas — with the Neon Museum a must-see.

Seeing “the scale of those signs, and the ability to be close to them,” Wiese says, was “a precious opportunity.”

After all, signs turn up repeatedly in Wiese’s art.

At the Sky Line Drive-in in Sheridan, Wyoming, Wiese replaced the current-attractions list on the marquee with this pickup line: “DO YOU BELIEVE IN LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT OR SHOULD I WALK BY AGAIN.” On an upstate New York movie palace marquee, she created a similarly cheeky inquiry: “DID THE SUN COME OUT OR DID YOU JUST SMILE AT ME.”

From North Carolina to Texas to California, Wiese’s installations demonstrate that “I’ve always loved signage,” along with “the way signs work.”

During her Neon Museum residency, the artist enjoyed “a lovely tour of YESCO” (the sign company behind most of Las Vegas’ spectacular signs), which she likens to “Valhalla for anyone who’s ever made a project” in neon.

Another pilgrimage during her month in Nevada: a visit to land artist Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative” outside Overton.

Throughout her Southern Nevada stay, locals have been “great ambassadors, but honest ambassadors,” Wiese comments, “both over-the-top and self-effacing.”

And though Wiese “won’t be able to sum this up until I’m done,” she already knows one thing.

“The Neon Museum just made a really good friend,” she says. “My work may be changed by my being here.”

The Neon Museum residency

In its second year, the Neon Museum’s artist-in-residence program offers “unstructured time” for its recipient.

But “this isn’t just professional development,” says Cynthia Behr Warso, the museum’s director of education and engagement. “It’s about the museum reaching new audiences.”

This year, more than 20 artists applied for the residency, which is underwritten by grants from the federal National Endowment for the Arts and the state-funded Nevada Arts Council.

In addition to a stipend, the residency includes a travel allowance, lodging and studio space.

“The quality is more important than the quantity” of applicants, Warso comments. And this year, “100 percent of the applicants were way great.”

Both Allison Wiese, this year’s artist-in-residence, and 2016’s Whitney Lynn “are rather well-established,” Warso notes, and “have the experience to deal with the open-endedness” of the program.

In choosing a resident artist, the museum looks for “audience engagement” from applicants; Wiese, for example, delivered an artists’ talk halfway through her residency and will host an open house Friday.

“We’re open to anything the artist wants to do,” Warso says. “The projects usually have an afterlife.”

And by inviting outside artists to Las Vegas, she adds, “through their work, we’re gaining traction with some other artists.”

Contact Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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