4.5 / Review

From Las Vegas: the Neon Museum and Relative Perspectives

By Mary Anne Kluth December 5, 2012

Las Vegas’s reputation precedes it. It is both a spectacular city, boasting big-budget architecture, entertainment, and luxury not found elsewhere in America, and also a sprawling suburb. This “back-stage” dimension of the city is largely invisible to visitors who stay on the Strip or on Fremont Street. Rather than competing with the noise and light of the casinos, local organizations and artists emphasize social aspects to exhibitions and artworks, inviting visitors and viewers to consider the people who live there and the way the city got to be how it is today.

The community-based non-profit Neon Museum deals directly with the hyperbolic culture of spectacle in Las Vegas. Ostensibly their mission is to present retired illuminated casino signage as unique works of craft and folk art, but the larger project, in practice, also incorporates an oral history of the community.

Admittance to the Bone Yard, the museum’s collection, is by scheduled tour only. This is radically different from the experiences visitors may have had in the past, when it was possible to explore the Bone Yard’s two and half acres full of decommissioned signage from casinos, hotels, bars, restaurants, wedding chapels, and other road-side businesses independently. Tour group sizes are limited, and visitors aren’t permitted to wander on their own, due to the broken glass and hazardous materials expelled by the decaying signage. Instead, museum employees very genially entertain visitors. The guides offer over a solid hour of storytelling to each tour, incorporating Nevada state history, Las Vegas cultural context, much local hearsay, some Western folklore, as well as a few notes on the provenance and design history of selected signs.

The Neon Museum; installation view of the Bone Yard. Courtesy of the Neon Museum, Las Vegas. Photo: Mary Anne Kluth.

Apparently these presentations are partially memorized and partially improvised in response to each tour group’s interests. Our particular tour included numerous entertaining anecdotes, recounted by docent Ian Zeitzer. Highlights included stories about gangster Bugsy Siegel getting shot in the face after failing to turn a profit on the Flamingo casino and hotel; the original Atomic-age concept for the Stardust casino, which offered opportunities for visitors to don goggles, eat lunch on the roof, and observe one or more of the US military’s hundreds of nuclear tests conducted in the nearby Nevada desert; how the Lido de Paris revue created the first Las Vegas performance residency; and that Benny Binion, a gangster kicked out of Texas for two admitted murders, first put chairs in front of slot machines.

The actual signs in the museum’s collection—beautifully crafted structures made of metal, thousands of individual bulbs, and occasionally hand-blown neon—are stacked up, five or six deep in some areas, as if archived. None of them light up (visitors interested in functional, iconic midcentury Vegas signage can find modestly sized pieces along Fremont Street, curated by the museum, individually restored, illuminated, and free to the public). Many are stored in pieces, or at angles. While they are the impetus of the organization itself, the tour experience is overwhelmingly social, full of folklore and vivid narratives.  Using neon signage as a synecdoche for the city of Las Vegas, the Neon Museum presents a detailed, interactive history of the city that is not available to the thousands of tourists that visit the city each day.

Marlene Siu. Peter, 2011; archival inkjet print, plexiglass, corrugated plastic, and LED lights; 120 x 180 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the Clark County Government Center Rotunda Gallery, Las Vegas.
Javier Sanchez. Untitled, 2012; wood, styrofoam, enamel paint, digital inkjet prints; 60 x 108 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the Clark County Government Center Rotunda Gallery, Las Vegas.

Analogous to the way that the Neon Museum strives to reinsert a sense of passing time to oppose the Strip’s perpetual weekend, individual artists in Las Vegas work to assert a vision of a specific community in the city comprised of more than the anonymous chorus performers, nameless Cirque du Soleil acrobats, and larger than life headliners-in-residence available to tourists. Relative Perspectives, at the Rotunda Gallery in the Clark County Government Center, presents photography-based works by Javier Sanchez and Marlene Siu that both use current Vegas residents as subjects. Siu’s photographs of locals posed informally in front of their homes are installed on lightboxes mounted at the rear of elongated rectangular compartments. About a dozen of these compartments, some of which are empty, are painted white and stacked in a grid formation. This presentation prevents viewers from seeing the images as a group except from afar, as each image is compartmentalized and partially obscured by the structure. Each image presents a glimpse of individual experiences: a specific home; the unique gesture of each subject; the particularities of their mode of dress. The sculptural presentation, however, structurally mirrors the grid-like layout of the very sort of suburb many of Siu’s subjects live in. In the tradition of many punk street artists, Siu’s photos document the tangible reality of each subject’s life, presenting an emphatically modest, non-spectacular perspective on Las Vegas. Her formal presentation of these images connects her community to many others like it across America.

Sanchez also presents his black and white photographs in an unconventional manner, on sets of sculptural columns, like giant Scantron forms stood upright in space. The structures are installed throughout the Gallery’s grand central nave. The images are sensitively composed, capturing sunburns, piercings, and subtle facial expressions of each subject. Some images have been split between columns, and occasionally Sanchez mixes up segments of a photo, shuffling an image across a sculpture’s central support column. Set in the city’s municipal gallery, literally between halls of records and clerks’ offices, Sanchez’s photographs call attention to the way the real individual people are woven into anonymous bureaucratic processes.

Relative Perspectives gives an impression of the wide range of individual people that make up the local community, portraying people of many races, gender presentations, ages, and classes. In this way it not only counters the impression of Las Vegans as an army of uniformed hospitality service professionals, but it also counters the impression created by another black and white collection of portraits from the region, Richard Avedon’s In The American West (1984). For that collection, a New York photographer deliberately edited together a series of images that focused on evidence of brutal working conditions and economic disenfranchisement experienced by citizens in interior Western states, and works were initially exhibited and published on the coasts. By contrast, Relative Perspectives illustrates a resilient community coping with a boom-and-bust economy, but cooperating and thriving, as seen by a participating citizen, and presented, no less, under the auspices of the local government.

Both the Neon Museum as an institution, and the Sanchez and Sui as artists, are creating exhibition strategies and art works that celebrate Las Vegas’ current and historical community. In response to the city’s unavoidable cultural and economic commotion of spectacular commercial, entertainment, and leisure attractions, Las Vegas artists and non-profit organizations offer works and exhibitions that are socially engaged and aim to represent the rest of the city’s inhabitants as well as its history.


The Neon Museum, in Las Vegas, can be toured year-round by appointment.  


Javier Sanchez and Marlene Siu: Relative Perspectives was on view at the Clark County Government Center Rotunda Gallery, in Las Vegas, from October 15 through November 30, 2012.

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