LAS VEGAS, Nevada — UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art has a long history of repurposing structures. Founded in 1967 as a natural history museum, it officially shifted its focus to art in 2012. The building itself was formerly the university’s gymnasium, and preserves a logo of the since-retired Confederate mascot, Beauregard, on its wooden basketball court floor. Under the guidance of Alisha Kerlin, the Barrick’s new museum director, who is quick to voice her distaste for Beauregard, that sense of reworking and adaptation continues with a recently opened wing called The Work Shop.
Located in an exit corridor near the back of the museum, The Work Shop’s relatively small space (allegedly sporting only one power outlet) calls for experimentation and creative problem-solving. Such qualities are familiar to Mikayla Whitmore. Whitmore is a leader among Las Vegas’s burgeoning cadre of young working artists, a versatile photographer whose work has been featured at Vox, The Guardian, ESPN, and Wired, among other outlets. Whitmore’s trademark of striking, colorful compositions, often lit with rigs that evoke reflections of neon signage, translates into her current solo exhibition on view in The Work Shop, Between a Rock and a Cliff.
A combination of photography and installation, Whitmore’s exhibition showcases images of dazzling craft and understated observation, mixing photographed dioramas, like the iridescent cactus constructed from glass in “I don’t want flowers when I’m dead” alongside images of found objects. Running along the wall opposite these photographs are 10 pennant lines handmade from gold mylar. The recurrence of reflective materials as symbols invites questions concerning reality and distortion. In “Rock, Mirror, Cliff,” a circular mirror set atop dark boulders reflects a cloudless sky tilting towards sunset, and so seemingly reflects nothing at all, “a jumping-off point to infinite possibilities.” In “Seven Years of Bad Luck,” among the exhibit’s most curious and pleasantly abstruse images, Whitmore stands in the darkening desert backdrop of a gun range, shrouded in a wrinkled gold and silver mylar sheet, stepping on a dust-covered broken mirror. All the elements that make these images memorable come down to Whitmore’s penchant for working quickly and for capturing every element in real time. “I was taught to do things in-camera first,” she told Hyperallergic. “I like it because of the physical aspect, but also mirrors and reflective surfaces can create a surreal, ephemeral environment in real time. And mirrors are cheap, or they can be.”
If there’s something familiar about Whitmore’s work, whether it’s the vibrant neon lighting, the use of mirrors in desert backdrops, or simply the prominence of the desert itself, it may be the fact that many of her techniques have become go-to aesthetic placeholders for fashion photographers, social media influencers, and amateurs. When I ask her if the viral nature of these types of photos has given her pause with her own work, she doesn’t demur. “Mirrors, prisms, colors are trending hard. I’m trying now to see things differently. Going forward, I want to bring things into three dimensions, with sculpture and installation more to separate myself.”
Between a Rock and a Cliff can seem like it represents the end of a certain way of working for Whitmore, even if she has become recognized for the work she’s showcasing. If social media and the artsy sensibilities of ad marketing are cribbing the same aesthetic ideas Whitmore is interested in, could it be time to work against the zeitgeist? It’s not a simple matter. While there will be an inclination amongst some to dismiss Whitmore’s work as derivative, the details are distinctly unique and homegrown. They represent the evolution of a desert artist, eye firmly on her future’s possibilities.
Between a Rock and a Cliff will continue at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art (4505 S. Maryland Pkwy, Las Vegas) through February 8, 2020. The exhibition was curated by Alisha Kerlin.