"Americans see Las Vegas the way that the rest of the world sees America."
I spoke to Matt Couper - a 34-year old Las Vegas-based artist, New Zealand expat, and old friend - about three weeks ago and this comment of his has stuck in my head.
We chatted for an hour via Skype before Christmas. I was in Boston, he at his home 10 minutes or so walk from the infamous Vegas strip. The whirr of his computer's fan provided a soundtrack to our conversation. It had begun to malfunction after 16 months of working overtime in the Las Vegas heat.
Couper moved to Las Vegas in August 2010, to paint ostensibly, after he and his wife were recipients of green cards in the annual US citizenship lottery. He is distinctive as a painter by his frequent use of the ex voto and Spanish Colonial styles, but he is also a noted sculptor and creator of ceramics. His work is underscored by its humour and intellect, combining text and referencing figures both cultural and from his own life, and using a number of different surfaces.
(I'm biased towards Couper's work, evidently, but I implore you to check him out, and I've included a couple of examples of his work below.)
That one thought of Couper's stuck out from many interesting things he had to say.
Most Americans see Las Vegas as crass, commercialised and tacky. But like a lot of anti-American thought it is a simplistic and needlessly reductive idea.
Las Vegas is a city of half a million people, for a start.
I visited Las Vegas in August 2007: I won $42 on the pokies (and invested only $1), went to a nightclub and overpaid for drinks and saw Modest Mouse play at the Hard Rock Café. I slept in a hotel shaped like a giant pyramid, and was taken aback by the strip, with its epic recreations of Paris, or New York, or ancient Rome. The scale and grandeur of the replications and reference points gives the strip a warped majesty of its own.
Lights. Waterfalls. Signs. People. Laughter.
Sure, we drank a little bit... a lot even on one evening. But, Las Vegas is a difficult city to rage in. You feel dwarfed in the space, a tourist at all times and miniature in the face of all this human construction. It mutes you, in a nice way.
"It isn't a place to turn up and try and recreate the Hangover," Couper says, laughing. "You'll see a group of people who had turned up wanting to be the drunkest people on the strip, and they'll immediately see another group doing it better than them and get deflated."
Further to this, the Las Vegas heat (peaking often at well over 40 degrees Celsius, he tells me) has cut Couper's drinking off at its knees. "The dehydration is such that unless you have about three glasses of water for every beer you're going to feel horrible."
Couper finds the Strip a thought-provoking backdrop to paint against. "It is pop-art at its best. It is totally visual, and is about enticement and titillation. It is not elitist. And the art world is elitist. You need to withstand contemporary art issues here, which tries to work against these ideas of the Strip."
"The Strip works off notions of manufacture and façade, and that is what the art world is. The idea is that here you can feed off the ideas of the strip and these pop aesthetics and the psychological aspects of living in a place like this," Couper says. Part of his current focus, he mentions, is to try to work out what this environment exactly is and how it affects him.
So while the Strip itself is worth extra consideration (past being written off with the same haphazard mental callousness you might expend in dismissing a shopping mall) the city itself, existing in the shadows of the tourism industry as it does, is much more regular and normal then some might credit it.
Couper lives within walking distance of the major Las Vegas spots, but he goes to the main strip mostly only to visit art galleries or to take friends who come to town. He doesn't gamble and he points out that most of the people in Las Vegas simply work there (albeit many in service jobs to support the tourism). There're plenty of businesses and communities, and a separate downtown area to the main strip.
"We live in a semi-urban, suburban setting. You can see the bright lights at night. But it is not loud. You can forget the Strip is there," Couper says.
For those who do live fulltime in Las Vegas, the attention given to the Strip, and the transience of most people who come to town hardens the residents. "The locals and natives are really staunch. We had trouble meeting people at first, but once we had been here a year there was a huge difference, as people started to trust that we were going to stick around."
In recent years, Las Vegas has become a focal point of the collapse of the US housing market and the subprime mortgage crisis, and it now has the highest foreclosure rate in the country. "You notice it, you see houses around the place and hear about it through friends of friends," Couper says.
"Because of it, some people come here and get stuck. People comment about it, and it adds to this media image of Las Vegas. There was a list that came out of the top 10 saddest towns in the country and it put Las Vegas number one."
Couper and his wife, Jo, who is also an artist, are happy currently in Las Vegas and do not have a timeframe in mind for how long they will stay. The two of them are content for the time with being part of an art scene in Las Vegas that not many would instinctively associate with the city.
The two of them had had friends who used to live in the city that they'd stayed with previously, that helped them decide to come here. But come crunch time there was no special pass into the Las Vegas art scene. They just showed up.
"It isn't a developed art scene. I like to look at the positives of that. There're enough interesting artists here, and for that you need a hungry audience, which doesn't seem to be the case. But there's great galleries and smart people here," Couper says. He travels frequently around the country, partly for work and networking but also for tourism, taking in the expanse of great American art.
For Couper, Las Vegas has represented a broad change from working in New Zealand. He says that most notable is the work ethic that his contemporaries in Las Vegas display.
"People work so hard. Some people work full time and still manage to sell good quality work for a third of the price," Couper says. It has forced him to work, he adds, "at least 40 percent harder."
After a while, as it can, our conversation segued out past Las Vegas and art, to broader talk of Christmas ham and a recent Morrissey concert he'd attended.
I enjoyed talking to Couper immensely. He confirmed a notion of mine, that Las Vegas was not something to dismiss, and that in its own way the Strip was something to behold and celebrate rather than snigger at.
So have you been to Las Vegas? What are your thoughts? Do you have any good stories... or even any bad ones?
(For today maybe we can set aside the what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas maxim, I guess.)
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