If These Walls Could Talk

Nevada walls

Bob Olmstead, Docent, Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, Nevada (February 2020) 

“If these walls could talk,” is a colloquial phrase suggesting clandestine rendezvous and secrets.

The walls at the Nevada Museum of Art do talk! Many of the artists incorporate the walls into their art. By asking open-ended and non-judgmental questions a docent can help viewers discover for themselves the secrets of our walls.

At the Nevada Museum of Art, curators or the artists lead a docents’ walk-through prior to every exhibition opening. In addition, our docents do substantial individual research, checking websites and library resources, summarizing what they find about the artists currently represented in the Museum, citing life circumstances, artistic influences and style. Docents share this information with one another by posting a summary of their research on a museum-maintained website that is available for all docents.

This information is background for the informed docent; the foundation for helping visitors experience the art for themselves.

For example, behind the Museum Admissions desk is Andrea Zittel’s Wallsprawl #4. The pattern in the wallpaper is a high-altitude image of the secretive Nellis Air Force Base seen from above the desert. Would we decorate the walls of our cozy homes with designs featuring weapons of war? In Nevada we are surrounded by military bases. We pay little attention – just as we fail to see the design on the wallpaper. Is it in our nature to see only what we want to see?

Go up one floor to see Edi Rama’s doodles, reproduced on more wallpaper. Edi Rama is the Prime Minister of Albania. His working hours are filled with endless meetings and phone calls. As governmental paperwork flows across his desk he doodles on it. In the evenings he fills in his doodles with vivid primary colors. Allowing his unconscious to “doodle” helps him focus on the conscious task at hand.

Do you doodle, knit, tap your toes while doing something else? Does art contribute to the political landscape? Does color make our urban scene more livable, humanistic, appealing? So many good questions for tour visitors to consider while viewing Edi Rama’s wallpaper.

Rennie 3

Australian Aborigine artist Reko Rennie was commissioned to paint the walls of the Museum’s atrium. The atrium is four stories high and required a giant “cherry picker” to lift the artist and his assistant to the top. His swirling mural is titled Always Was Always Will Be. Random narrow windows dot the atrium walls and are incorporated into Rennie’s mural. Through the windows we catch fleeting glimpses of volunteers and visitors passing behind the walls, a reminder that aboriginal peoples are hidden among us and that the land we inhabit always was and always will be theirs.

Jack Malotte is a Washoe and Western Shoshone artist and activist. He was raised locally and now lives on isolated tribal land in the center of Nevada. In anticipation of his major retrospective at the Nevada Museum of Art Malotte painted a 50-foot long mural on the Museum’s exterior south wall. In the mural eagles fly alongside fighter jets and nuclear explosions dot the desert landscape, a reminder that tribal lands in Nevada are encroached upon by military sites, open-pit mines and nuclear test sites.

Maya Lin, daughter of Chinese intellectuals who fled their homeland just weeks before the Communist takeover, used pins - thousands of pins pushed into the wall outside the Museum theater - to replicate every stream and tributary that fills Lake Tahoe. This deep mountain lake, just miles from the Museum, feeds wildlife, agriculture, Native tribal lands and Reno tourism.

Lin is an architect, sculptor and environmentalist, best known for the Viet Nam Memorial in the Washington Mall. Pins are like raindrops. How many raindrops does it take to fill Lake Tahoe? Pins give the wall a shimmering three-dimensional quality.

Alice Channer’s ethereal wall sculpture, Untitled (Hairpins) is an arabesque of stiff paper held at an angle to the wall with bobby pins.

Gail Wight’s enormous moths and butterflies are pinned to a wall with 18-inch pins. Occasionally one of the moths shudders in an effort to escape its pin, making viewers flinch. Can we learn about wildlife without killing it and pinning it for display?

Using custom software, computer, depth-camera, projection and lighting, Camille Utterback’s interactive installation projects a 77 square-foot multi-color art piece onto a gallery wall. When anyone stands facing the wall the art responds. Color panes shift kaleidoscopically as the viewer moves. A line follows the slightest movement. The wall is our canvas as we rearrange the image.

Nevada walls 2

Wallpaper and paints, swirling murals, bobby pins and straight pins, Silicon Valley algorithms, digitized interactive patterns; an Australian Aborigine, a Western Shoshone elder, an Albanian politician/artist, a Chinese American architect . . . all use the walls of our Museum to shape their art. If we are successful as docents, we will have invited our visitors to consider the walls and the art more deeply – thoughtfully and emotionally – helping viewers to discover for themselves the artists’ intent.

The walls at the Nevada Museum of Art DO talk. Docents can gently ask, “What do these walls say to you?”