Michael Freborg reflects on Connective Tissue.


Barrick Museum of Art volunteer Michael Freborg has spent some time thinking about Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya’s Connective Tissue exhibition (September 13, 2019 – February 22nd, 2020). He writes:

Working at a writing center, I often collaborate with my co-workers when tutoring
students. We are all experienced writers who come from a variety of disciplines and
backgrounds, and each of us has our particular strengths. But sometimes students have questions we don’t know the answers to, so we rely on each other to provide the missing information. The whole process is communal. The students as well are encouraged to actively participate, often yielding productive results. As tutors, we function more as a system than as individual cells. And in doing so, we usually have the most significant impact. This is the point that artist and neuroscientist Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya wants to make with Connective Tissue. “The reach of our actions is limited when we operate independently,” she says, “but can be exponential when we work together.” She believes that the most positive change occurs through social interaction, when people are united as one collective group with a common purpose.

Throughout her exhibition, she emphasizes community, and uses her scientific knowledge to examine human experiences and to bring to light processes that are imperceptible to the senses. Like Justin Favela and Romero Gomez in Sorry for the Mess, Phingbodhipakkiya exaggerates the scale of her artwork, drawing attention to the invisible. But while Favela and Gomez highlight human workers who go unnoticed, yet are still part of the physical world, she takes it a step further. Her large-scale molecular and subatomic models illustrate that which is literally invisible to the naked eye – the building blocks, she says, that are essential to our very existence.

In one such piece, titled There Are No Particles, Only Fields, Phingbodhipakkiya depicts a process in quantum field theory, which suggests that electrons are not discrete particles, but localized vibrations in an invisible field. Theoretically, these vibrations can be detected, but they cannot be seen. Here, the artist brings the infinitesimal realm into the physical world with a 10-foot steel-framed, three-dimensional installation made of 750 feet of shock chord. The model portrays a photon being passed from one electron to another (which occurs when two electrons shift their orbits around an atom). It is loosely based on American scientist Richard Feynman’s diagram depicting the interaction of subatomic particles.


Her wall murals are vibrant and colorful, depicting women in blissful states while adding scientific elements to encourage young girls to join the fields of science. The four women in the portraits along the back wall of the gallery seem relaxed, dressed in comfortable attire, and at first glance, appear to be wearing sunglasses that look like they are reflecting fruit. But upon closer inspection, the mirrored shades covering their eyes are actually Petri dishes containing microorganisms. Additional microbes float around the four women, making visible the ecosystems of bacteria, yeast, and fungi that exist around us. Other murals show women embracing each other, reinforcing relationships, and emphasizing a supportive community. Phingbodhipakkiya sees women as the “connective tissue” of communities. They are the ones, she says, that keep everything “humming and running smoothly.”

She also pays tribute to prominent women in the science community, both living and from the past. One of the artworks in the Center Gallery, titled In the Company of Scientists, consists of twenty small-scale busts adorning individual shelves on four walls. The busts are 3D printed in pure white plastic, referencing the marble statues of Ancient Rome and Greece, which at one time were brightly painted, but lost their color over the centuries. What makes this collection unique is that all the faces are of women pioneers from the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), including doctors, scientists, and astronauts, many of whom are Nobel Prize winners. Painted multi-colored lines run along the walls behind the busts, symbolizing unity and progress. Every bust has a QR label that allows viewers to access an online profile of the individual via their smartphones.

Its companion piece, Beyond Curie, celebrates 45 women in STEM. Thirty-two of their printed portraits rest on shelves on the center wall. The display also offers an augmented reality (AR) experience. When visitors download the Beyond Curie AR app from the Apple or Android Store, or from beyondcurie.com/app, and hold their smartphones to the portraits, they will be able to see additional information about these women pioneers on their screens. The text beside the display in the room mentions that only 7.5% of the over 5,000 public statues displayed in the United States are of women. Like Favela and Gomez, Phingbodhipakkiya celebrates an overlooked segment of our society who, despite their contributions to the world, are often ignored or forgotten. This is particularly important to Phingbodhipakkiya, because she, herself, is a member of the STEM community. And with the busts and portraits of these women pioneers, she hopes to excite and motivate other women to join in their footsteps.

Phingbodhipakkiya designed her artwork so that visitors could get up close and personal. Her interactive dioramas encourage involvement, inviting viewers to use their senses, particularly touch, which she sees as an essential ingredient in forming connections with people. For it is the concept of touch that reverberates throughout the exhibition. One such display, Binary Outcomes utilizes five wooden boxes aligned horizontally along the wall, each with a pressure- activated sensor and headset for visitors to listen. Each box has a particular instrument assigned to it, such as an oboe, flute, clarinet, or horn. When a sensor is pressed on one of the boxes, a few notes are played. Visitors pushing two or more sensors at the same time will be able to hear the instruments playing together. When all five sensors are pressed at once, the entire quintet of instruments will play a melody. For this display, the artist uses the analogy of a forest fire building its force from strong winds, dry grass, and lack of moisture in the air. “Everything that becomes massive, starts small and gains momentum,” she says.


This theme continues in Campfire, a mock camping tent that, like its counterparts, incorporates physical contact. Inside the tent are three inflatable cushions facing each other. Campfire is one of two exhibition pieces where Phingbodhipakkiya utilizes inflatable devices to contain and sculpt air, she explains, to bridge an intangible element with the physical world. When one or two of these air pressure-sensored seats are sat upon, cool fluorescent lights come on. When all three cushions are occupied, a warm glow is emitted, giving participants a completely different visual experience. Campfire shows that the more people that are involved in a conversation, the better the chance that ideas will spark from it, thus creating a tipping point. Again, she uses the metaphor of a fire burning brighter and stronger as increasing factors propel it to critical mass. As in Binary Outcomes, the idea that one person alone is incapable of making significant change is evident in the exercise. And like Binary Outcomes, the more visitors who participate in the activity, the stronger the momentum, and the greater the change that occurs.

The sculpture next to Campfire, titled Impulse, not only incorporates touch, but brings attention to the 5 million Americans who suffer from neurodegenerative disorders, such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s, as well as the families and caregivers who are also negatively impacted by the diseases. As with Campfire, the artist uses inflatable cushions to mold air. Here she uses them as a tool to explain a biological process. For this display, she uses 10 blown-up transparent pillows connected by a long cord to simulate the effects of myelin, a fatty substance that coats brain neurons, allowing them to send electrical pulses across the nervous system more efficiently. When myelin is damaged or lost, it can cause brain activity to weaken, slow, or cease. The pillows illustrate this effect when pressed. The more thickly padded ones send stronger and brighter light signals farther down the cord, while the thinly cushioned ones discharge flickering and erratic streams of light. Here again she exaggerates the scale of her artwork to bring a microscopic element, invisible to the naked eye, into the visible world. And its interactive quality gives its participants a better understanding of the process than simply reading about it, allowing them to use both sight and touch to enhance their learning potential.

Perhaps the most interactive exhibition is Strange Sequences, an ethical exercise that encourages critical thinking and group discussion. Touching a button on one of the six wooden boxes yields a receipt-like printout describing a hypothetical near-future scenario involving climate change, genetics, or biotechnology. There are four multiple choice answers, labeled A through D, ranging from cautious (testing it first for about fifty years) to proceeding immediately and then waiting to see what happens. One scenario is an experimental vaccine that would make children smarter, but increase their risk of having Alzheimer’s disease later in life. There are four transparent bins with corresponding letters where visitors can drop their answers. This creates a physical representation of the votes, showing the large number of participants, and alluding to the many conversations that may have occurred. From here, the artist can make inferences about the local community, such as their cultural or religious backgrounds, family upbringing, and other factors that might have influenced their answers. Like the other displays in the gallery, the theme centers around how people in numbers are more likely to bring about positive change than individuals alone. The exhibition has been running for three months and the four bins are nearly full, each containing what looks like hundreds of tapes. The bin labeled “A” appears to be lagging behind the others by almost a foot. This suggests that the young participants, comprised of middle-schoolers and UNLV students in their early twenties, err on the side of caution when it comes to moral dilemmas, especially when untested side effects are involved. I personally witnessed a group of five middle school students clustered around Strange Sequences enthusiastically discussing one of its topics – just the kind of viewer participation Phingbodhipakkiya seeks to create with her work.


All photographs by Mikayla Whitmore.

“You are actually seeing a reflection of the sun.” An interview with John Torreano.

A painting of small dots and green, pink, and brown horizontal stripes. The region of stripes is partly framed by two vertical areas suggesting the edges of a TV screen. The work hangs on a white wall.
John Torreano, T.V. Bulge, 1969, Acrylic on canvas. Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art Collection. Gift of Mary and Weston Naef in Memory of Frances Marie and William David McNabola. Photo by Checko Salgado.

Our current Work Shop exhibition, Stars on the Ground: Works by John Torreano, closes this Saturday. When our curator Melisa Christ emailed Torreano with a list of questions she wanted to include the catalog, he sent her a generous response. We’re reprinting his answers below.

MC: You often describe your belief that art is transactional.  What do you mean by this?

JT: We tend to think communication in art is a telegraphic process. ie., The artist has an idea expressed in their work of art. The viewer then looks at the artwork and decodes their idea.  That is not how it really works. For example, a person will pass by many artworks before engaging with a particular artwork. The viewer determines if communication takes place, not the artist.  The viewer is not a passive receiver of ideas. To offer a personal example: Whenever I am in Florence I always make a point to visit the Fra Angelico frescoes in the convent of San Marco.  I do this because, from experience, I know that each time I visit those frescoes I will have a different insight.  The paintings haven’t changed, rather it is me the viewer that is different. In this way art serves as a stimulus point (transactional terminal) for self awareness. For me the Fra Angelicos do this. They may not for someone else.

MC: You have shown an incredible commitment to art education throughout your career as an artist.  Do you have any advice that you gave your students at NYU that you could also pass along to students of art here at UNLV?

JT: I was fond of telling my students, “Your job is not to make good art. It’s the critics’ job to say if it is any good or not.  Instead your job is to make sure your art  is doing what you want it to do.”  If you are pushing your ideas and researching unknown possibilities, you are bound to feel insecure.  Not quite knowing what you are doing is a byproduct of the process.  How could it be otherwise? Getting lost creates insecurity.  From my point of view, if you are not getting lost now and then, you are not doing your job.

MC: Can you talk about the use of gems in your work?

JT: People are naturally attracted to shiny objects, as they catch your eye when you move in relation to the object. Since the beginning of time people have thought of shiny objects as magical. The sun is and was the source of everything and thus, with an object like a gem or diamond, you are actually seeing a reflection of the sun.  From this comes the idea that ‘every gem is a handheld star.’

The closing reception for Stars on the Ground will take place from 3 – 5 p.m., on Saturday, January 11th, with a special appearance by the artist. You can find more of Torreano’s work at his website.

Michael Freborg writes about Sorry for the Mess


Barrick volunteer Michael Freborg has been thinking about Sorry for the Mess. (Have we mentioned before that he has a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies? He does.) He writes:

To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of any new exhibition is not the art itself, but the stories behind it. Sometimes artists include small Easter Eggs that reveal more about their works than what is on the surface. It might be personal information like their cultural background or life experiences. Or it could be references to people who have influenced them in some way. This inspiration may come from different sources, such as the films and television shows they have seen, sporting activities they were involved in, or geographical locations they have visited. 

Maybe they want to make a statement about the world or use their art to prove a point. Perhaps their goal is to recreate events from their past. Or they might want to honor someone deserving of merit. Whatever the reason, the stories that linger behind the artwork are often intriguing. And in the Marjorie Barrick Museum’s latest exhibition, Sorry for the Mess, the art on display has stories worth telling. In their first-ever collaboration, Justin Favela and Ramiro Gomez bring some of their childhood memories to life, referencing both pop culture and everyday life in Las Vegas. Using painted imagery and three-dimensional installations, they not only pay tribute to family members, but to other working-class immigrants who toil at their jobs every day in our bustling 24-hour city. Their works are spread throughout the gallery like random memories that pop up out of the blue. They are large and painted in vibrant colors, as if seen through the eyes of children. And with the use of conventional paper, paint, and cardboard, these artists prove that you don’t need fancy materials to make meaningful art.

It is the layers of meaning beneath the paint and the crinkled-up paper that make this exhibition so fascinating. There is the soccer field with the carefully placed crutches before the goal, symbolizing Gomez’s perseverance playing in Las Vegas tournaments during his youth despite his struggle with hemophilia. There are the fluorescent-colored tire stacks reminding me of all the automotive repair shops in town, as well as all the potholes and sharp piercing objects that plague the roads in our valley. The tire installation is a homage to the Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone’s Seven Magic Mountains, a series of totems made with stacked colored boulders located near Interstate 15 south of Las Vegas. And it is one of several instances where Favela recreates blue-chip art with basic household materials.

A central theme of the exhibition is how kids formulate their ideas about the world from their television screens. From the perspective of younger viewers, television images are often big and bright and spectacular. Favela strives to capture this idea in one of his larger sculptures, a structure that looks like a giant parade float made with colorful piñata fringe. Big Bird’s skinny orange legs and big three-toed feet sprawled out in a gesture of fatigue are hard to miss. The yellow-feathered bird and other life-size Sesame Street characters, including the mighty Snuffleupagus, are piled atop each other in the shape of the Luxor pyramid. The work is a nod to both the iconic Las Vegas casino and the preschoolers who may have gotten their first taste of the English language from the popular children’s T.V. show. (Both Favela and Gomez are first-generation Americans.)

The characters look as if they are all passed out from a long day of on-camera acting.  By reminding us that Muppets have their own form of labor, Favela has connected these television icons to the human workers represented elsewhere in Sorry for the Mess, encouraging us to think of work as a broadly resonant category.


This television motif reverberates throughout the exhibition. The diorama in the center gallery is an interior reproduction of Favela’s grandmother’s house, complete with painted furniture and crayon-colored windows created by Gomez. The artists include cardboard television cameras mounted on tripods inside the faux residence. The collaborative display is inspired by La science des rêves (The Science of Sleep), a 2006 surrealistic fantasy film by French filmmaker Michael Gondry. The story revolves around a distraught graphic artist named Stéphane who has difficulty distinguishing between his own fantasy world and the real one he physically occupies. The mock cameras are a reference to dream sequences in which Stéphane’s home becomes a television production studio and Stéphane demonstrates “how dreams are made,” as if he is on a cooking show. One half of this installation mimics the studio in Sleep, while the other half shows us the dream – a field of childlike scribbles – projected onto the television in the grandmother’s living room. 

Here, Favela and Gomez demonstrate their own “dream-making” with the use of cardboard, paint, and crayons, paying tribute to the domestic artistry of Favela’s grandmother and highlighting the intersection of fantasy and reality that permeates Mess. The whole exhibition feels like a wakeful dream, occupying a space between two worlds, while never truly crossing over into either one. 

Like Stéphane’s mind in the film, Sorry for the Mess is strewn with objects that teeter between dreams and reality. This is most evident in the scale of some of the artwork. As visitors wander through the gallery, they will notice all the “wet floor” signs, ranging from very tiny to one big enough to walk under. The larger ones seem to symbolize how people blow things out of proportion. But they are also exaggerated in size to draw attention. With these big yellow A-frames, Favela and Gomez hope to shine a spotlight on the “invisible” blue-collar workers who are taken for granted, ignored, or sometimes not even noticed by the patrons they serve or the casual passersby too preoccupied with their own daily routines. Along with the T.V. studio motif, this theme dominates the exhibition.

 Examples are easy to find. Next to the Muppets is a white statue as tall as the wall behind it. The polystyrene sculpture, with its outline framed in cardboard, is based on one of three female figures adorning The Three Graces Fountain inside Caesars Palace. Beside it, a cardboard casino employee painted by Gomez maneuvers an industrial-grade vacuum cleaner plugged into a socket near the bottom of one of the statue’s legs. Colorful paintings by the same artist are scattered throughout the gallery, each commemorating the unsung laborers who diligently wait restaurant tables, empty trash receptacles in food courts, and clean hotel rooms and casino floors in the town that never sleeps.

Near the statue and its vacuuming worker is a dolphin sculpture enclosed in an open wood frame structure resembling an aquarium. If there is a single piece in the gallery with the most backstory, it is certainly this one. It’s a reference to a high-priced piece of artwork and a homage to an animal attraction at one of Las Vegas’s most famous resorts. It also acknowledges a bit of UNLV’s controversial history and alludes to giant sea-dwelling creatures that swam across Nevada’s ocean-covered prehistoric desert.

The work is based on Duchess, the oldest dolphin and matriarch at Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage Hotel. On the wall opposite the sculpture, Gomez has painted a portrait of the Habitat’s head dolphin supervisor, Erica Kiewice, overlapping a blown-up representation of a detail from The Mirage’s carpet made of piñata paper. The “water tank” encasing Favela’s dolphin is an allusion to Damien Hirst’s art piece, The Unknown (Explored, Explained, Exploded), a 13-foot submerged tiger shark that hovers in three segmented steel and glass tanks over The Unknown Bar in the lobby of the Palms Casino. It may also be a subtle reference to Favela’s mother, who has worked at the Palms since its opening in the early 2000s. 

To make his sculpture, the artist covered wire netting with grey tissue paper, supporting it with a wooden frame underneath, as is typical of most of his larger three-dimensional works. Like many of the pieces in the exhibition, it was built in an on-campus studio, using simple materials. Again, he makes the point that anyone can create art, regardless of their economic status.

The location of the dolphin has significance. What makes Duchess so special in this exhibition is its placement on the floor over a depiction of UNLV’s earliest mascot, Beauregard, a winking, smirking, cartoonish-looking wolf dressed as a Confederate soldier. The university retired Beauregard in 1976 because students protested the racist connotation of the uniform. When the campus gymnasium became a university museum, the old image of the wolf at the center of the basketball court was covered up and forgotten under a giant ichthyosaur skeleton embedded in rock. It wasn’t until the fossil was deaccessioned that the sigil was rediscovered by museum staff. 

Favela hints at the ichthyosaur with subtle details included in Duchess’s design. He made the “V” in the tail more indented than a normal dolphin tail and gave the head a much longer snout – both minor nods to the prehistoric bones that were once on display here. By repeating the historical relationship of Beauregard and the fossil, Favela proposes questions about the recurring nature of prejudice and the impossibility of erasing the past. 

The ichthyosaur can be viewed, along with many other prehistoric bones, in the Nevada State Museum at Springs Preserve. As for Duchess the Dolphin, the paper sculpture, with its references to goofy-looking mascots and sea-dwelling beasts, blue-chip artwork and animal sanctuaries, will be on display with the rest of its counterparts at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art through August 3, 2019.


All of the photographs in this post were taken by Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services

Delights and Discoveries at the Barrick Museum’s Library Collection


Rob Burton, a retired Professor of English from California State University, Chico, has been cataloguing the Literature section of the Barrick library.  He writes about his experience. (He also took the photographs.)

Recently, I helped the Barrick Museum of Art at UNLV to catalog more than two hundred works of literature that have been on loan from the Las Vegas Art Museum since it closed in 2009. The collection is impressive, ranging from twentieth century classics by Graham Greene and André Gide to a special 40th Anniversary edition of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, all in excellent condition. There are also six of The Sandman series of graphic narratives by Neil Gaiman and a five-volume set of collected works by Ronald Firbank, an experimental modernist who is less known than his contemporaries, Virginia Woolf or D.H.Lawrence, but is equally compelling and cosmopolitan.

Most of the books in the collection were formerly owned by two patrons of the arts: Wally Goodman and William Stanton Picher. Their signatures and margin notes grace the pages of the books bringing the works of literature alive in vibrant and personal ways. For example, Picher fills the margins of James Joyce’s Ulysses with copious comments and questions as if he is in deep discussion with the novel’s hero, Stephen Bloom. Picher also makes the following sardonic comment at the end of an essay on the poetry of John Keats by an eminent Harvard professor: “stupid, bigoted, smug, ass of a prefacer.


Picher’s mother, Emily, also makes a valuable contribution to the collection. On the inside front cover of a slim paperback by Lord Macaulay entitled John Milton: An Essay, she has written: “Emily Trish Stanton, English-Classical School, Pasadena CA. Monday, March 4, 1895.” I can imagine the thrill that Emily (a teenager at the time, clearly in love with literature) must have felt as she signed the book on that spring day in Southern California at the close of the nineteenth century.

But my most poignant experience handling these books was discovering a boarding pass that belonged to Wally Goodman and was stuck inside a collection of essays by the British writer, E.M. Forster. Evidently, Goodman flew from Las Vegas to Chicago on October 11, 2001 and took Forster’s book with him for some light reading on the plane. Using the boarding pass as a book mark, he decided to stop reading after an essay entitled, “Does Culture Matter?” The answer that Forster gives to this question in the essay must have resonated with  Goodman. Bemoaning the rising popularity of “cheap amusements” all around him, Forster argues that “the understanding and enjoyment of art should be regarded as a mark of culture.”


Indeed, Wally Goodman’s contributions to the understanding and enjoyment of art in Las Vegas and beyond are legendary. Along with his partner, Patrick Duffy, he donated over $500,000 worth of art and literature to the Las Vegas Art Museum. Further donations of art works, photographs, and other material from his life as a collector went to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.. After his death in 2008, a colleague paid tribute to him by saying, “Wally was a born connoisseur who inspired everyone around him with his gift for really ‘seeing’ in all situations.”

So, if you want to see for yourself how culture matters in these troubled times, take a trip to the Barrick Museum’s library and gallery spaces where, thanks to the generous gifts of connoisseurs like Wally Goodman and William Stanton Picher, you can be reminded of the transformative power of great works of art and literature.

Note: The research library at the Barrick Museum of Art is available by appointment only. Please email Paige Bockman (Office Manager) at paige.bockman@unlv.edu for further information.