Along a stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard off Interstate 15, a special set of mountains lure travelers making the trek between Sin City and Los Angeles. Cruising down the highway, dozens of cars line the busy road, as throngs of tourists meander from parking spots clutching their smartphones, cameras at the ready. Unlike travelers to Nevada’s other great man-made wonder, The Hoover Dam, these sightseers are in search of a more colorful development. Amidst the arid landscape’s neutral tones, artist Ugo Rondinone’s vibrant installation, Seven Magic Mountains, stands out.
If you haven’t scrolled past the pictures on social media, seen them on TV, or flipped through articles about them in magazines, you’ve definitely heard of these larger-than-life sculptures. It’s been called Las Vegas’ answer to Stonehenge, but Seven Magic Mountains is more than the sum of the fluorescent hues that color its surface. The series of totemic pilings is the work of one of the largest names in contemporary art. Though this latest project earned him mainstream acclaim, for decades Rondinone has been slowly chipping away, producing a highly varied oeuvre, from painting and sculpture, to installation, conceptual, and public art. His life’s work is the subject of a recent retrospective at Miami Beach’s Bass Museum of Art on view through February 19, 2018 to commemorate the institution’s reopening after a two-year renovation.
The show marks the first US solo museum exhibition for Swiss-born, New York-based Rondinone, whose practice spans three decades. Titled “Good Evening Beautiful Blue,” the retrospective comprises three separate installations: Vocabulary of Solitude (2014), Clockwork for Oracles II (2008), and A Place Where Nothing Happens (1999-2000). The show takes up the museum’s second floor and ranges from video and installation to performance and collage. And if you don’t have a chance to make the trip out to Nevada, The Bass also commissioned Miami Mountain—a sculpture in the vein of Seven Magic Mountains—so visitors can get a sense of the desert installation in a more tropical setting.
“We are proud to present Ugo Rondinone’s first US museum show,” says Bass Museum executive director and chief curator Silvia Karman Cubiñá. “The newly transformed Bass reflects the spirit of Miami Beach.”
The show centers on Vocabulary of Solitude, an installation of 45 life-sized clown statues in a variety of costumes and posses throughout the exhibition space. The sprawling piece represents the different aspects of the artist’s daily routine: each figure portrays a different activity from walking and showering to remembering and dreaming. Though they’re festooned with the artist’s trademark fluorescent colors, these clowns aren’t the happy-go-lucky characters you’d normally expect to see at the circus, entertaining kids with their slapstick gags. Isolated, dejected, and depressed, each statue stares off into the distance instead of engaging with the viewer or one another. The installation embodies the spirit of the artist’s work: a contrast between an outer semblance and a deeper hidden meaning.
It’s that same juxtaposition that lies at the core of Seven Magic Mountains. The rocks that form the piece were mined from a local quarry located just a few miles from the site of the installation in Nevada. These seemingly prehistoric formations are painted with bright, artificial colors that belie their natural form. Rondinone’s metaphor extends beyond the pieces themselves to a general world view. All beings, animate or inanimate, possess the same conflict—a struggle between the outer and inner self. A coat of makeup on a person’s face can hide emotional torment, for example. Yet the artists remains agnostic about the implications of this point of view. Rather than judge glaring hypocrisies, Rondinone’s dualities are a source of beauty not dissonance. It’s the ambiguities created by the contrasts that make his works so alluring, even to the untrained eye.
“Because Ugo’s practice deals with duality, the juxtaposition is inherent to much of his work,” says Bass Museum curator Leilani Lynch. “The colorful, sometimes shiny or reflective materials used can seem superficial at first, but as you spend time in each installation, the details trigger self-reflection and introspection.”
Born in Brunnen, Switzerland, to Italian parents, Rondinone always had a passion for fine arts. In school, he worked as an assistant to Austrian avant-garde performance artist Hermann Nitsch at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. He came on the international art scene first as a painter, where he developed his trademark palette of bright colors early on. His first foray into public art took the form of large neon signs in the vein of Jenny Holzer. With imperative phrases like “Hell, Yes!” “Our Magic Hour” and “Dog Days Are Over,” they were meant to shock the average passerby, awaking them from a state of complacency with their vibrant rainbow pattern. Though, unlike Holzer, Rondinone’s pieces are imbued with a sense of irreverence that’s emblematic of his work.
In Clockwork for Oracles II, the artist’s penchant for tongue-in-cheek interventions are on full display. The piece is comprised of 52 mirrored windows, one for each week of the year, set against a backdrop of whitewashed local newspaper clippings. Visitors contemplate their own reflections while reading the headlines that fade throughout the duration of the exhibition. It’s a play on the transience of art gazing against the permanence of print—another contrast that both attracts and repels the viewer. The last installation, A Place Where Nothing Happens, is the most unconventional in the retrospective. The blue-tinted exhibition space features projected slow-motion loops of six men and six women performing everyday gestures, like opening a door, without acknowledging the viewer. Both the setting and lack of action set the stage for an introspective atmosphere, provoking the viewer to turn inward.
“Ugo is a proponent of the idea that art should be felt or experienced rather than understood, and I think that carries through into the work that he makes,” explains Lynch. “His use of everyday materials and universally recognizable symbols: Clowns, newspaper, windows, doors, rainbows, for example, make the work accessible for multiple audiences.”
And it’s that accessibility that’s made Rondidone’s work so popular. Whether it’s a sculpture, video, site-specific installation, or a more traditional medium like oil-on-canvass, he manages to keep growing an avid fan base of devotees. His pieces inspire both heady dialogs and warm smiles, and that is no small order, even for one of the brightest—and most fluorescent—stars in the art world.