A conceptual artist creates exaggerated mythology around Nevadan history
Thomas Putzier, a queer Minneapolis-based conceptual artist, was the 2022 Neon Museum Artist-in-Residence. The Neon Museum is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to collecting, preserving, and studying Las Vegas neon signage with a focus on educational, historical, artistic and cultural enrichment.
When Thomas was a child, his father introduced him to woodworking, which sparked his interest in creating art. Together, they built treehouses. At first he pursued a career in architecture, but ultimately chose to take an artist’s journey instead. He earned an MFA from the Sierra Nevada Institute, Incline Village, Nevada, and a BFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, Illinois. The Minneapolis-based artist has been creating art professionally for about 15 years.
In his artwork, Putzier examines relationships between architecture, freedom, power and control. His art exhibitions have shown in galleries, museums and sculpture parks across the country, where he has collaborated on multiple projects. While admiring his latest exhibition, “Forgotten, Redux,” situated inside the ENGLiSH Hotel lobby in downtown Las Vegas, art enthusiasts may be surprised to learn that prior to his residency, he had never worked with neon. His art installation at the hotel is open to the public and displayed 24 hours a day from now until Sunday, March 26, 2023.
Off The Strip chats with Putzier about how the Nevada landscape inspired his artwork, why public art is important, and offers advice to artists interested in applying for the Neon Museum Artist-in-Residence program.
Why do you create art?
I like to create a space where I’m potentially challenging an audience to think differently about something, and that something is continually changing.
I was told recently that someone viewed my work as creations that talk about complex relationships in our contemporary society, and yet, I’m displaying the work in a way that’s easily accessible and safe. Looking at my painting work, it’s very bright, and it’s very geometric. All of these lines have meaning. I’m looking at geometry as a coded language, and it really kind of depends on how far the audience wants to look. I don’t feel like art is an equation that needs to be solved. Everyone brings their own baggage when they’re looking at art, and I think that’s really exciting. I like to provide a space for multiple perspectives to sort of coalesce.
When you explored and studied Las Vegas during your artist residency, what surprised you the most about the city?
I was continually wowed by the landscape and everything outside of downtown and the Strip. And I say that because I did a podcast interview at the Marjorie Barrick Museum. And if you know where that’s located, UNLV. The background of that university is the Strip if you’re looking in one direction, and it’s overwhelming. I remember driving there and thinking about how there are so many people that come to this town that never leave that one road and never see the other parts of the city.
Outside of the main area, I was also inspired by the different communities, especially the landscape. I hiked almost every day at Red Rock Canyon or Lake Mead, which was a good start to my day, sort of energizing, decompressing, and helping me clear my mind. I feel like people come to Vegas for those things, which not that many people see, and it’s well worth it.
But then, there’s also a lot of sort of modern-retro design happening around the city that I think is really exciting. I think there are color choices being made in different neighborhoods that I don’t really see in Minneapolis.
Most inspiring place in Las Vegas?
I struggle with hierarchy. So I’ll say two things.
So on the one hand, I would say Red Rock and any number of my hikes, like Icebox Canyon. I was really interested in those hikes because of the plants like the prickly pear and the agave. Looking at these plants really inspired my work.
The paintings at the ENGLiSH Hotel also inspired me, like the way the cells morph into each other. I was referencing that plant’s architecture, the Prickly Pair. Then, there’s a red neon piece at the hotel called “Villa Yucca,” and that was a reference to plant architecture. The green piece behind the desk, which was titled “Double Chevron,” or (Agave Lechuguilla—Shin Dagger). When I was in Vegas in September, I got stabbed in the shin by one of those plants. I wasn’t paying attention.
But the opposite of that would be when I got to stay downtown in a condo building called Juhl. There’d be a number of nights I would just walk to Fremont, walk down Fremont through the pure chaos, and then walk back to my condo. And I found that it was really energizing, looking at all the signage along that walk. It was really inspiring.
Why is public art important?
Because it inspires people to get excited about possibilities. I think it offers a space for transformative experiences.
What was the most challenging part of crafting “Forgotten, Redux”?
I’ve never displayed work in a commercial setting like a hotel. When it was initially proposed that it would be the exhibition space, I did feel uncertain about that. I didn’t know how my art would work in that setting. And it definitely was a concern that I really overcame. I feel like the work fits really well in the space.
I’ve almost only shown my work in white cube galleries, and I was concerned if these works were going to be in conversation with each other in the same space or disjointed, but it all came together really well. And they are in conversation with each other, and sometimes you have to peek around the corner or the curtain; one piece is seen through the window while another is next to it, and in the reflection of the mirror is the other piece. It ended up being an incredible space to show in, but I did have a bit of apprehension in the beginning because I’d never done it before.
The other thing with the space is that it’s not a blank canvas. That space has a lot going on, like restaurant guests, hotel guests, different laborers running around, and different colors, textures, and materials. From a design perspective, walking into a space like that was a challenge to make it all work somehow and show well in a space that already has a lot of imagery within it. It was exciting, and I felt really happy at the end.
What advice do you have for artists who are interested in applying for the Neon Museum’s Artist-in-Residency program?
That’s a good one. Be yourself and showcase your work in the best way you can in relation to the city of Las Vegas and the mission of the Neon Museum. I would cater the application to that organization as far as the work you choose to show and the way in which you talk about your work. In the way I have been applying for things lately, my writing has become more passionate. Don’t be afraid to explain yourself how you want to rather than explain your practice in a way that you think the world is expecting you to.
I think for me, part of my strength in my CV is that I have worked in a number of art residences and I’ve worked with a number of residencies across the country. I think that my history of work samples shows that I can accomplish a lot of work in a short timeframe and collaborate with a number of partners. If that is something an artist has done in the past, I think that showing and talking about that is important.
Is there anything else you want to talk about that we haven’t covered?
I’m creating an exaggerated mythology around Nevadan history, and there’s something fun happening there. What’s interesting is that, compared to every residency I’ve ever been to, I have never been more present. For someone with ADHD, being this present while I was in the residency meant I did not overthink anything; I just did and acted in the moment. That felt really exciting.
Maybe it was also a challenge and something I overcame, operating on my toes in a quick manner just because of all the different components of the residency, from the talk to the community engagement to the work itself, and then the installation of the solo show. That’s a lot to cover in six weeks, but I think it went well. It was an exciting experience to collaborate with the UNLV Marjorie Barrick Museum. I got to work with the graduate students for a little bit as a visiting mentor, which was really exciting.
Do you have any plans to return to Las Vegas for another artist residency in the future?
Yes, absolutely. I love Vegas, and I’m definitely going to apply to more things in Vegas. I’m excited to work with some people in the future, which I can’t probably really talk about right now, but I definitely am coming back in a couple of months when the show comes down, and I’ll probably hang around town, which will be fun.
Before my residency, I’d only been to Vegas as a child, and seeing it as an adult is a much different experience. And, you know, Vegas has a reputation for being a party city and a gambling city, but it’s so much more than that. And to learn that firsthand, it was really exciting.
Thomas Putzier is currently working on a solo exhibition that will be shown at Gallery 120 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is scheduled to open in September 2023. Find more of his vibrant artwork at Thomasputzier.com.
To learn more about the Neon Museum Artist-in-Residence program, visit www.neonmuseum.org/education/artists-in-residence.