ick Larsen is not a trained archaeologist, but his eye has been trained toward the archaeological. The Santa Fe-based artist’s practice was profoundly influenced by time he spent working with an archaeology firm in Reno, his hometown. At the firm, where he helped to translate information gathered in the field into finalized maps, photographs and reports, Larsen gained an intimate understanding of the Great Basin via those working hands-on in the region. 

Nick Larsen at the Nevada Museum of Art. Photo: Eric Marks

“Archaeology, at its most simplified level, is really about bits of cultural material—human made material—bound within a landscape,” said Larsen. “Certain material found within a certain landscape context can tell a pretty powerful story about who was there, how long they were there, and what they were doing.”

These layers of landscape and cultural material are what inform the collages, textile-based architectural models and image projections that comprise his current exhibition Old Haunts, Lower Reaches, on view now through July 7 at the Nevada Museum of Art.

“They are landscape images, but they also have bits of shirt material or little one-inch buttons that kind of puncture those landscapes,” said Larsen. “They start to suggest a kind of human presence within that space without illustrating anything figurative or breaking what from a distance feels like a landscape composition. It requires getting up in there, getting close.”

“Untitled [from the series Old Haunts, Lower Reaches],” is made of printed Tyvek, a one-inch button, and other materials. Photo: Courtesy Nevada Museum of Art

Like the layered works of the exhibition, the desert itself often requires closer study. “So often, it is sort of framed as being empty, particularly the Nevada desert, which has a lot of wide open space,” Larsen said. “But just because something isn’t developed—just because from the freeway it feels like there’s nothing there—doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any history.”

Some of the desert’s history is so spectral that it remains hidden no matter how close you get. This is especially true of the history of Rhyolite, Nevada, the ghost town that provided much of the imagery and inspiration for Old Haunts, Lower Reaches

Located in Nye County near Death Valley, Rhyolite cropped up in the early 20th century during a gold rush in the surrounding Bullfrog Hills. In the mid 1980s—at a time when the AIDS crisis saw a peak in homophobic hysteria—it became one of three proposed sites for Stonewall Park, a queer community that was planned by two men from Reno. Among other developmental issues, the desert locale proved plagued by the same anti-gay sentiments as the rest of the country, and their fantasy of refuge was never realized.

“The two men behind this project, they’re looking at a relatively bleak landscape. … There’s no tree cover. It’s incredibly hot, incredibly windy. And out of some either very visionary place, or maybe a place of desperation, they were able to kind of map onto this landscape the potential for a community for themselves,” said Larsen. “It’s something very hopeful.”

A detail of “Making Do/Making Don’t” from the series Old Haunts, Lower Reaches. Photo: Eric Marks

As a person from the Nevadan desert, Larsen said learning about this buried history served as an entry point to a new perspective on familiar landscapes; despite a lack of certain material traces, possibility and fantasy could be projected onto empty spaces and abandoned structures. 

Within Larsen’s established archaeological framework, such a perspective poses the question: “If the remnant bits of cultural material in a landscape don’t exist, does the history exist?” From his vantage point as an artist working in speculative mediums arises another: “How do we think about giving form to something that never existed?”

“I think the work in the show is really, from a lot of different scales and a lot of different kinds of materiality, trying to answer those questions,” said Larsen. For Larsen, those different materialities, especially in the works of collage, are about making do with what’s at hand, a necessity of life in the desert that also animated the dream of Stonewall Park.

An abandoned house that figures as a recurring character in the exhibition appears in the guise of these varied materials and mediums. “I had been photographing it every time I went out [to Rhyolite], and then between visits it collapsed after withstanding the elements—heat and wind and cold—for decades,” said Larsen. “It felt like a useful metaphor for this idea of someone apart, of someone’s dreams not being able to hold up to environmental pressures.”

Untitled [from the series Old Haunts, Lower Reaches]. Photo: Eric Marks

“Making Do/Making Don’t,” a three-part sculptural model series formed entirely of worn, bleached denim enacts this event, wherein cultural materials return to the ecological system they exist within. Elsewhere, the same house materializes as Tyvek siding in the show’s largest work, and takes tentative shape in “Nowhere Is Hard To See,” a looping, layered projection of striped planes.

Consisting of six images that shift every few minutes, “Nowhere Is Hard To See”’s digital overlay depicts the house against a desert backdrop. The resulting optical effect recalls the black and white graphic patterning of battleships or the visual confusion of a herd of Zebras—camouflage that troubles the edge between one individual and another, or in this case, between a structure and the landscape in which it was erected. 

But stand close enough to “Nowhere” that your body blocks the projection and you can glimpse a map of Rhyolite drawn on the wall beneath. Stand long enough in the middle of “nowhere” and the projection will glitch just enough so that you may catch the entire map unobscured.

Nick Larsen: Old Haunts, Lower Reaches is on view at the Nevada Museum of Art through July 7.

On Friday, Feb. 23, UNR Art History Professor Brett Van Hoesen will give a talk, “The Cultures of Collage: Camouflage, Fantasy, and Utopic Failure in Nick Larsen’s Work,” from noon-1pm. Tickets are $15, free for museum members.

On Thursday, April 4, Nick Larsen will give a talk about his exhibition from 4-5pm. Tickets are $15, $10 for members, or $13 for students.

Cover photo: Eric Marks

Posted by Delaney Uronen

Delaney Uronen is a Northern California-born writer and UNR graduate who now lives in Reno. Art, community, and landscapes keep her bouncing between both places.