We choose you
Lots of artists “end up” here. Couple Matt Couper and J.K. Russ targeted Las Vegas with a particular goal: to live, work and love as artists By Scott Dickensheets Photography Bill Hughes
1. Never mind that the Stratosphere Tower looms in some of Matthew Couper’s paintings, as though it’s heavy with specific meaning. That doesn’t mean he’s quite figured out how the two years he’s spent here have affected his art. “I still haven’t got done processing my reaction to Vegas,” he insists. Something about cultural displacement, perhaps? (He’s from New Zealand.) That’s the sort of thing the paintings themselves will reveal to him over time. For now: “You just have to trust that your instincts were right,” he says. “The money thing,” observes his wife, artist J.K. Russ, referring to the symbols of corrosive capitalism cropping up recently amid the bones, primates, alchemy and other iconography he uses in his work — bold, symbolic canvases executed in a Spanish colonial style retooled for the 21st century. “That
24 | Desert
Companion | OCTOBER 2012
Two of arts: Matthew Couper and J.K. Russ
is really a direct response to being in Vegas,” she points out. (“Vegas” comes out as “Vaigus” in their New Zealand accents.) Couper nods as he lounges in his studio, which sometimes doubles as the living room of their downtown apartment. Everywhere there’s the stuff of artistic production: drop cloths on the floor, source images on the walls, unfinished pieces awaiting attention. Russ sits a few feet away, in the kitchen; her studio is down the hall, in a spare bedroom where she snips images from
girlie magazines and old album covers to assemble collages that explore gender and sexuality. She’s clearer than her husband about what moving here has meant for her work: “In a lot of ways, Vegas was the perfect place for me to come to,” Russ says. You can see it in the desert creatures that have crept into her collages, snakes and arachnids worn as jewelry by the languid women in her images. Couper sees it, too. “They’ve become much more direct,” he tells her.