Mikayla Whitmore is a lifelong desert dweller. She was born and raised in Las Vegas. As a kid, she spent spring breaks getting dusty at her grandfather’s vermiculite claim near the ghost town of Gold Butte. Now in her early 30s and 10 years out of UNLV’s art department, she mines the desert’s mythology and symbology for all it’s worth.
“I feel safe in a way, when I’m in the desert,” Whitmore said. “I also feel very aware that it’s on me to defend, to look out for myself.” That statement contains exactly the ratio of disorientation and comfort as her photographs, which depict a world that’s half observed/half invented, a proving ground of sorts, where she negotiates her place in the actual world.
Planet Whitmore has a solid core of everyday anxiety and a durable surface of gleaming, delicious, sugary coating. In one image, a dead housefly is impaled on a cactus thorn. The humor is dark. They tiny creature’s indignity is displayed front and center. And the background vies with both of those facts for attention. For one thing, it’s a warm wash of romantic, riding-off-into-the-sunset-orange. On the other hand, it may have you questioning what’s real. Whitmore could have happened upon this scene on a hike, or she could have set it up in a studio.
To viewers who aren’t familiar with Whitmore’s biographical details, her images might function as generalized metaphors for whichever kind of confounding experience you’re most familiar with. But for her, the worlds she invents are realms where she tries to work out some of life’s big questions.
Here are a few of those biographical details. Whitmore is in her early 30s. She works as a photojournalist. She identifies as queer. She recently lost her aunt. It was the first death in the family in her parents’ generation, and the loss felt like a serious no-turning-back point, the first big step in seeing her own mortality on the horizon. She’s 5-foot-2 and looks younger than she is, and sometimes that affects how people treat her. (Her conversation with friend and fellow artist Justin Favela on his podcast The Art People is illuminating. On one hand, being a small-statured, young-looking woman means that at least one male journalist has tried to rescue her from the “burden” of carrying her own camera equipment. On the other hand, Whitmore and Favela joke about the time when playing the “looking-like-a-13-year-old-white-girl” card came in handy.)
Whitmore’s artworks—photos, 3D installations, and performative actions in the landscape—don’t amount to declarative statements about who she is and where she fits in, but something is simmering under these sleek, bright surfaces, and I suspect it is this:
It seems like she’s in the process of deciding how much space to take up in the world, how much she’s willing (or not willing) to adapt to social hypocrisies and long-held gender hierarchies, when to lay low safety’s sake (“Right now, being openly queer still is scary,” she said.) and when to stride right in and proclaim her own worth. (A note to male readers: Yes, feeling the need to proclaim your own worth as a working woman is still a thing, albeit less so than in previous generations. Women in art, photojournalism and just about every other field expend more effort than you do proving our basic competence.)
When Whitmore talks about her art and her life, you can hear that her tone is unapologetic, but that non-apology is deliberate, maybe even calculated. She flat-out called herself “a queer adult who understands that I’m amazing.” As someone old enough to remember when a woman using either of those adjectives would have been sauntering toward career suicide, I am practically standing on the sidelines shaking pompoms for her. I’ve only recently become acquainted with her work, and I’m already eager to follow the trajectory of her career. Maybe her pictures don’t look like assertively queer, feminist art on the surface, but keep an eye out for whatever she’s making and an ear out for whatever she’s talking about. There’s a good chance you’ll start to see this world she constructs as exactly the right place to really get a grasp on queer, feminist takes on things you maybe didn’t even think there were queer, feminist takes on. And I won’t be surprised if she ends up putting a less gendered touch on the tradition of American land art, recasting it as something other than the macho competitions with nature á la Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer.
A venue made for experiments
It’s fitting that Whitmore’s current show, Between a Rock and a Cliff, is in the Work Shop Gallery, a hallway gallery that opened in December 2019 inside UNLV’s Barrick Museum. “Las Vegas doesn’t have a lot of testing-ground space like this,” Whitmore said. “Normally, you get a show and it has to be super polished. You don’t get to throw around ideas or do something that’s out of your wheelhouse. Traditionally I do installations, but most of my main bodies of work that take off have been photo-specific. I’m struggling with that weird line. People see me as a photographer, not an artist.”
The show contains a wall of photographs on metallic paper and a few installation pieces. One of them, “Pennants and Penance,” is made up of strings of shiny gold triangular flags. Whitmore explains it as an exercise in unpacking a Catholic upbringing and 12 years of catechism. There’s a palpable difference, she said, between “how good religion is supposed to make you feel and how shitty it can make you feel.”
She described a piece that she conceived last-minute to adapt to the space: “In the front of the museum, by the bathrooms, they have this fire extinguisher box that has been there forever, that is non functional.” She gold-leafed a hammer and hung it floating in the box, behind glass. “When you look at it, it’s this beautiful object,” she said. But the arrangement is also a catch 22. In an emergency, you’d need the hammer to break the glass, but you’d need to break the glass to access the hammer. It’s just about a perfect visual metaphor for an artist whose entire MO revolves around how to claim space in the world.
Learn more about the Work Shop Gallery from this video, courtesy of the Barrick Museum:
Photos courtesy of the artist.
Mikayla Whitmore’s Between a Rock and a Cliff is on view at the Work Shop Gallery inside the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art at UNLV through Feb. 8. The show closes with reception and tie dye workshop on Feb. 8 from 1-4 p.m.
Her next show is Return to Sender, a group exhibition with Emily Silver and Raquel Bell at La Matadora Gallery in Joshua Tree, California. It opens on Feb. 8, with a reception from 6-8 p.m.