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12:22 AM Tue, Oct. 23rd

Sphinx lies in waiting, so brush up on your riddles

I moseyed over to that City of Extreme Ostentatiousness, Las Vegas, for a couple of days last week with wife Pat. We met Pat's cousin and his wife, Ray and Diana Estabrook of Santa Rosa, Calif., who were holed up there at the Luxor, site of a lawyers convention that Ray was attending.

The Luxor is an easy place to spot, mainly because it is a big, black pyramid that has an obelisk and a sphinx out front. And I should warn you at the outset that that sphinx isn't one to mess around with. After all, according to the dictionary it's a "winged female monster in Greek mythology having a woman's head and a lion's body and noted for killing anyone unable to answer its riddle."

To its credit, though, Luxor's sphinx is actually better than the original at Giza, outside Cairo. This is because the face and headband are in living color, unlike that boring tan of the original, and – most importantly – the Luxor lady lion has a nice nose. (The nose on the Giza gal, on the other hand, fell off a long, long time ago, making her look funny.)

As you're no doubt well aware, themes in hotel/casino construction in Vegas are big indeed. For instance, there are replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the canals of Venice, the Statue of Liberty and Matt's Longhorn Saloon. (I made up that last one, just to see if you're paying attention.)

In addition to those canals noted in the previous paragraph, The Venetian also houses the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum, which our foursome visited in an attempt to enhance our ongoing hunger for pure, unadulterated culture. The featured show of the moment is called American Pop Icons, and contains works by eight artists, with Andy Warhol being the best-known of the bunch.

Among Warhol's offerings was a familiar grouping of four Campbell's Soup cans in a variety of colors. A fine collection, to be sure, and one I can appreciate. But from there quite a few of the works tended to go downhill.

For example, another Warhol concoction measured about 6 feet by 8 feet and featured a black-on-orange silk-screened photograph of an unoccupied electric chair. There were 15 reproductions of the same identical print, stacked five deep in three columns, with the only variable being a slightly different ink tint. The reason for that particular work of art's existence, as gleaned from a hand-held device that the museum provided for a fee, is that it "shows the pathos of the empty chair waiting for its next victim."

Warhol's commentary on its significance? "The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away and the better and emptier you feel." (Thank you, Andy, for that insightful incisiveness.)

Another work of art, this one by Jim Dine, consisted of four soap dishes mounted on a slab, each containing a different-colored bar of "soap," which was in truth a little block of wood. (I didn't notice what the title of that work was, but if it were up to me I'd call it "Cheap Motel.")

Then there was another Dine offering – a 4-foot-square framed piece with a white background that had in its center a small painting of a brown-and-white oxford shoe. Painted below it, to allay any confusion, was the word "shoe." The aforementioned hand-held device emphasized that "the shoe in the painting suggests the personality of the man who might wear it. It's not just any shoe, but one such as those that were popular in the 1940s and '50s. Fred Astaire was popular when Dine was a boy, and might've worn a shoe such as this one." (Very touching, wouldn't you say?)

Among the most memorable strange works, though, was a large canvas hanging – it appeared to be a tent that had seen a few too many camporees – that was the work of Robert Rauschenberg. It was a mess, really, with the stuff hanging from it including an ironing board, a beat-up Coca-Cola sign, a crumpled piece of tin and a car seat spring. Oh, and some paint splatters here and there. Rauschenberg, I learned, had collected all of the items while roaming the streets of his hometown, New York City.

This striking work was the first thing to hit me as I entered the museum. And, since I wanted to take some notes for posterity, I took a pen out of my shirt pocket and began to write, but only for a few seconds because a museum attendant immediately approached me and substituted a stubby little pencil for the pen. This was to thwart potential vandals, of course, which is fine. But, to be brutally frank, any vandalism perpetrated on that canvas thing would no doubt have improved it.

Just a thought from this fractured art critic …

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