Southern Nevada–based artist Justin Favela’s work embodies the qualities of Las Vegas by affirming the startling originality of smart near-copies. Last spring, I visited Favela in his temporary studio at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Reliably buoyant, Favela can shed light on seemingly any aspect of the folklore of contemporary Las Vegas. The complex and teeming overwhelm of the city imbues his work. In the studio, he mused on Siegfried and Roy’s late white tiger, the four-hundred-pound Mantecore, who bit Roy onstage at the Mirage and left him paralyzed.
Favela compared Mantecore to Las Vegas: “I think that Mantecore is misunderstood, much like Las Vegas. From the stories that I have heard, the infamous white tiger did not maul Roy; he was instinctively trying to help his best friend. Roy had a stroke on stage, and Mantecore panicked, so he grabbed his friend by the neck, much like a mother tiger does with her cubs, and dragged him off-stage. Unfortunately, his teeth sunk in a little too far.”
Favela has created a few tributes to Mantecore. One is meant to hang mouth wide open from the ceiling. Another is blanket-like, a wall piece showing Mantecore resting on golden ground. Both use Favela’s signature piñata-style technique, where he glues colorful rows of cut tissue paper to cardboard, paper, canvas, and other surfaces to create an image.
These bodies are much less precise than machines. They are round, hairy, sun-burnt, sensitive, listless, amused, panicked, or hung-over. There is no other way they can be. No matter what, humans are inescapably that—human.
In the wall piece, Mantecore (White Tiger), from 2017, Mantecore appears soft and cuddly, a noble and adorable giant. Yet he cocks his head to the side: something may have caught his animal attention. At any moment, it looks as if Mantecore could spring up and chase or snatch unsuspecting prey. At the same time, given the giant cat’s serious celebrity, the piece also feels like a souvenir, a token of grand, grabby Las Vegas. And, in the end, the pet crippled his master. As a performer in general, Mantecore was charming, miraculous, great at tricks. He was also impossibly trapped, less free than other tigers, given to behaving much differently than his collaborators. Siegfried and Roy’s show ended undone.
Favela’s portrait of Mantecore exemplifies the multiplicities, tensions, and elasticity of Las Vegas. To facilitate gambling and tourism, Las Vegas is systematized, coded, hyped, chiseled, and bejeweled. There are the slots, the spas, the lines, the programmed billboards, the traffic, the paper bills. Then there are the humans that visit, build, or manage the machine. These bodies are much less precise than machines. They are round, hairy, sun-burnt, sensitive, listless, amused, panicked, or hung-over. There is no other way they can be. No matter what, humans are inescapably that—human.
The 1987 video for Run-DMC’s hip-hop single, “It’s Tricky,” proposes one possible framework to further address authenticity. The magicians Penn and Teller play the bad guys in the video, swindlers who work a card hustle, deceiving a young woman who calls Run-DMC for help. Like superheroes, the rap trio rush in, win the young woman’s losses back, and, in the spirit of kindness, wardrobe Penn and Teller as honorary members of their band. Yet no good deed goes unpunished. The video ends with a sequence where Run-DMC arrive ready to play a concert in Japan, but Penn and Teller are already onstage, impersonating them. The audience either can’t determine the difference, or they don’t care. The magicians’ dubious musicality is drowned out by the crowd’s delirious cheers. The hip hop heroes lose, and what’s left? A mean, unstable, scraggy original. Penn and Teller swipe Run-DMC’s music and their celebrity; they cheat it and undo it.
Favela enacts similar conversions and confusion. His chosen form, piñata, is always a copy, ever a strange game. With the piñata, implicit is the violence necessary to strike at them, to hit them until candy comes loose. The piñata is always shifting. Favela describes his affinity for piñata, in part, as an admiration for piñata-makers who “have to be on top of what is happening in pop culture, in politics, on Pinterest. They know what sells,” he explains, “So not only is making work in piñata style a comment on collective consciousness, but it’s also a way to push the hierarchies of the art world.”
Like the celebrity souvenir, the piñata could be at least as wonderful as anything we might consider high art. It is deeply culturally symbolic. At the same time, it is ubiquitous. It might even be becoming increasingly less specific, going the way of hip hop, tacos, pizza, and blue jeans. All are readily available and consumable signifiers of good times—but so frequently and easily shaped and re-interpreted so as to become universally digestible, easily dressed-up or dressed-down, and generally acceptable anywhere.
Taking on this precarious condition, Favela’s work alters and shifts its referents without bending them too far. He assembles installation teams across the U.S., realizing different forms in cardboard and cut paper. Installations include piñata riffs on lowriders in Los Angeles and recreations of scenic Disney vistas in New York. Justin’s copies are as real as the originals. The reproductions are unburdened originals. The landscapes from films become landscapes again, unloaded, freed from their narratives.
The lowriders are loaded. This copy, remarkably, tells us something important about the original. It points back to the original’s vulnerability. However solidly built, the lowrider is temporary too, challenging to maintain, real and unreal, a car—but different than other cars—a feature of specific neighborhoods and subcultures but not of others, traveling now here and there, but not everywhere. Like Mantecore, too, the lowrider is misunderstood. For Favela, the meaning has changed over time. “In the beginning [making lowriders] was a way for me to celebrate lowriders and show off their amazing designs and vibrant colors, divorcing the symbol from its association with gangs and violence in the media. I now like to celebrate the families, the women, and the queerness of the culture by playing up the fact that I am using craft materials and choosing the most flamboyant cars to honor.”
By extension, then, maybe Las Vegas is just as misunderstood and flexible: more real for its unreality. Las Vegas is vulnerable, flamboyant, and authentic. Although Las Vegas is hard, it is also unpredictable and able to bend.