James Stanford transforms vintage neon to contemporary constellations through photomontage.
Written by Laura Henkel
While Las Vegas is often only remembered for its casinos and an exoticized sense of intrigue if not infamy, there is so much more to this iconic place. An important American cultural inheritance includes not only a vibrant contemporary artistic community but, also, formal historic inspirations like the immensely popular vintage neon signage, and landmarks such as the canonical designs of Betty Willis’ Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign and YESCO’s Vegas Vic. Other treasures include the Neon Museum’s collection of historic signage and the National Scenic Byway of Las Vegas Boulevard (The Strip), one of only three urban byways in the country, filled with an endless array of artistic inspiration. The role of these neon signs is significant, and the genre serves as an internationally recognized resource for cultural and architectural historians, artists, illustrators, architects, industrial designers, textile, and interior designers among many others.
A particularly interesting case is the work of Las Vegas artist James Stanford. As a contemporary master of the digital photomontage, the artist achieves his imagery by reworking photographs of neon signs into constellations that form abstract patterned color laid out into sparklingly beautiful labyrinths. Stanford is a long-term teacher, supporter of the arts, and gallerist, and he strikes an interesting figure—a combination of modesty, creativity, influence of local culture, and innovation. A childhood spent in the region means the artist’s oeuvre is inflected by not only images of popular culture but also the modernist paradigms of Las Vegas design. His imaginative visual work has a special process to it; he begins with conventional photographs of the iconic vintage signs of Las Vegas. The well-known series Indra’s Jewels allows the dynamic process of fragmenting and recomposing the elements into infinite patterning and lattice works of bright, intricate tableaux. In addition to the beautiful photographic prints, Stanford recently transformed his compositions into silk scarves, a type of remarkable wearable art.
Today, we can think of Stanford’s series as mandalas meant to evoke the Buddhist parable of Indra’s Jeweled Net, a metaphor of the concept of the infinitely interrelated universe. As imaginative objects of contemplation, Stanford’s art, whether printed on paper or silk, reflects the significance of mid-century American design in Nevada and, in particular, the imprint of the canons of classic neon signage—even as the imagery is marked by new global understanding and influences and finally transformed, distilled, and reinterpreted in new and contemporary ways. His work is on display at the Neon Museum, as well as in worldwide collections and exhibitions.
The sign for this restaurant once stood tall along the cityscape of Las Vegas. For James, this place brings back fond memories; it was here his mother taught the restaurant’s owner English and formed a fast friendship. This remarkable image is stunningly printed on silk to form an ornate and nostalgic remembrance of old Las Vegas. The intricate design takes us back and displays the way in which memory is transformed by time.