Nelson De La Nuez sees a new art scene taking over Las Vegas, and he’s playing a key role. “Vegas was never an artsy town,” says the Cuban-born, California-based pop artist. In the past, if you went to Vegas, you would see the same old thing—Chagall, Dali, Picasso—but you can go anywhere in the country and see that. I bring something new to the table there.” With an opening reception on September 3, De La Nuez will make his Vegas gallery debut over Labor Day weekend with a show titled Icons of Pop at the SKYE Art Gallery in the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace. SKYE, which opened in March, is the first gallery dedicated to pop art on the Vegas Strip.
De La Nuez, who started making art in the early ʼ80s, had a huge press surge in 2009 when Michael Jackson purchased three of his pieces mere weeks before his death. Fittingly, the media now refers to De La Nuez as the King of Pop Art. PRØHBTD spoke with the artist about the exhibit, cannabis, graffiti and many other topics, but before we could ask the first question, he admitted he just woke up. It was 11 a.m.
You had a late night?
I was at the studio until 3 a.m. That's a typical day for me. I get there around 10 o'clock at night and work off the cuff. Sometimes I pull an all nighter, and when I do get home, it's not like I can go straight to bed. I've got to wind down. I like working at night because that's when I can really go inward and don’t have people calling me or other distractions. It's just a whole other realm of consciousness. It's about going in there, locking yourself up and shit happens.
Can I assume you're working on pieces for the SKYE Art Gallery show in Vegas?
I didn't even know there was a show in Vegas. I'm going there to see Carrot Top and Wayne Newton, man.
Or maybe a musical?
I'm excited about this Vegas show. First of all, it's Vegas. It's a great little town. I'm also bringing in a lot of new pieces that have never been seen before.
Which piece are you most excited about?
I'm debuting my new Marilyn [Monroe] piece titled Marilyn: Latest Gossip. Everybody's done Marilyn since [Andy] Warhol, but I put a spin on it. I put dots that basically deal with her life and death, but the dots are actually pills. I did extensive research on her actual prescriptions and the strength of the pills she took in her life and what she died from as well. I like to put a lot of things in the piece so the observer looks and ponders and sees things that are more than just a picture of Marilyn.
Is there a single underlying theme that comes up in most of the pieces?
It's Vegas. It's at the Forum Shop at Caesars Palace. It's the destination for shopping in Vegas. What you typically get there are well-traveled, educated people from all over the world, and that's really my market. I wanted to show my Material Girl series about a girl who loves her bling-bling, her Dolce & Gabbana, her shoes.
Materialism is a theme in a lot of different pieces.
It's a tongue-in-cheek [theme] like, “Darling, you know I only travel first class” or “Darling, all I require are fabulous shoes!”
Are you poking fun at materialism?
Not at all. I created the MOHA, the Museum of Humor Art, as my humor line. My pop culture line, my pop Americana line, is about celebrating the 20th Century and all its icons.
With the humor art, Jesus is a common character. What prompted you to tackle a subject that might offend people?
The people who get offended are those who have strict religious beliefs. Really, my art doesn't offend that many people. It makes them laugh more than anything else. The reason I use Jesus is because, let's face it, he is an identifiable figure everybody knows, but people have never seen him, say, at a McDonald’s eating a Happy Meal. That is a piece I did called the Last Happy Meal. Or Jesus pointing at Vegas instead of Heaven or someone saying, “I found Jesus... he was behind the sofa.” I might offend a few people, but I look at it like a radio station: If you like it, great, if you don't, tune it out.
Art (from top to bottom): High Times, Love Wins, Marilyn: Latest Gossip, The Good Life, High Maintenance, Last Happy Meal, I Found Jesus… He Was Behind the Sofa, The Promised Land, Juvenile Johnny Painted, Mommy’s Special Cocktail.
The main image is titled After Hours. All artwork is copyrighted by Nelson De La Nuez and was used with the permission of the artist.
You have a piece titled High Times that apparently has interest from a dispensary owner in Aspen, Colorado.
That piece is part of a series called Twisted Little Children's Book. High Times obviously relates to cannabis. I thought it'd be funny to have Sally from the series after she just got her medical marijuana card. I remember the first time I ever showed that piece. It was just crazy. Everyone started buying it. A lot of people think what I think. I thought it was very appropriate to do a piece on marijuana. It became a home run, and it's still a big hit, especially in places like Colorado. My gallery owner in Colorado called up and said, "I've got a guy here that wants to buy a lot [of the High Timespaintings] for all his stores."
You said a lot of people think like you think. What do you think?
I think it’s a good thing they actually legalized it. When it's illegal, it becomes a bad thing: You hide it from people, people go to jail. I've never been a pot smoker, so I don't really know what the feeling's like. I've never gotten high. I've never turned to alcohol. For some people, especially for the medical community, a lot of people need cannabis to cure their illness. If you look back in time, a lot of people used it to explore their creativity. Zeppelin, the Beatles and all these artists used cannabis to expand their consciousness and write all these great songs. They did it through a substance to further their consciousness. It's a good thing to explore that side of the human psyche to evolve yourself.
I got drunk once. I'll never forget this. I don't really drink, but I had like three glasses of wine, and I started dancing on top of a table yelling. I pulled the chef out of the kitchen to compliment him, and then I told the restaurant owner I was going to burn his restaurant down. It's just I'm crazy as it is. If I went on a drinking binge, I don’t know what would happen. Personally, I just like Quaaludes and acid, but really the only thing I use right now are animal tranquilizers.
Are you serious?
No, I'm joking.
You know how artists are, so you never know. You have a piece called Mommy's Special Cocktail in which someone mixes sedatives and alcohol. What inspired the idea?
I thought it would be funny to use both vodka and Xanax in a piece because it's relatable. Many people either drink vodka or take Xanax, and I used the point of view from a little girl writing down that her mom takes them together. Remember, a lot of my ideas are what ifs. What if Van Gogh went to Disneyland? I did a piece called Van Goghs to Disneyland, and he's got the Mickey Mouse ears on, and one ear is cut off.
Going back to the pot piece, [cannabis] was everywhere all over the news. I thought, let me just explore this. Let me see what I can do in a whimsical way to bring this into an art form and make it funny. A lot of it is just that. You want to do pieces that aren't here today and gone tomorrow. You want to do something that has substance, like a good record that came out in the 1960s and is still good today. The creative process is tricky. This is why I have to be alone. I have to detach myself from society and go into another realm of consciousness to come up with something you might think is great, but you don't know that until you actually put it in the gallery and people buy it.
I am under the impression that you are against street art and graffiti. Is that true?
No. Everything is art, but art is so subjective. A lot of these guys put up graffiti as a quick marketing scheme and because they want the attention, but a lot of them have never even seen a gallery. I understand their desire to go out and put stuff up, but if I was a business owner and some schmuck painted my wall out of randomness, I would be pissed off. I see both sides, but you have to respect private property.
Last question. What do you feel about the changes in Cuba?
I left Cuba when I was seven years old because of the regime, because we hated [Fidel] Castro. At that time in ʼ66, we were lucky that my uncle lived in Oceanside, a suburb of San Diego, because somebody had to claim you from the States. The move really sparked my creativity because I absorbed pop culture art very early on. I remember seeing my first episode of Superman. In Cuba, I only remember seeing Pinocchio, and aside from that, I didn't really have any interaction with films or cartoon characters. That changed when I moved to the U.S.
What do I think of the situation in Cuba? There are two frames of thought. There are people like me who left the country and who are anti-communist, and there are people there who think Castro is the greatest thing. There are posters of Che Guevara and Castro everywhere you go. When you live in that society, that's all you know. I don't really have a desire to go back until the Castro boys leave. I'd like to someday, but it's sad to see what has happened there in the last 40 to 50 years. Prior to 1959, Cuba was a great country. It was the jewel of the Caribbean.