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Zen Man

Jim Stanford
Photography by Joe Buglewicz
Photography by Joe Buglewicz

Jim Stanford makes art at the shimmering, surprisingly symmetrical intersection of Las Vegas and Buddhism

In the mid-’80s, tired of the life of an adjunct art teacher at UNLV, painter Jim Stanford opened a commercial design business — and kicked off an unexpected (and ongoing) evolution in his fine art. It turned out that his day-job tools, computers loaded with design programs such as Photoshop and Illustrator, handily solved a problem he had with painting: its slooooowness. “I basically got tired of the piece before I got done with it,” he recalls. At every step Stanford kept imagining the many things he could have done with the image but didn’t have time to try. He was, he says, “outgrowing the work” in real time. But Photoshop? It’s fast. Before long, the digital collages he created to speed up the concepting of his paintings became the focus of his artistic practice. “I was literally able to keep up with my growth as an artist.”

In the three decades since, Stanford has done a lot: opened (and eventually closed) a pioneering Downtown exhibit space, Smallworks Gallery; begun practicing Buddhism; opened (and eventually closed) a Zen center; owned, with his wife, Lynn, the iconic Bonanza Gifts. He also created thousands of digital collages, a selection of which, under the title Shimmering Zen, is now appearing in several ways: as an exhibit (opening September 27 in the Sahara West Library), in a book, even as fashion.

The phrase “digital collage” is inadequate shorthand for what Stanford’s doing. A blurt of adjectives gets us closer: They are intricate, detail-dense, neatly symmetrical, abstract, mandala-like. Most often they’re layers of accreted details cropped from photos of Vegas signage and architecture — a Sin City native’s way of honoring and exploring his hometown — and remixed in a process influenced by his Buddhist studies.

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“The idea of showing these signs and turning them into objects of beauty and meditation,” he says, “to me, it was taking the profane and turning it into the sacred.”

Spend some time with Shimmering Zen, and its pieces reveal themselves as a sort of set of nesting dualities: visually complex, they are, as you might guess from the title, also meant to impart a luminescent mental stillness; being the product of intensive Photoshopping — up to 30 or 40 layers each, Stanford says — their aura is unabashedly technological, yet also unmistakably spiritual; thanks to the Photoshopping, these pieces retain a vestige of their commercial origins, but strive for the condition of fine art.

Then there’s their rigorous symmetry. In its way, Shimmering Zen claps back at the widely held artistic dislike of perfect symmetry, articulated by classic Victorian art critic John Ruskin thusly: “to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality.” Symmetry = boredom, goes this thinking; it’s a cheap effect that precludes innovation and individuality. “Something about me never bought that,” Stanford says.

“A mandala is more than a symmetrical image or a kaleidoscopic image. A mandala is a road map. And if you view them lightly and gently and involve yourself in them, they can take you on a real trip. And that was my goal, to take people on a trip.”

Some of the pieces in the exhibit are “lenticular” images — several layers of the same image, each treated and colored differently, backlit and viewed through a lenticular, or striated magnifying, lens. It’s a simple effect, really, one you’ve probably seen on knickknacks and souvenirs: The picture shifts as you move in front of it. A garden-variety optical trick, you might think. Except in this case, the image is a large, richly detailed kaleidoscopic mandala. So when you move, the image shift, while brief, is pronounced, a disruptive flutter before the picture snaps back to clarity, albeit now in a different alignment. Certainty becomes uncertainty becomes a new certainty — a trip initiated by your own movement.

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This fall is a big season for Shimmering Zen. In addition to the Sahara West show, its second after a London exhibit in November, Stanford’s images will be integrated into a Style Fashion Week New York presentation by couture designer David Tupaz this month; they’ll serve as runway backdrops and be imprinted on scarves. That will be followed by the October 13 launch of the expensively printed and table-bendingly large book version of Shimmering Zen with an event at the Neon Museum.

So, it’s an apotheosis moment for a 30-year project, which Stanford is trying to take in stride. “Part of Zen Buddhism is being here in the now moment and being able to inhabit it,” he says, though he can step out of his now moment long enough for a quick backward glance: “I have faith in the work,” he says. “It was worth my time doing it.”


(Editor's note: Scott Dickensheets no longer works for Nevada Public Radio)