Archaeological remnants: Nick Larsen excavates and obfuscates the Nevada desert to give form to its ghosts

Nick Larsen is not a trained archaeologist, but his eye has been trained toward the archaeological.  

The Santa Fe, N.M.-based artist’s practice was profoundly influenced by time he spent working with an archaeology firm in Reno, his hometown. At the firm, where he helped translate information gathered in the field into finalized maps, photographs and reports, Larsen gained an intimate understanding of the Great Basin via those working hands-on in the region. 

“Archaeology, at its most simplified level, is really about bits of cultural material—human-made material—bound within a landscape,” said Larsen. “Certain material found within a certain landscape context can tell a pretty powerful story about who was there, how long they were there, and what they were doing.” 

These layers of landscape and cultural material are what inform the collages, textile-based architectural models and image projections that comprise his current exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art, Old Haunts, Lower Reaches

“They are landscape images, but they also have bits of shirt material or little one-inch buttons that kind of puncture those landscapes,” said Larsen. “They start to suggest a kind of human presence within that space without illustrating anything figurative or breaking what from a distance feels like a landscape composition. It requires getting up in there, getting close.” 

“Untitled [from the series Old Haunts, Lower Reaches],” is made of printed Tyvek, a one-inch button, and other materials. Photo: Courtesy Nevada Museum of Art

Like the layered works of the exhibition, the desert itself often requires closer study.  

“So often, it is sort of framed as being empty, particularly the Nevada desert, which has a lot of wide-open space,” Larsen said. “But just because something isn’t developed—just because from the freeway, it feels like there’s nothing there—doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any history.” 

Some of the desert’s history is so spectral that it remains hidden, no matter how close you get. This is especially true of the history of Rhyolite, the ghost town that provided much of the imagery and inspiration for Old Haunts, Lower Reaches

Located in Nye County near Death Valley, Rhyolite cropped up in the early 20th century during a gold rush in the surrounding Bullfrog Hills. In the mid 1980s—at a time when the AIDS crisis saw a peak in homophobic hysteria—it became one of three proposed sites for Stonewall Park, a queer community that was planned by two men from Reno. Among other developmental issues, the desert locale proved plagued by the same anti-gay sentiments as the rest of the country, and their fantasy of refuge was never realized. 

“The two men behind this project, they’re looking at a relatively bleak landscape,” Larsen said. “There’s no tree cover. It’s incredibly hot, incredibly windy. And out of some either very visionary place, or maybe a place of desperation, they were able to kind of map onto this landscape the potential for a community for themselves. It’s something very hopeful.” 

A detail of “Making Do/Making Don’t” in Old Haunts, Lower Reaches. Photo/Eric Marks

Larsen said learning about this buried history served as an entry point to a new perspective on familiar landscapes. Despite a lack of certain material traces, possibility and fantasy could be projected onto empty spaces and abandoned structures. Such a perspective poses the question: “If the remnant bits of cultural material in a landscape don’t exist, does the history exist? … How do we think about giving form to something that never existed?” 

Aptly, Larsen’s collages are about making do with what’s at hand—a necessity of life in the desert that also animated the dream of Stonewall Park. 

An abandoned house recurs as a motif in the exhibition. “I had been photographing it every time I went out (to Rhyolite), and then between visits, it collapsed after withstanding the elements—heat and wind and cold—for decades,” said Larsen. “It felt like a useful metaphor for this idea of someone apart, of someone’s dreams not being able to hold up to environmental pressures.” 

Nick Larsen: Old Haunts, Lower Reaches is on view at the Nevada Museum of Art, 160 W Liberty St., in Reno, through Sunday, July 7. At 4 p.m., Thursday, April 4, Larsen will give a talk about his exhibition. Tickets are $15, with discounts for museum members and students. For more information, visit  

This article was originally published by Double Scoop, Nevada’s source for visual arts news.