It’s a moment every art dealer and curator in the country dreams of — the discovery of great art by an unknown painter. James Mann, curator of the Las Vegas Art Museum, found himself living that dream in July, just two weeks away from the opening of the museum’s first Las Vegas Invitational Exhibition of works by Las Vegas artists. Three months earlier, Mann had received an old brochure and three murky snapshots of paintings by an artist he had never heard of, Katherine Gianaclis, of Las Vegas. Gianaclis’ son, Joey Kantor, had sent the material after his mother had died in March of cancer.
Mann was intrigued by the work and finally found the time to visit a gallery on Boulder Highway that displayed Gianaclis’ paintings by appointment only. There, Mann discovered a painter he believes was 20 years ahead of her time.
“I don’t think, as long as I live, I’ll find greater art in a more unlikely place,” Mann says. “The experience it has left me with has been good for my ego and my altruism. It was one of the great moments of my life.”
The works, now hanging in the show along with artists Patricia Vazquez, Don Mize, Paul Rodgers, Gregory Etchison and Whitney Warnick, were made in the early- to mid-1960s and consist of “profound subject matter,” Mann says.
Mann believes Gianaclis’ art, which has “layers of images, disparate imagery with symbolic meaning,” reveals someone who may have been “tormented psychologically over her position in society as a woman.”
Never mind the content, her style also was unique for its time, Mann says. “I only know of one artist who was doing that type of work in the 1960s and that was Larry Rivers.”
Oddly, while Gianaclis was making her very personal art she was raising a family and making a living painting murals for local hotels.
As far as Mann knows, Gianaclis’ work from the 1960s was never displayed.
After the death of her father in 1973 and a conversion to Christianity, Gianaclis put down her brush. Mann thinks the paintings may have been stored in a garage or basement, judging from damage along the edges of some paintings, and forgotten.
But Gianaclis wasn’t done. She resumed painting in 1996 after being diagnosed with cancer, some 20 years after surviving her first bout with the disease.
In the three years leading up to her death, Gianaclis made more than 100 more paintings, none showing the angst of her work in the 1960s. These are brighter in color and much tamer in subject matter. While the paintings from the 1960s “represented her nightmares,” her ’90s works are figurative with some abstract touches.
Mann plans to make a catalog of her earlier work and distribute them to other museums to get her more exposure. He also may show her later works at the museum.
Finding Gianaclis’ work was “a joyful discovery,” Mann says. “It confirms that this zoo animal called Las Vegas had the potential to generate great art and it did so, and nobody knew it. It’s like vindication, almost.