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New Face: Marcus Civin

This performance artist, art critic, and teacher is excited about collaborating with new colleagues at UNLV.

People  |  Jul 16, 2018  |  By Jennifer Vaughan
Portrait of Marcus Civin, new chair of art department

New art department chair Marcus Civin.

(Lonnie Timmons III/UNLV Creative Services) 

New art department chair Marcus Civin, who joins UNLV following eight years with the Maryland Institute College of Art, brings with him a zest for collaboration and partnership, and says he looks with excitement to the current and future growth of art at UNLV and in Las Vegas. As Civin settles into his new role, he reflects on what drew him to UNLV and how he couldn't possibly imagine being anything other than an artist.

Why UNLV?

The most diverse public school in the U.S. feels like the place to be for me right now when art and design as a whole are attempting to diversify by supporting, hearing, engaging, and honoring formerly marginalized voices, perspectives, and practitioners. The art department at UNLV has deep wells of knowledge, history, research expertise, and collaborative spirit that will play a fundamental part in defining UNLV as a Top Tier institution that truly represents the U.S. and its democratic values.

What about UNLV strikes you as different from other places you have worked or where you went to school?

I was just on campus to hear the BFA Studio Art talks and attend the BS Graphic Design thesis exhibition. I am incredibly impressed. I find the graduating students fascinating. They're ready to take on the world!

Art at UNLV is ready to reach new heights. One reason is that the art community in Las Vegas is also taking off. I believe the campus of UNLV and the city of Las Vegas will grow together. I look forward to working hand-in-hand with partners inside and outside of the university. I am inspired by the program at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art under the inspired leadership of Alisha Kerlin, and I look forward to working on the art and design curriculum at UNLV so that the Museum of Art's exhibitions and collection are at the core of coursework. The artist-in-residence and visiting speaker program within the department are also exemplary. I feel at home knowing that it includes artists I have long admired. Around 2008, I enjoyed a short-lived collaboration with Candice Lin, who visited the art department last year. As collaborators, Candice and I called ourselves Cacus, a combination of our first names. We made drawings, a script, and performed inside and outside of a giant nest in a basement in Los Angeles' Chinatown.

UNLV reminds me of where I did my graduate work, at University California, Irvine. With a diverse cohort of peers, I had unfettered access to amazing technology and radical minds: Yvonne Rainer, pioneer of Judson Dance Theater, invited us to become the rioting audience for her re-visioning of The Rite of Spring at REDCAT in Los Angeles. Catherine Lord, a writer and artist whose work addresses issues of feminism, cultural politics, and colonialism, invited us to help her cull books for her to photograph for her installation at the USC ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives. I learned how to turn wood on a lathe, make mural-size photograms on a gigantic enlarger; I had studio visits with artists like Allan Sekula, Lari Pittman, and Anya Gallaccio, and when I graduated, the artist Daniel Joseph Martinez, helped my class install our work in a showcase exhibition at LAXART.

Where did you grow up and what was that like? What do you miss about it?

I was born in Boston, and I grew up in Baltimore. I was drawing, writing profiles of the unusual people I met, breaking and re-making toys, and bringing people together to talk about ideas before I knew that these activities could constitute an art life. I returned home eight years ago and started teaching part-time at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Eight years later, I am leaving after being interim director of the curatorial practice MFA, and serving for three years as associate dean of graduate studies. In that time, I also worked on an art and design journal, Full Bleed, and I collaborated with particularly strong leaders like fibers artist Annet Couwenberg, doing things like sending students to Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven (in the Netherlands) and bringing engineers into the art classroom. At MICA, I also jumped into the trenches, doing things like implementing Title IX compliance on campus and working very hard to try to do the right thing on cases of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment, affirming my belief that there is no place for sexism, bigotry, harassment, bullying, and violence in academia or anywhere.

What do you love about your field?

I am a performance artist, an art critic, and a teacher. My practice involves collaboration, deep reading, careful looking, daily drawing, and building sculptures that I often use in performances. My field is profoundly interdisciplinary and collaborative. I find that I am consistently inspired by being involved in the educational project with peers and students. I am a co-founder of New Urban Arts, in Providence, Rhode Island. I started this arts mentoring program and youth arts empowerment center with a group of college students, high school students, parents, and community members, when I was only a college student myself. I was just in Providence to celebrate the 21st birthday of this organization and witness a former student in the program receive an award for his leadership within the organization; he has nurtured the place as much as it has nurtured him!

What is the biggest challenge in your field?

As researchers, artists, designers, and art historians often work best when they have access to cutting-edge fabrication equipment, and new ideas informed by diverse fields, and when they are connected to communities that provide opportunities for exhibition, discussion, and critique. Participating in the art department at UNLV will also involve participating in various communities in Las Vegas and beyond. I look forward to working hand-in-hand with partners outside of the university to grow along with the local art scene in Las Vegas.

Finish this sentence, "If I couldn't work in my current field, I would like to...”

Ha! This is the hardest question! I can only think of ways to avoid the question. Really, I can't imagine not being an artist. I would not like that at all. I have the most amazing life.

Tell us about a time in your life when you have been daring.

I don't know how daring I am. But, I am inspired by students, by the courage, vision, and tenacity of students in particular who are the first in their families to go to college. My grandfather and his brother on my mother's side were immigrant Jews from Russia. They both went to Harvard where they faced anti-Semitism and were not allowed to live on campus because of their religion. They both excelled. My grandfather served in World War II and eventually became the dean of Tufts Medical School.

Tell us about an object in your office that has significance for you and why it is significant.

I went to the Venice Biennale in 2015 with my good friend and colleague, the artist David Kelley. We brought home bricks we purchased from Rikrit Tiravanija's installation Untitled 2015 (14,086 unfired). The installation was an operating brick-making factory. At 10 Euros each, the pressed sand bricks benefitted ISCOS, a nonprofit that supports workers’ rights in China. There is text imprinted in each brick in Chinese characters that roughly translates as: "Don't Work," though some of my Chinese students have told me that the imperative statement is stronger than that. I keep this brick in my office to remind me that art and design can contribute to repairing the world. It can be insistent, irreverent, and powerfully symbolic, underscore the best in humanity, and criticize the worst. When I am lost in a spreadsheet, a budget, or a schedule of courses, Tiravanija's brick keeps me humble, makes me laugh at myself and go outside, talk to a student about their work and life goals, or take a rest. Tiravanija's brick reminds me that at great institutions, we do all of the work we do to teach art and design because art and design are absolutely and fundamentally important.

What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?

For a few months, I lived in an Airstream Trailer behind the poet Jen Hofer's house in Cypress Park in Los Angeles. I would wash the dishes, my clothes, and the floor all at the same time — with a hose. At night, Jen would host salons of writers and artists who would eat, debate, and laugh late into the night.

What books do you have on your bedside table?

Many! I am writing an Artforum Critic's Pick on an exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art of the under-known sculptures of the New York artist Jack Whitten, an abstract painter who passed away this year. I have his catalogs on my bedside table. In March, I wrote a review of a wonderful book by Joseph Del Pesco describing nine imaginary museums. I'm still going back to that book. And, I'm in a writing group in Baltimore with John Barry, Paul Jaskunas, and Mikita Brottman. We share drafts of our writing. I've been a member of this group for only under a year, though they've been at it for longer, and will continue without me. I'm looking for this kind of group in Las Vegas!