Art for the "Common Audience" Journal of the Heart

by Rebecca Levy Anitra Blayton's journal is not like mine. Hers is bigger. Really big. Life-size, stacked-up, wouldn't-fit-on-my-desk-or even-in-my-office big.

Journaling is usually a private experience - and indeed Blayton's work can be quite intimate - but this is a woman whose purpose is to share her point of view. Six mixed media constructions make up the exhibition called Journal which fills Women and Their Work's new gallery space at 17th and Lavaca. Each work is based on the artist's journal entries, notes on life as she has observed it. They are autobiographical, yet tell the story of someone who watches everyone and everything, someone who is listening in and responding to the world around her.

The resulting objects are powerful and articulate, although they speak with a well-modulated voice. Blayton's construction called "Fruit" is composed of an oil painting of fruit hanging on the wall under a makeshift spotlight and over a wooden mantle that holds old photographs. One is labeled "National Negro Business League, August '38." It is a sepia-toned group photo of very serious looking men in business suits. In another, two young black girls dressed in old-fashioned white dresses pose primly for the camera. The mantle is suspended on the wall perpendicular to a vertical board which continues to the floor. Scattered on the floor underneath are radios and radio parts. One of them plays a steady, wordless beat. The sound is very much present in your consciousness as you walk by, but it is not too loud.

The full shape of this installation resembles that of a cross. The effect is that of a family tree, with the older generation represented on top and the younger generation below. The formality of the first gives way to the grunge-casual arrangement of the other. Blayton uses familiar objects to spell out her ideas. Her journals are not written with words, but constructed and assembled with things most of us see and take for granted: furniture, Coca-Cola bottles, radios, and rugs.

In the text etched on glass inside "Pie Save," the artist's mother tells her daughter how she and her girlfriends got all dressed up, week after week, to sit in the front row of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta to impress a certain young preacher. His name was Martin. Martin Luther King. It is a nice story, well told (although a challenge to read the lower shelves). Daughters love hearing stories about when their mothers were young and kittenish. Blayton saves the words like precious objects on the shelves (literally) of a cabinet, like china cups in a breakfront or freshly baked pies in a pie safe. The oriental rug lying on top of the cabinet is still something of a mystery to me, although it gives the sense that the cabinet and rug might be in transition, about to be picked up and moved from one house to another with their memories safe inside.

"Dream Book and Dream Pillow" seems less personal, more tedious. In the book which rests on a red velvet pillow, newspaper clips speak to the question "What is refuge?" The visitor is allowed to carefully flip through the pages. Each story (most with highlighted passages) provides heavy-handed answers; they describe what "refuge" is not. Certainly the contemporary art gallery is no longer a refuge from the world. as evidenced by this particular installation.

I much preferred "Refuge," a three-dimensional installation that looks like a cross between Friday the 13th and Fantasia. A scalloped fence encloses a tableau that we can just see over the top of the wood slats. Stairs lead to the top of the fence, but we aren't meant to use them. A chair and a cabinet dance on a platform inside the fence. Then again, maybe their attitude suggests they've been tossed about, the innocent "victims" of a family argument. Finally the viewer begins to sense the pieces of furniture, standing askew and beyond our reach, might be acting out the behavior of the family that lives inside the fence. Furniture fantasy or family violence? Maybe both. Is this cartoon furniture built to make us laugh or to make us think carefully?

Anitra Blayton wants us to think. She is a black woman, about 40 years old, whose images are specific to her own experiences and yet inclusive rather than exclusive. The artist, who now lives in Fort Worth after years in California, wants the audience to understand her "journals," and she goes the extra mile to make this happen. Small, framed, typeset entries accompany each installation to give the viewer a place to begin. And if that is not enough, she includes in this exhibition, "Monument to the Common Audience." This particular sculpture is Blayton's visual response to the comment of a particular art critic. He told her that the artist shouldn't worry about whether the "common audience" could understand her work. The critic said the artist's meaning would always be hidden to them. Blayton disagrees. She is relying on us to figure things out for ourselves. Inside the racks which hold 1,132 Coca-Cola bottles hangs a partially draped artwork that we can't quite make out. There are words written on it, but they are hidden. The audience stands, common as coke bottles, peering inside, but we can't make out the words. This particular work, shaped like a little house, parodies the critic's point of view.

The staff at Women and Their Work is so certain of the accessibility of the artist's vision that they have scheduled several tours of the exhibition for students. When I visited, they were preparing for 50 at-risk junior high school students to visit the galleries. These students have been journaling themselves in the classroom and exploring the use of metaphor and simile, symbols and signs, in order to express their feelings. My guess is that even though Blayton's journals are certainly more polished than the student efforts, they will be particularly evocative for them. The students will be asked not to turn the pages of the "Dream Book" or to tinker with the radio parts, but they will be free to pick up the telephones in the "Weeping Marys" installation, and they can listen to the slow drip of blood-red droplets of water leaking from a pipe in the wall that separates two sides of the work like the wall in a church confessional. Unlike the critic that inspired "Monument," I feel confident that most will find a way into the artist's work. I would like to see what they have to say about it.

Next door to Women and Their Work, Lyons Matrix Gallery is hosting a fun summer exhibition, a group show of gallery artists called Sofa Paintings and Couch Potatoes. Holly Moe steals the show with a two ceramic pillows, and a wooden chair with little "boobs" on the backrest. Her white painted shelf has similar anatomical protrusions, white wooden spoon arms, and a wonderful shapely form. A row of photo-spatulas leer at passersby from the front window.

Sydney Yeager's small, lush painting "Homage" (subtitle: "Ceci n'est pas un sofa") and Tre Arenz's wall-mounted ceramic sculpture "Fountainhead" address the couch potato with a literary bent, the one who is already curled up on the sofa for a summer of reading under the air-conditioning vent. David Deming's canine "Coffee Table Potato" lolls about on - you guessed it - a table rather than a couch. He is, as are all of Deming's dogs, amazingly floppy-cuddly and flexible for a metal construction.

Then there are series of actual sofa paintings. Not sofa-sized paintings, but pictures of furniture. A lot of them are wonderful. A sofa for over your sofa? See Jimmy Jalapeeno. If you'd like a woman reclining on a sofa, Susan Whyne has a huge gaudy broad for you in "Flamenco and the Knick-Knacks." Phillip Wade's painting in the window is smaller than Whyne's, and the woman on the sofa more elegant and reserved. Bob Wade, Bert Long, and Damian Priour also play with the words and images of summer and sofas as do other gallery regulars. Claudia Reese's sculpture stands on its head to please. This is no summer to be a couch potato if you're part of the art crowd. There is plenty to look at in Austin, and you can do a lot of that looking in the new art neighborhood between 16th and 17th streets, Lavaca and Guadalupe.

Around the corner from Lyons Matrix and Women and Their Work, Galeria Sin Fronteras presents a solo exhibition of recent works by San Antonio artist Andy Villarreal which opens on Saturday June 17 with a reception for the artist from 6:30-8pm. Also opening downtown that evening at Flatbed Press by the railroad tracks, is an exhibition of prints by Fort Worth artist David Conn. The reception continues at Flatbed from 5-8pm. n

Journal, by Anitra Blayton, is on view through July 8 at Women & Their Work Gallery. Sofa Paintings and Couch Potatoesis on view through July 8 at Lyons Matrix Gallery.

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