A Day in the Neighborhood

A Trip Through Three New Exhibits

by Rebecca Levy

Remember Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, and that song Fred sang as he prepared for a comfortable half hour of learning and fun? "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor..." I found myself humming the tune last week as I visited Austin's best Art Neighborhood. It is not quite an "Arts District" - three galleries don't constitute a district. But each of the exhibition spaces - Lyons Matrix Gallery, Women & Their Work Gallery, and Galeria Sin Fronteras - routinely presents contemporary talent worth walking around the block to see. An air of serious play, child-like on occasion, but never childish, permeates Lyons Matrix Gallery's presentation of Tre Arenz's work. There are ducks swimming in striped sinks, pony-boys (broomstick "horses"), striped dishes and bowls stacked in striped sinks, and ceramic heads perched on top of striped brooms, swaying ever-so-slightly as you walk by. And then there are the cast iron brooms. But what are these things about? Arenz says they speak to the notion of "comfort" (the show is called "Souvenirs of Comfort") and the perpetually sliding scale that defines the word. For some people, being able to have a glass of water when thirsty is the ultimate comfort. For others, it's purchasing one of Kohler's top-of-the-line, fancy fixtures for a new house. Many of the artist's most comfortable moments came in childhood, and the memories that persist have been given (ceramic) form and a jazzy surface. Arenz's sculpture is also about formal elements common to all art, like color, texture, and pattern. Some of the objects were made at Kohler Industries in Wisconsin where Arenz was an artist-in-residence earlier this year. Her shiniest glazes and plumbing fixtures come from this time. The scruffy, rough-surfaced heads represent Arenz's return to an earlier mode, away from the seductively slick Kohler aesthetic.

Sydney Yeager's formal concerns are the same as Arenz, and some of their images and ideas overlap as well. Yeager's paintings are also on view at Lyons Matrix. Her exhibit is called "Comfort Zone." Both artists use pattern and surface texture with uncommon skill. There is a friendly dialogue between their work that neither was sure would happen when they "chose each other" last year for this exhibition. Gallery director Camille Lyons says that instead of pairing her stable of artists for a second round of exhibitions since the gallery opened, she suggested that they bring two-person exhibition ideas to her. Arenz and Yeager made brief forays into each other's studio, and then quickly turned back to their own work once the date was set.

Yeager's painted surfaces, while as rough and "scumbly" as they have always been, also have a glossy sheen - a result of mixing more varnish and medium with her paint. On first glance, the largest paintings have an ornate elegance about them that belie the murkier messages lying just beneath the surface. Her work has always been about multiple layers of information, allowing the viewer to dive in deep or float on the surface of each work. Yeager's imagery - repetitive patterning, sinks, faucets, tubing, body parts - relates just closely enough to Arenz's to make their interaction compatible, though not predictable. Perhaps the biggest common denominator between the two is that both are dedicated studio artists. Each is currently showing new work in San Antonio as well as Austin.

Next door to Lyons Matrix, at Women & Their Work Gallery, Susan kae Grant has curated an exhibition of artists' books. Eighteen women contribute an incredibly diverse assortment of objects based on the notion of "book." It is nearly overwhelming to sort through the various approaches, which range from a gigantic, walk-in, tent-like construction made with printed pages and tape by Janet Tyson, to Beata Szechy's sensitive, folded constructions. A brilliant blue wall gives form to Beck Whitehead's installation, which resembles a three-dimensional Matisse painting. The color drew my eye, as it did in Julie Waranch Fleschman's cut, colored, and pasted, wall-mounted books.

Grant, in her curator's statement, describes "the representation of alternative and experimental bookworks." She also uses words like "re-contextualization" and "oppressive dichotomies and entangled metaphors." I am happy to report that you don't have to read at all, if you don't want to, as you wander through this exhibition called The Book Reconfigured. These artists have captured the essence of the book as object - a sometimes user-friendly and sometimes-not source of information, escape, and entertainment - in purely visual terms. Whether the medium is drywall and latex (Susan Voelpel) or memorabilia encased in beeswax (Letitia Huerta) or crepe myrtle twigs (Sherry Owens), the viewer is permitted (in most cases) a gut level, purely visual, and tactile response, rather than having to read the words to "get it." What a wonderfully old-fashioned concept for an art exhibit.

Teachers and students from Austin schools will have a special opportunity to respond to the exhibition. W&TW, in keeping with its pledge to expand educational programming in the new space, has planned a "comprehensive program of gallery tours and gallery talks... and hands-on workshops" surrounding this show and others during the coming year. This builds on eight years of substantial artist-in-residence programming that placed performing artists in the schools. Susan kae Grant provided a private orientation session in August for teachers from six AISD schools. Classes from Anderson, Johnston, and McCallum High School, Mendez Middle School, Martin Junior High, and Woolbridge Elementary will come to the gallery during the course of the exhibition. Women & Their Work Gallery will then exhibit student "books" in late October. The program gives new meaning to the phrase "book learning" and all that it implies.

Around the corner at 16th & Guadalupe, Galeria Sin Fronteras presents El Retorno a lo Sagrado (The Return to the Sacred), an exhibition of drawings, paintings, and sculpture by Luis Guillermo Guerra. A series of small pencil drawings that are architectural in nature - but also project a vulnerable, flesh and blood nature - hang in the front of the gallery. They are sensual, soft, and appealing. Familiar and yet perhaps forbidden. The artist's small-scale goauche paintings on rice paper, part of a series called Entre el Cielo y la Terra, make a similarly private connection with the viewer, whispering rather than shouting an enigmatic verse. Guerra is a master of intimate dialogue within the small format. As he expands his picture frame, however, the cohesiveness, the uniqueness of the work, begins to fade. This is true as well for his three-dimensional objects, which are mysterious when small, yet boring and predictable as they expand in size. Some ideas make better poems than blockbuster movies.

Mr. Rogers' half-hour forays into the "Land of Make Believe" came to mind again as I left the third gallery. Entering a world created by artists through their work has always been fun for me. Once again, it was a "beautiful day in the neighborhood." You should visit some time. n

A two-person show of new works by Sydney Yeager and Tre Arenz is on view through November 4 at Lyons Matrix Gallery. The Book Reconfigured is featured through October 7 at Women & Their Work Gallery. And El Retorno a lo Sagrado, works by Luis Guillermo Guerra, is on view through November 9. Guerra will present a gallery talk on Sunday, October 8, exploring the origins of his work.

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