‘"Natural Selections: Julie Speed and Bale Creek Allen"’

Local Arts Reviews

"Natural Selections: Julie Speed and Bale Creek Allen": Weird and Wonderful

Arthouse at the Jones Center, through May 11

When people talk about contemporary art in Austin, Julie Speed's name is usually not far behind. She's a darling of the local fine-arts world, and for good reason: Her well-known vibrant portraits of dark-haired women and Catholic clerics combine meticulous painting with evocative, eerie details: a crown of matchsticks, a house on fire in the distance, a sober-faced monkey looking on. Her popularity makes sense in a town like Austin, where avid art appreciation is tinged with a penchant for the weird.

A fan of Speed's art, I jumped at the chance to see "Natural Selections," Arthouse's new show featuring Speed's latest collection, "Alters of My Ancestors," and the sculpture of Austin artist Bale Creek Allen, whose work I was not familiar with. What I found at Arthouse was not only a new facet of Speed's genius, but an introduction to another Austin treasure: Allen's simple sculptures -- a blend of Christian superstition, tool-shed aesthetics, and fiery Eastside sensibility -- hit me like a ball-peen in the solar plexus.

Unlike her earlier portraits, Speed's works in "Alters of My Ancestors" combine collage and engraving with gouache painting. They're small, exquisitely detailed, and antiquated, more reminiscent of old black-and-white photographs than of the Renaissance portraits her previous works call to mind. But the collection is aptly named; surreal alterations have been made in each of the small, stiffly posed scenes. Subdued in grays, blacks, and olives, these works are brought to life with small, strange, brightly colored details. In Writer, vibrant flames jump from the seated scribe's head, while tiny red devils dance around him. The electrifying orange of the tennis balls peppering The Players provides the only hint of color in the piece, whizzing past the two gentlemen who pose elegantly, rackets in hand, clad in prison stripes.

While previous Speed shows such as the Austin Museum of Art's "Queen of My Room" featured multiple portraits of women, "Alters of My Ancestors" contains painting after painting of military men, nestled in violent battlefield imagery, no doubt a reflection of current events. Still, these paintings contain the elements that define Speed's unique artistic voice -- fire, birds, extra eyes and limbs, and subject after subject with his mouth open, as if caught in middecree -- thus retaining the characteristic mystery of her earlier work.

Bale Creek Allen's work, although comparable in its exquisite craftsmanship, draws on completely different artistic traditions, making the pairing of artists in this show especially interesting. Using meticulously carved wood, polished metal, neon, and found objects, Allen constructs new tools from familiar ones, suggesting wildly different uses for them in the process. This Ain't No Curtain Rod, a wooden axe handle attached to a curved iron finial that ends in a sharp point, transforms a fancy window accessory into a torture instrument. The same kind of disturbing transubstantiation occurs in Innocence and Violence, in which a pair of red baseball bats, carved with "innocence" and "violence" in measured script, sit in a black case. Their purpose is unstated, but it's clear they're not for cracking homers. As in Speed's, there is mystery in Allen's work, but it's dark, dangerous, evoking the profane logic of superstition and black magic.

Like Austin itself, these artists' work is rich in artistry and inventiveness, with a touch of weirdness thrown into the mix. Speed and Allen are excellent examples of our city's cultural affluence; taken together, they present two disparate artistic traditions, bound both by their caliber and the fact that they (lucky for us!) call Austin home.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Natural Selections: Julie Speed and Bale Creek Allen, Julie Speed, Bale Creek Allen, Arthouse, Jones Center for Contemporary Art, Alters of My Ancestors, Writer, The Players, Austin Museum of Art, Queen of My Room, This Ain't No Curtain Rod, Innocence and Viol

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