‘"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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Arts Reviews
'The 2012 Drawing Annual'
Don't let Tiny Park Gallery go without experiencing this exhibit of depth and meaning

Wayne Alan Brenner, May 18, 2012

Arts Review
'Memento Mori'
The three artists showing here exhibit so much sentience, mystery, and grace

Wayne Alan Brenner, April 13, 2012

More by Molly Beth Brenner
'Books and Parts of Books: 1996-2004'
'Books and Parts of Books: 1996-2004'
Austin Museum of Art Downtown, through Aug. 29

June 25, 2004

Local Arts Reviews

June 18, 2004


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

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle