Shiny, Happy Creatures

With their vibrant colors and organic shapes, Faith Gay's artworks seem delightfully, hypnotically alive

<i>two lone the lurch</i>, 2004, paper and acrylic on masonite
two lone the lurch, 2004, paper and acrylic on masonite

Bright droplets of pure, vibrant color: the bluest sky blue, the greenest grass green, the yellow-est canary yellow, the purple-est eggplant, the most orange-y tangerine, ... each little globule is distinct, like a cell, and like cells, they cluster together, making lines, circles, and great, irregularly shaped masses of vivid neon hues. A snaky ribbon of crimson. A mustard eyeball with a chartreuse iris around a blood-red pupil. A lavender amoeba with a nucleus of saffron bordered in coal black. The colors are so rich, so radiant, they grab your eye and won't let go. And as you stare, their combinations and juxtapositions – black against cream against orange, periwinkle against scarlet – shimmer, animating these shapes on the wall before you into gleaming, happy organisms.

Or perhaps it's not that they're happy, but you are. Because gazing at Faith Gay's fused plastic artworks inspires joy. Put simply, they're fun. And more and more people have been discovering that lately. A year and a half ago, Gay was invited to do the debut installation at testsite, the exhibition space/open studio established by Laurence Miller and Regine Basha in Miller's home. That was the young artist's first one-person show, and it earned her the Best Solo Exhibition award from the Austin Critics Table this year. ("That was very flattering," says Gay. "That made me really happy.") She was also asked to inaugurate another flexible installation space in a residence: the "blue room" in the house of JD DiFabbio and Brian Bowers, which doubles as plan B Gallery. Gay was part of the Critics Table Award-winning group exhibition "Summer Light" at D Berman Gallery in 2003, and now, she's opening a new show with Lauren Levy – her first two-person exhibition in Austin – in that space.

That's a lot of recognition for someone who gave up art for a while after slogging through the undergraduate studio art program at UT. As a student, the Port Arthur native felt out of step with the prevailing trends in the art world and worried that her work didn't matter. "In art school," she says, "I thought, 'I'm not a conceptual artist, therefore I'm not an important artist. So I'm not going to make it.' And I beat myself up about that. It's tough figuring out who you are and accepting 'This is the way I express myself.' I got out of school and thought, 'Make art? Can't do it.'"

Oddly enough, she was making money from art at the time. In college, she earned cash doing decorative painting in private and model homes: faux marble effects and "cheeseball, wacky theme stuff in kids' rooms." In the flush Nineties, the money for this work was incredibly good, and Gay's efforts were enthusiastically received by clients, but eventually the work started sucking some of the life out of her. She thought, "I don't want to expand my marbleizing career. What the hell am I doing?"

<i>eggo</i> (detail), 2004, fused plastic
eggo (detail), 2004, fused plastic

So Gay stopped that and felt the desire to make her own art return. With a new acceptance of her creative direction, she built up a body of work she felt was credible and began to show it in venues such as Gallery Lombardi and smaller art spaces. By two years ago, she was so satisfied with her work and so confident about it that she actually considered art school again. She installed what she had in the place she was living and invited museum and gallery directors she knew to come see it and offer feedback on her submissions for grad school.

Then, unexpectedly, she learned she was pregnant. "So those plans were: pffft!," Gay says. She realized, "I'm not going anywhere. This is what's supposed to happen now. Something needed to happen, and I was trying to make something happen somewhere else, and instead this is the good thing I got out of it."

As fate would have it, the showing of work that Gay had done thinking she would leave Austin instead boosted her career now that she was staying. The day after she learned about her pregnancy, Laurence Miller and Regine Basha invited her to do the testsite installation. With her new physical condition spurring her on creatively – "There's something that happens to you when you're pregnant that you're just, 'I gotta really get on this, because I don't know what my life is gonna be like for the next five years.'" – Gay cranked out a wealth of new work, and once the show was up, Miller and Basha "showed the hell out of it," bringing in friends, patrons, and visiting artists and critics.

As a result, Gay's career really began to take off. But her baby's birth last October has had an impact on that career, she says. "I don't know that my art has changed aesthetically, but I often struggle – when I'm tired, when I don't necessarily have time to work on my stuff. You know, part of being an artist is sitting on your butt and staring at what you did for hours, not knowing where to go or what to do, waiting for a decision to happen in your head, for something to happen. I don't have that time right now. So I'm learning how to make decisions faster, to be satisfied with those decisions, and not stress out that I'm not going to be able to produce something as good as what I was working on. Sometimes I have that fear, and it's silly. It's just a thing that women deal with when they have children and their energy and their life are focused on raising someone and not on their career. You think you're not valued, that the things you're doing are not as valued."

In response, Gay is trying to have even more fun with her art, and that's reflected in the new work for the D Berman show. She's experimenting with colored circles on a resin-coated grid. The dots are larger than the beads of her other recent work and the hues somewhat less electric, but they work off a similar interest in colors and color relationships and simplicity of form. And while they generate a cooler feel than the organic bead shape, the repetition and graphic quality still seize the eye and hold it, albeit in a soothing, meditative way.

That's not to say that Gay has abandoned her beaded organisms. Far from it. After having been told repeatedly that people see objects and images in her nonrepresentational fused plastic works, the artist has created some new ones that deliberately play into that perception. Based on the same principle as Rorschach tests, they are bisected, symmetrical forms with the random imagery of inkblots. They take her familiar works up a notch in playfulness.

And another line of new fused-plastic pieces takes that work up a few more notches in playfulness: human and animal figures, and simplified representations of nature, based on Native American petroglyphs and rock paintings. "Have you ever heard of Newspaper Rock in Utah?" Gay asks. "There's this huge rock face, and Indians passing through, pioneers, the Spanish, whoever, would just etch a little something on there. So there's this big mural of graffiti, and it's not words. It's little pictures: a snake or someone jumping over maybe it's the sun ... who knows what it is? You don't know who did it, you don't know when it was done. It's strange. But it's really cool." So, inspired by this rock, Gay is for the first time creating representational figures with the beads, each piece like a rock marking, to be slapped up on a wall in the manner of the Newspaper Rock graffiti: with "no rhyme or reason to it." Gay calls the figures "silly and goofy and cartoony ... really ridiculous." And looking at them scattered across a table in her home, I can see what she means. Put simply, they're fun – the latest generation of shiny, happy creatures shimmering to life on the gallery wall, hypnotizing and delighting our eyes. end story

"Faith Gay and Lauren Levy" runs Sept. 30-Nov. 6 at D Berman Gallery, 1701 Guadalupe. For more information, call 477-8877 or visit

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Faith Gay, D Berman Gallery, David Berman, Laurence Miller, Regine Basha, Gallery Lombardi, Newspaper Rock

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