Spanking the Figurative

A new Austin gallery captures dancers with paint

Spanking the Figurative
Photo by Lin Rich

David Ohlerking's stopping for a rest and a bite to eat, sitting on the low black couch in the Austin Figurative Gallery, his glorified hole-in-the-wall in the Super!Alright!-anchored complex at the corner of Third and Chicon. Around him, the walls are covered with sketches, with new paintings and old from numerous artists, with hand-lettered posters for music shows and previous AFG events. A crude but effective set of stairs diagonally bisects one wall, leading to another, smaller exhibit space on the second floor.

If the gallery's meager confines are glorified at all -- and they are, with a sort of glory like the glory of punk rock before it morphed, almost against its raggedy will, into New Wave -- it's because Ohlerking rarely stops to rest like this. He's more often up and at it: drawing, painting, building, hanging artwork, networking, even updating the AFG website to reflect the ridiculous amount of visual-arts events he's organized for the next few months.

"Getting to know David, I kept waiting for the red flag to go up, you know?" says choreographer Ellen Bartel of Spank Dance Company. "Like, oh, here's another artist that talks a lot of shit but doesn't follow through. Or that, like some people, he'd be uptight and suddenly snap at you for reasons you don't understand. But that hasn't happened yet -- he does follow through, even though he's doing so much stuff, and he's a real sweetheart."

Spanking the Figurative
Photo by Lin Rich

Bartel, no slacker herself, is bringing her innovative company to the Austin Figurative Gallery for a brief, close-quarters performance among the artworks of the venue's newest exhibit: paintings of those same Spank dancers.

"It was because of Michael Schliefke," explains Ohlerking. "He took me to a Dr. Sketchy after we'd been working on some mural all weekend. Dr. Sketchy is this thing that started in New York; it's like a sexy drawing class: You're at a bar; you're drinking; you're drawing. And it's not academic models; they're burlesque models; there's a DJ, music going on. When we went, the models were Ellen and her girls, and I was thrilled. Schliefke was out-of-his-mind happy: They were wearing stripey socks, and that did it for him.

"So I talked to Ellen about them maybe coming over here and performing and sitting for all the painters in our group. And they did, and it was spectacular. I remember Ellen gave me the CD they used for the dance, because I was running the music for the show. And I looked over, and the room was filled with 17 painters all ready to go; the Spank girls were doing modern dance, a lot of regular people had come over to watch it from the side, and it was like: perfect moment. I didn't want to move. I wanted everything to freeze, because -- something about how Ellen approaches things. She's like a sculptor with her dance troupe. The way they move is like adding a fourth dimension to sculpture, because they're moving in specifically designed ways, ways that Ellen understands, like a painter with a brushstroke. It's fantastic, what she does. And for the show coming up, Spank's gonna perform with all the paintings of themselves around them, and the painters will be here. It'll be a great reception."

Of course, this isn't the first time the gallery's been filled with live models and painters. In fact, that's the reason it's here at all.

Spanking the Figurative
Photo by Lin Rich

Ohlerking nods, munching. "A little over a year ago, I was painting a model from four different views," he says. "And I wondered what it would be like if I had four different artists doing the same views: front, back, left, right. So you could see the difference in the painters: how they work, how they see the person. So I e-mailed all the painters that I liked in Austin and booked Gutter Kitty Studios down on South Congress, hired eight models. And 30 painters showed up, and we painted. We did that, like, three times and then had a show of that work around Thanksgiving of that year. And that worked real well, so I decided to try to make it a regular group, and we called it the Austin Figurative Project. And Chris Chappell and I started painting together a lot, doing figurative work on 2-foot-by-4-foot boards from Home Depot, and I ended up getting this place and having sessions here. And I realized I could do shows here, too, so every last Saturday of the month, we'd show a painter. But there were so many figurative painters that didn't have shows anywhere that I figured, okay, let's do a show every Saturday.

"So every Saturday I'll have something upstairs, something downstairs, kind of like doing it like Sub Pop or the punk labels did back in the old days. Just cheap, put a whole buncha stuff out there; let it happen. As long as the artists can keep it figurative, the few rules I have, it's a fairly inclusive, wide range of styles. We're creating our own little context for what we do here."

But why figurative art in particular? Why not landscapes, bowls of fruit? What about abstract art? Conceptual art?

"I like dumbing things down," says Ohlerking, the missionary's son who dropped out of college to join bands, who spent years in Houston painting backdrops and designing gig flyers. "The human body is about as basic as it gets, because it's always been in art, and if you understand it, everything else gets better. My landscapes are way better because of me painting people. And my teacher Alex Kanevsky made me paint people from life, so it was partly his deal. He's a Lithuanian dude who moved to Philadelphia and got an art degree there. I met him on the Internet, and I send him a painting every year, and he tells me what's right and wrong. I switched to oil paint about five years ago because of him. I'd avoided oil like the plague because it was so nasty. But it's better; you can do a lot more with it. I can make it be like watercolor or egg tempura or casein or anything I was working with before, and there are all these other things you can do with it. And what I'm doing, I'm painting people."

At the Austin Figurative Gallery, they all are.

The Spank Dance Company performs at a show of paintings of the dancers, done by Austin Figurative Project artists, on Saturday, Aug. 11, 7-11pm, at the Austin Figurative Gallery, 301 Chicon, Unit F. For more information, visit

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Austin Figurative Gallery, Spank Dance Company, David Ohlerking, Ellen Bartel, Michael Schliefke

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