That Was Then; This Is Now
The latest version of 'New Art in Austin' shows how much has changed in three years
In a recent conversation, it became apparent to me that I like cold art. Work that is slick and uses plastic, ink, water, computers, or lights will grab my eye. My aesthetic preference is probably best exemplified by Andrew Niccol's Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. This film is able to look to both the future and the past while saying something about today in both visuals and commentary. It treats the sterility of theory, grittiness of reality, and the euphoria of transcendence in the way that good science fiction does. I like to throw around the term "sci-fi" as shorthand for this aesthetic. In the fall of 2005, the Austin Museum of Art opened the second exhibit in its new triennial, "New Art in Austin: 22 to Watch." Not only was it sci-fi; it reflected Austin as I understood it. The works shown reflected the diligence of the tech community, the stewardship of our landscape, and the excitement of redevelopment. Maybe Austin's art community wasn't as provincial and insulated as I'd thought. The optimism of moving forward was hopeful.
Three years later, the forecast is slightly different. Austin is still holding anti-war protests, global warming is accepted even among skeptics, growth has succumbed to gentrification, and, although Austin is a relative oasis when considering national woes, it is becoming more of a challenge for artists to live and work here. Not all of the outlook is dire, though. The Blanton Museum of Art, the Mexican American Cultural Center, Salvage Vanguard Theater, Ballet Austin, and the Long Center all opened their doors to new spacious venues. More cultural organizations continue with expansion plans as well, among them Arthouse, AMOA, Zach Theatre, and Austin Children's Museum. Some things change, and some things stay the same, but have the artists in Austin picked up on either?
The artists in this year's "New Art in Austin" still show an interest in the concerns evident in the 2005 version. Technology, preserving natural land, and real estate development are still a part of Austin. It may not be as sophisticated or interactive as Zack Booth Simpson's algorithmic projection of a pond, but Rebecca Ward's tape and video installation is just as playful and uses math to determine its proportions. By using the floor tiles as a unit of measurement, Ward applies vinyl in patterns that resemble blocks from the game Tetris and comfortably situates the projection in the niche provided. The influence of technology and how we view our surroundings is also present in Shawn Smith's work. His campfire sculpture is constructed from wood blocks painted to resemble individual pixels from a digital photograph. It has become a common complaint that today's artists rely too much on the photographic image to create. Smith takes this argument further by inserting the abundance of digital photography into the conversation. It's a little low tech for a hologram substitution, but you get the idea.
Three years ago, both Ledia Carroll's rerouting of water from an outside fountain and Hunter Cross' Post-it notes tree addressed natural resources. This time around, Matthew Rodriguez and Raymond Uhlir express somber reflections on nature translated through children's television programming. Depicted in the form of nightmares, Uhlir's self-portraits place us all at the receiving end of nature's wrath. Bears, wolves, and other carnivorous predators enact revenge for man's encroachment on the wilderness, all in the vivid colors of Saturday morning cartoons. Rodriguez uses the earth itself to express dissatisfaction with man's effects on the environment. A mound of concrete rubble and a house in shambles are both anthropomorphized with simple frowning cartoon faces. A similar effect is achieved as a pile of blankets is given a face and arms with birdseed and decorative birds placed around it. This colorful Muppet maintains an amicable presence, but as it evokes a bag lady feeding pigeons in the park, it is pitiable. The Sesame Street-style of the work is strengthened by the resemblance of Oscar the Grouch to Christmas-tree character Briar Bush in the accompanying painting. Any perkiness from the colors is subdued when you play Beethoven's melancholic "Für Elise" on the attached music-box instrument.
Austin benefits from a healthy economic outlook and continues to grow. In 2005, Heather Johnson's embroidered drawings and string installation of maps and Peat Duggins' drawings and installation of the mysterious architect's desk most directly discussed city planning and infrastructure. Now, Eric Zimmerman's intricate drawings contain both architectural elements and natural-looking landforms in graphite. Pools of colored ink contrast the controlled mark-making with an organic blob threatening to erase the image. The acknowledgment of the man-made over the natural transforms the inkblots into destructive oil spills. Scott Proctor uses some architecture in his discovery of a forgotten structure. By lifting a temporary wall, he reveals a previously lost framework for what looks like a dollhouse. This revelation of a hidden history within the museum's walls and the perception of oil spills make these works less objective than 2005's somewhere between here and anywhere and The Architect's Desk.
Perhaps the question of objectivity is what differentiates the two latest versions of "New Art in Austin." In 2005, the colder characteristics were present because most of the work took a more theoretical approach and the use of "we" in their arguments: We can use technology for our benefit. We need to take care of our natural resources. We need to provide adequate infrastructure. Even though you can find some similar thematic concerns this year, the perspective shifts to a more personal view, and "I" becomes the subject: I like to use technology. I am concerned about what's happening in the city and to the planet. It is this personal perspective of the artists that contrasts with the older exhibit and gives this version a sense of a random spattering of ideas.
With this change of perspective comes a sense of questioning, a little bit of trepidation, and maybe some conservative strategies. The ideas may seem separate, but a lot of the artists begin their investigations with themselves. Self-portraits have a strong presence. Photographer Sarah Sudhoff documents a very personal tribulation. It's a drastic event laid out very plainly: Sudhoff unflinchingly stares at the viewer as we watch her during different stages of dealing with cancer. The trio of photos leads you to contemplate larger issues of health, but they begin with the artist. Yoon Cho also works with her own identity. In Haircut, the loss of individuality through marriage was marked by a drastic haircut for herself and a small trim for her husband. Baseera Khan examines her cultural identity. She layers images, bleeds colors, and creates a muddy view emulating her bicultural existence. There is confusion as she tries to pull an identity from these surreal settings. Uhlir does a decent job rendering himself in cartoon format, but we must take Andrew Long's word that the abstracted shapes in Self-Portrait for Change is really a portrait. As each one questions who he or she is, the artists use their personal experiences to give us a more universal understanding.
The Jill Pangallo and Buster Graybill pairing becomes a nice fulcrum. Where Pangallo uses herself in a colorful, inviting, commercial representation, Graybill is absent in a cold, industrial, threatening presentation. Pangallo uses her person, while Graybill uses only the scale of a person. As a performance, Pangallo's work depends on the surrounding props to substitute for the absence of the action. Witnessing the mime on opening night was an engrossing experience as the artist, made plastic with make-up, stood in a face-off against Graybill's looming inner tubes. The simplicity of Come Along Johnny betrays its effect and presence. Standing between the two was a test of your nerves. Either direction you faced, you could feel the presence of the other on the back of your neck.
Those who don't use their faces at least use themselves as people in relation to their work. Graybill's sculpture is best activated when you stand in close proximity. Meggie Chou's hulking contraption dominates the room and is mechanical like Come Along Johnny. Even though industrial, its relationship is organic as it mimics a circulating cardiovascular system. The cut-paper works of Xochi Solis also look cardiovascular. No one calls them self-portraits, but the titles sound like snippets from a diary. As the Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemerata, Jen Hirt and Scott Webel borrow four works from AMOA's permanent collection and pair them with displays of their own creation. Julie Speed's medicine cabinet and Willie Nelson's hair sample both use personal effects for added effect to AMOA's works. One of the most powerful effects comes from one of the humblest works. Kurt Mueller provides the intimidation of Graybill's Come Along Johnny compounded by history, race, and politics. Squeezed into a corner between the exit and the Family Lab stands a lone microphone. Speakers and a teleprompter nudge you to stand behind it and sing your heart out to the scrolling text. Almost nobody does. Mueller provides the text for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech, and somehow that renders voices mute. Your mind races and asks: "Am I allowed to say that? Do I have the confidence to perform? Will I be able to tackle the history of whom and what is being read?"
Artist Teresa Hubbard of the 2002 "New Art in Austin," concerned with the marketability of the 2005 group, questioned the local support system during AMOA's Self-Portrait symposium three years ago. In 2008, the artists are exhibiting more saleable works in comparison to the large-scale installations that dominated the previous show. Paintings and works on paper are plentiful, as they were in Arthouse's "New American Talent: 22" and Mexic-Arte's "Young Latino Artists 12" this past year. Does this suggest a conscious consideration of investment and return on capital? Or is it another example of these artists beginning their studio practice on the basis of "I"? Granted that paintings can and usually do come about in series, but when a large piece is offset by a group of small paintings, you can't help but think of the economics of art-making and -buying. Someone once told me, "You make the large stuff so you can sell the small stuff." With the boom in arts activity, there are bound to be buyers willing to acquire local art, right? But maybe the lack of space forces artists to create intimate-sized works.
"New Art in Austin" paints a new picture of Austin. Instead of a beckoning into the future with idealized outlines and ambitious proposals, the 2008 edition is one on the verge of a newer civilization in which individuals bear the responsibility of guiding us through these changes. They break down our collective aspirations into warmer, more intimate conversations. They are like case studies. The artists become mindful of greater topics by questioning their relationships, and ours, to external forces – not always optimistic but moving ever forward. This exhibition may not be an exact representation of Austin art, but this is the Austin others will see. This is how Abilene, Houston, and San Antonio will understand Austin art.
"New Art in Austin: 20 to Watch" is on view through May 11 at the Austin Museum of Art – Downtown, 823 Congress. For more information, call 495-9224 or visit www.amoa.org.
*Oops! The following correction ran in the April 18, 2008 issue: In last week's issue, the Arts feature "That Was Then; This Is Now" incorrectly identified the museum that hosts the "New American Talent" exhibition. That exhibition is hosted by Arthouse, not the Austin Museum of Art. The Chronicle regrets the error.