Atelier 2008: Selections from the Department of Art & Art History Faculty at the University of Texas at Austin

The exhibit has moments of direct correlation that would not have been achieved without guest curator James Elaine

<i>Trailer at Dusk</i> by Kate Catterall
Trailer at Dusk by Kate Catterall

'Atelier 2008: Selections From the Department of Art and Art History Faculty at the University of Texas at Austin'

Blanton Museum of Art, through June 8

Walking into "Atelier 2008," the UT faculty exhibition at the Blanton, I was excited to see artists that I'm familiar with in the sanctified environs of the massive new museum. That was new, as was the decision to invite a guest curator to determine what would be in the show instead of using an internal committee. James Elaine of the Hammer Museum of Art in Los Angeles was hired for the task, and with his gifted eye, he fully succeeds in pairing artists. The exhibition has moments of direct correlation that would not have been achieved without him.

Printmakers Ken Hale and Tim High have more in common than I had previously believed. Another surprise to me is how good the work of Kate Catterall and Dan Sutherland look side by side. Catterall has an outdoorsy land-art series that invokes her love of the harsh West Texas landscape. Her photos of blue skies lead nicely to Sutherland's contrived "inner landscapes." Sutherland's oil paintings seem to have been summoned from a Victorian scrapbook. His colors pop and separate with a lot of attention paid to edge quality. They are the result of hours of isolation inside a studio, a project that is developed as an inner world. The best still lifes have that ability to make the tiny things expansive or give the feeling of a big story being incarnate in small simple things. Sutherland gives us versions of his escapism in oil, graphite, and watercolor.

The show is chock-full of artworks that reference other artworks. Ken Hale, Tim High, and John Stoney all use this device, with references to Dürer, Botticelli, Ensor, and Delacroix. Dan Sutherland couldn't resist titling a watercolor Post Dig Bonnard. It's funny because the work is not in the style of Bonnard, but in the top half of the piece is a moment of loose pastel flourish. The title is a challenge: Just try and find the Bonnard in this abstraction. Melissa Miller's painting ability is so juicy and fresh. She's playing with some loose strokes in her stellar new work.

Of the 16 artists chosen for the exhibit, only Michael Ray Charles re-creates racial epithets with works like (Liberty Bros. Permanent Daily Circus) Army of Clowns. His painting skills are great – he's able to get an authentic old-timey texture in his work – but I've always been turned off by his politics. I think of Barack Obama's Philadelphia speech: "We can accept a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the O.J. trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news." I tend to like art that builds up a big, tall story rather than art that oversimplifies, deconstructs, or deals exclusively in the politics of victimization.

I didn't like the Playground video of adult baby-acting by Michael Smith and Seth Price. Smith seems to be trying to make a point about stupid people making lame baby movies by acting stupid and like a lame baby. It doesn't work rhetorically for me. Bill Lundberg makes demands on viewers; they are physical demands as opposed to the academic quizzing of the others. He has a gift for affected scale and for getting the viewer to stand exactly in a certain spot. My favorite video is Single Wide, by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, for its cinematic lushness and really entertaining narrative. The six-minute loop has a soundtrack that oozes suspense – something important is happening. A phone is ringing but not answered; a truck leaves and comes back to a mobile home. The camerawork is slick, and the viewer is given a real character, acting, and ambience. I love the device of the camera circling the mobile home, perfectly integrated in the mysterious narrative and six-minute loop.

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Atelier 2008, Blanton Museum of Art, Bill Lundberg, Melissa Miller, Michael Smith, Michael Ray Charles, Dan Sutherland

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