Modern Art. Modern Lives. Then + Now

AMOA's dual exhibit of art made a century apart shows some things never change

Arts Review

'Modern Art. Modern Lives. Then + Now'

Austin Museum of Art – Downtown

Through Nov. 2

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

A quick stroll through Austin Museum of Art's dual exhibit "Modern Art. Modern Lives. Then + Now" might prompt the natural response that art sure has changed since the impressionists were slinging paint.

But linger a little in both halves of the show, and you may spy threads of commonality between "Then" and "Now," enough to suggest that art, even in these digitized, deconstructed days, is the same as it ever was.

To be sure, artists of the present employ so many different kinds of media, some of which didn't even exist a century ago (large-print photography, video, plastics, computer graphics), as to make those no-tech paints and charcoals of the 19th century seem quaint by comparison. And technology unavailable to the artists of yesteryear is not only being used to make art, but it's being used as the subject of art. In works such as Chris Jordan's large photographs Recycling Yard #6, Seattle, 2004 and Crushed Cars #3, Tacoma, 2004, the artist is training his eye on a mass-production/mass-consumption culture unknown when van Gogh was painting the bridge over the Seine at Asnières.

And yet, at its essence, the impulse generating Jordan's art is no different than the one inspiring van Gogh. Both strive to see the world they live in with fresh eyes and to present it in a way that provokes us to see the world in new ways, too. With Jordan, it may be scale that does the trick: mountains of mangled metal that jolt us into recognizing the monstrous amounts of waste we discard and rarely think about. With van Gogh, it may be color: those azures and ultramarines against glowing pinks that set the bridge's underside and its watery reflection in electric counterpoint. But both succeed in creating arresting alternative visions of the world, images that expand our view beyond what we would likely see left to our own eyes.

That impulse reveals itself over and over throughout the show's "Then" and "Now" sections (or, as they're formally titled, "19th and 20th Century Artists at the Turn of the Century" and "Where Are We Going? Contemporary Artists Address Issues of the 21st Century"). And when you key into it, the separate sections feel more like they're in conversation, that the artists across that century gap are nodding in agreement: "Yes, that's what I was trying to do." Then, Anne Appleby's Shirley Poppy, with a flower abstracted into four panels of flat color, seems like an extension of Paul Signac's pointillist experiments with hue in The Bridge of la Félicité, Asnières, and Pablo Picasso's cubist portraits, with their multiple angles of a single face, prefigure Noah Kalina's time-lapse video, Everyday January 11, 2000-July 31, 2006, stringing together thousands of images of his face over a span of six years.

And as you come to see that shared urge to create among all these artists, you can sense a restlessness among them all, too, a desire to find those edges in the culture, the places yet to be claimed and commodified by society. AMOA Executive Director Dana Friis-Hansen, who curated the contemporary section, identifies its questing nature in his exhibit's title, but it applies to the older artists, too, although it's harder to see in their works; since impressionism has become visual comfort food, we've lost our taste for how daring it once was, how it tested the boundaries of art in its day. But if you take a second pass through the "Then" section after being charged by the "Now," you may be more sensitive to the current of experimentation and risk at work. As assembled by curator James Housefield in his last show for AMOA, this art of our past is pushing forward, moving ahead of the curve, exploring, just as the art of the present is today. Some things never change, and for that we can be grateful.

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Modern Art. Modern Lives. Then + Now, Austin Museum of Art, Dana Friis-Hansen, James Housefield, Chris Jordan, Anne Appleby, Noah Kalina

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