Beyond the Frame

Curator Elizabeth Dunbar likes art that punches through the gallery walls

Elizabeth Dunbar
Elizabeth Dunbar (Photo by Celesta Danger)

She started with the exhibition that consisted of rearranging the walls inside the Arthouse building. She followed it with the exhibition that involved replacing a lawn with a vegetable garden. And soon she will present an exhibition on the history of punk rock in Austin.

Whatever you may think of the shows she's curated, you can't accuse Elizabeth Dunbar of presenting art that's safe and staid. Since becoming Arthouse's first full-time curator in April 2007, Dunbar has shown she takes the statewide organization's mission to promote contemporary art seriously. Her shows have featured artists exploring the frontiers of the form, in terms of media, in terms of conceptual approach, in terms of relationship to the community. Their work can't be contained within a four-cornered frame. It punches through art's conventions and traditions to find new places to be. In reconfiguring the space inside Arthouse, Florian Slotawa created a kind of time machine, focusing our attention on the 150-year-old structure that houses Arthouse so we might reflect on its history and, by extension, Austin's. In creating an "Edible Estates" garden at the Sierra Ridge Apartments and hosting Sundown Schoolhouse workshops on food production inside Arthouse, Fritz Haeg engaged Austin in conversations about the aesthetics of our lawns and how we feed ourselves. With his forthcoming film about Austin punk, Matt Stokes will be not only preserving part of local history but reconnecting us with a DIY spirit that is an essential quality of the city's character. This is art that tickles the brain in new ways while we're in front of it and leaves us thinking about it long after we leave the gallery. And that's just how Dunbar likes it.

The Chronicle caught up with the curator at the Jones Center for Contemporary Art as work for her latest curatorial effort, "Rapture in Rupture," was being installed for its opening. She considers it her most traditional show to date in that it features mostly painting and sculpture, but the works by Lauren Kelley, Shiri Mordechay, Mindy Shapero, and Nicolau Vergueiro are nothing if not contemporary and offer plenty to tickle the brain. The curator shared her views on art today, what engages her, and her first 18 months at Arthouse.

Austin Chronicle: Most of the shows you've done so far have focused on art that you can't put a frame around. Even after a century of modernism, there are still expectations that art is something that lives on the wall of a museum or gallery, and you go there, and you enjoy it there.

Elizabeth Dunbar: A beautiful thing hanging on the wall that you can take aesthetic pleasure from, and that's the sum of your experience. We hope that you take aesthetic pleasure from some of the work that we present, but at the same time, we want to make you think about it and expand the context in which you're thinking about it. We really want you to relate it to your life, your experience, and challenge you. You know, we want you to use your brain as much as your eyes.

AC: So before you came here, did you feel that Arthouse already had some of that sensibility?

ED: Definitely. The thing that appealed to me about Arthouse was that it was an experimental space, that they were willing to take risks, that they encouraged you to take risks. They didn't want to be this complacent little institution. I remember sitting in my interview with some of the board members on the search committee, and it was like, "We want you to try new things, and it's okay if you fail." That's a really wonderful thing as a curator, to have people who will stand behind you and support you philosophically as well as financially and say: "We're in an experimental space, and part of experimentation is the potential for failure. But there's the potential for success, so go for it." So, yeah, that's why I'm here.

AC: But Arthouse is a statewide organization. Did you have any hesitation about your ability to do that across Texas?

ED: I don't know if I had any hesitation. I certainly thought a lot about what my goals were in my next career move and how they fit Arthouse's mission, which is to bring appreciation to and foster the growth of contemporary art in Texas. That doesn't mean that we only show Texas artists. We provide opportunities for them to exhibit but also to see work being made throughout the world, which puts their work in context and provides opportunities for them to meet other artists working outside of our region. I think it's very important to bring in someone like Florian Slotawa, who had never shown in the United States. We bring him in, artists get to meet him, talk to him, see a completely different way of working, and that's just as valid.

AC: But you're not just bringing in these artists from far away to say: "Here's what I've done on the other side of the world. Look at it and respond to it." You're connecting these artists to this city by having them create work here. It deepens the bond we have with artists from other places.

ED: That's one of the reasons I've been trying to institute greater emphasis on site-specific projects or commissioned work. With Florian, it was about Arthouse's building – it was about many, many things, but specifically using our building, of course, talks about our history and our upcoming renovation plans and all kinds of things. Fritz engaging with the community and bringing in all those people that worked on the workshops, it really was about Austin and was a great community-building project. And Matt, he's focusing on the Austin music scene through the punk rock thread that runs through it, and the great thing about Matt is he's a British artist and brings a slightly different perspective, but he's really been able to integrate himself smoothly into the community here. He's spent nearly three months working in Austin over the last year. He knows this material frontward and backward, but he brings a different skew to it at the same time, which makes it very exciting.

AC: When you see a work that engages you, is there a tingle down the back of your neck?

ED: Some physical reaction? I don't know. That's a difficult question to answer because it comes differently. Sometimes there's something I'll see that I'll fall in love with immediately, but I'll look at it for six more months, and then I'm like, "Ehh, I'm over that now." And there are other things that bother me or trouble me, and I'm not sure how I feel about them, and I go back six months or a year later, and then it's like, "You know, I really like that, because it's holding my attention." Those usually are the things that end up working their way into my exhibitions.

I used to have a practice – I still sort of do it – where if I'm visiting galleries in New York or Europe or wherever, I pick up cards, announcements, press releases, whatever, from shows that I've seen that really intrigue me, and I throw them in a box, and six months later, when I get out the box and start going through that material, whatever I remember, then I know there's something there, and I continue to explore it further. It's the things that really get beneath my skin and make me think, that get me to scratch my head a little bit, that I really want to explore more.

AC: And that you want to share with the people who come to Arthouse?

ED: Exactly. Because it's something original. If it's made me scratch my head, and I see a lot of work, hopefully it will make everyone else scratch their heads a little bit, too. They may not love it on first view either, but that's okay. It's about having a conversation about what it is and coming back to it. I mean, there are things that I've seen, and years later I'm like, "You know, I hated that at the time, but now, in retrospect, that was really good."

AC: Are you able to assure people who don't have that grounding in contemporary art that whatever reaction they have is okay?

ED: We try. I'm not sure you can be 100 percent successful at that all the time, but we certainly try. One of the great things about Arthouse is that we're free. So when you come in, your investment is you just walked in the door. You didn't have to pay $20 to get in, and then you hated it. So come in; see if you like it. If you don't like it, that's okay. Think about it. What I've been trying to do since I've gotten here is provide didactic material for free. We've started doing brochures for every exhibition. So in addition to the visual component, there is something written to help the, well, everyone. If they say, "Well, I just really didn't understand what that was about," they can sit down and read the essay and read more about the artist's work, and hopefully that will provide some enlightenment. And they might think about the work in a different way afterward.

It's an issue with contemporary art. Sometimes it's so conceptual that seeing it is one thing, but understanding all the references and layers to it is something else. "Rapture in Rupture" is a great example in that there are a lot of conceptual ideas underlying most of these works, but at the same time, they're visually very seductive, so you can appreciate it on multiple levels. You can love the way things look – the colors, the textures, the compositions, all that kind of stuff – and you can start digging, and there's deeper meaning, there's a lot of context beyond that. There's so much information out there now. When you're looking at art in the 21st century, you're looking at it everywhere, and it can be made of anything. It can exist in all shapes, forms, sizes, and in every type of media: performance, dance, theatre, music.

AC: Four dimensions as well as three.

ED: Exactly. It has no clearly defined look to it. So it is difficult. But at the same time, we're living in this global community now, and you can look things up on the Internet – and I think part of this show is about that freneticism. There is this kind of chaos around us. The "rapture," in a way, is that we've been in this era of unfettered information, as well as this global economic greed, this huge consumer culture; we've been buying stuff and stuff and stuff, and, boom, something hits, and we're collapsing, and a lot of this work is about that collapse, these junctures, these ruptures that are happening, and it's this rapture that's been ruptured. And I'm not thinking of rapture in the biblical sense, although you could take it that way if you like, but for me, rapture was more about this global chaos and frenzy, and it's rupturing right now. I was thinking about this show before the economic collapse, but when that happened, I was like, "Wow, that seems right on the mark."

AC: So how do you sum up your time at Arthouse so far? Are you where you wanted to be?

ED: It's been a very intense year and a half, and I think we've shown a lot of different things, but that's exactly what I set out to do. What I set out to accomplish was really show a vast variety of stuff, that it wasn't going to be just painting and sculpture; that we would do things like Fritz's project, relational aesthetics; that we would bring in film and video, Matt Stokes; that we would do video gaming, something that's not my area of expertise but something I'm interested in and connects with our community so nicely. I wanted to reach out to the community and take advantage of what's here already, in a sense, but also expand far beyond that. Hopefully we've accomplished that. I think we have.

"Rapture in Rupture" runs through Jan. 11, 2009, at Arthouse's Jones Center for Contemporary Art, 700 Congress. For more information, call 453-5312 or visit

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Elizabeth Dunbar, Arthouse, Florian Slotawa, Matt Stokes, Fritz Haeg

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