Touring the Tour
A very meta experience of EAST, guided by Heather Pesanti, senior curator at the Contemporary Austin
The colossal East Austin Studio Tour is coming out of its absolutely necessary weekday intermission and entering the second and final weekend of concentrated arts madness. This Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 22-23, is your last chance this year to see what's going on behind the closed doors of hundreds of studios and workshops east of I-35 – or at least your last chance to do so without an appointment. Following a guided meta-tour offered by a local arts consultant or organization is a solid way to experience EAST (albeit, one with a price tag). Unlike the usual experience, these tours offer a view of expert-vetted practices and a chance for the artists to speak in-depth about their work shielded from the constant flow of at times half-interested viewers.
One tour that garnered a good deal of interest the first weekend of EAST 2014 was produced by Art Alliance Austin and led by Heather Pesanti, senior curator at The Contemporary Austin. The museum's community engagement director, Andrea Mellard, has a solid track record of engagement with grassroots arts initiatives in Austin, commissioning collective Ink Tank and working with galleries like Pump Project and GrayDUCK, but the senior curator's involvement with EAST even more clearly signals that the Contemporary has its eye on the burning embers of the local scene, especially on the Eastside.
Pesanti's tour began with custom fabricator Mark Macek at Splinter Group. While tour-goers drooled over his midcentury-modern walnut stereo cabinet and other bespoke furniture, Macek relayed the history of the collective, bringing listeners back to the rough-and-tumble East Austin of the early Nineties, complete with legendary low prices and vacant factory space just begging to be flipped to studios. After advocating for his assistant (whose work rivaled the master), Macek led the group to neighboring painter Andy St. Martin, followed by metal worker Hawkeye Glenn.
As the group wove its way through the hulking milling machines and precision metal workings, the magic of this particular tour began to unfold: the Pesanti effect. After only a few lines of the standard spiel that Glenn had undoubtedly given to hundreds of viewers over the past two days, he seemed to break out of the routine. The glaze over his eyes vanished as he broke out mid-sentence, "I really appreciate you all coming out here like this to see what I do," he said, taking off his welding cap and wringing it with both hands over his heart, "and I don't take it lightly. What can I tell you about my work?" The group had his undivided attention, which is nearly impossible to give when a steady stream of viewers are walking through one's space. Pesanti's aura of clout tied in with an interested, focused group of attendees (many of whom were known financial supporters of the arts) was enough to bring Glenn – and all the artists on the tour – to attention. His conversation was thorough, and arguably much more in-depth than what one could expect as a standard EAST viewer.
That critical mass of interest worked its magic at the tour's next stop a few blocks away. Co-Lab Projects is exhibiting its annual "Conspectus" show featuring work from each of its exhibitions during the past year. It served as a perfect touchstone for executive director and curator Sean Gaulager alongside board member and facility manager Chris Whiteburch. Introduced by Pesanti as "one of my favorite spots for young artists in Austin," Co-Lab continues to make an incredible impact on the art scene, serving up a staggering two exhibitions a month for several years now. Gaulager and Whiteburch seemed to snap out of their usual youthful swagger for Pesanti and the group, and explained in almost academic terms the evolution of Co-Lab, the wide swath of immersive art they've been showing this past year, their continued educational and professional development offerings, and the changes the gallery will be going through in 2015 as they vacate their original and beloved premises on Allen and relocate to a larger venue.
From Co-Lab, the tour fought the waves of aggravated drivers to find (invent) a parking space at Canopy, the heart of EAST itself. After regrouping in the studio of sensationalist artist Terri Thomas, whose space they filled to the brim, Pesanti led a brief Q&A with Thomas, in which she explained the conceptual foundations of her sexually charged paintings, sculpture, and video, and how her professional history in the fashion industry and her life as an identical twin anchors her work to ideas of perfection and duality. After a few questions from her audience, Thomas took the group to the psuedo-secret Museum of Human Achievement, whose mock IKEA exhibition showcases hundreds of works from a large selection of artists. Thomas created a "dinning room set" for the show, complete with a life-sized, jewel-covered panther sculpture lounging atop the table.
Then it was off to the studio of photographer Elizabeth Chiles, whose collective Lakes Were Rivers has been selected by Pesanti for the Contemporary's 2015 "Strange Pilgrims" exhibition. Even after attending a recent artist talk by Chiles, as many of the tour-goers had, there were plenty of new insights into the artist's work presented here – the artist's focus on presentation, for example, how she'll subtly shift the color of the background wall and hang her Rorschach-like nature photos in unconventional ways to augment the experience of the viewer. Chiles, like Thomas, Co-Lab, and Macek, was quick to share the attention, highlighting her studio mate, Susan Scafati, and other members of Lakes Were Rivers as artists worth spending time with. Connections, connections.
The Pesanti tour ended at the out-of-the-way Center for Maximum Potential – a spot not listed in the EAST catalog but one certainly worth a visit. The group enjoyed refreshments and chatted about the experience in the Advanced Green Builder Demonstration Building, which doubles as CMP's offices and a fine example of the work they do with alternative, green construction material.
Art Alliance Austin also offered individually curated meta-tours by Troy Campa of Camiba Art and Brian Willey of Tiny Park during EAST's first weekend this year (see sidebars for their choices for stops), and theirs, like Pesanti's, provided unique insights into who these professionals have their eyes on. But of the three, Pesanti's was the most noteworthy, the highest profile, and the most unlikely of the three collaborations. Here, one finds a compelling new network among artist-run space (and EAST producer) Big Medium, intermediary producers Art Alliance, and a high caliber museum in the Contemporary. Throw in the artists and complexes selected, and you have a slice of art in Austin from the grassroots all the way to the highest level of recognition available in the area. The most compelling thing about it, though, was the way these connections continued to ripple outward as each artist took advantage of the opportunity to physically bring the group to other studios or galleries not highlighted on Pesanti's curated agenda. This unfolding fractal of connection shows one major strength of Austin's continually developing art scene and is likely one of the main forces behind its success, despite an at-times lackluster economic reality.
This weekend, art lovers can opt for a more traditional EAST experience by following one or more of three self-guided routes curated by Monofonus Press (www.monofonuspress.com). Developed with recommendations from Co-Lab's Gaulager, MASS Gallery's Xochi Solis, and artist Jules Buck Jones, the routes offer an insider's perspective and still guarantee a bit more quality control than striking out on one's own – not to mention Route C's planned stops for beer, bikini fittings, adding a tattoo to your collection, and more beer, peppered throughout the expected highlights.
For a gallery of images from EAST 2014's first weekend, visit austinchronicle.com/photos.