New Art in Austin: 15 to Watch
Austin Museum of Art
Santiago Forero, Hammer-Self Portrait, The Olympic Games Series, 2010; archival inkjet print; 56 x 44 inches; courtesy of the artist and the Austin Museum of Art
It’s difficult to write about shows like New Art in Austin: 15 to Watch that offer a diverse smattering of artists working in the museum’s local community. Such exhibitions don’t offer much to writers. There’s little aesthetic consistency, and only a weak curatorial concept for the critic to consider.
15 to Watch, the fourth of the Austin Museum of Art’s New Art in Austin triennials, features artists chosen after a period of open submissions and curatorial selection. This year’s curators (Kate Bonansinga, Toby Kamps and Andrea Mellard) produced a selection with great breadth but little depth, in spite of apparent attempts to focus the juried show, like reducing the number of artists exhibited from past iterations and giving substantial attention to photography.
Simply showing audiences the wide range of artistic output in Austin, despite the good intentions of the open-call format, can’t help but fall flat. Maybe that’s the nature of such exhibitions, and they’re mostly valuable in that they give young artists a chance to show, receive feedback and get a curated exhibition on their resume. For all its faults, New Art in Austin seems necessary for those reasons, particularly in a town with few exhibition spaces and little opportunity for up-and-coming artists to exhibit.
Outside of the reduced number of included artists, AMOA’s survey of young Austin-based artists stays true to form, presenting an array of works ranging in media, approach and quality. Certain rooms emphasize the diversity of Austin artmaking, like the room pairing Debra Broz’s fastidiously crafted mutations of kitsch animal figurines (2008-10) with Nathan Green’s purposely disheveled painting-sculpture Dreamings and Decorations (2011). Green’s mixed-media installation—an array of planes torqued at slight angles, assemblages of thin and brightly colored wood planks piled atop one another, and square openings cut in the museum’s drywall—plays with color, pattern and surface in ways that disrupt the viewer’s perception of the three-dimensional. His gestural marks and acidic colors take up half the room, starkly contrasting with Broz’s small ceramic sculptures, whose airy colors, delicately painted detailing and seamless combinations of found objects almost camouflage the freakishness of her creations, which include cat-headed birds and rabbits with fangs. Though unexpected, the pairing works: the obvious skill with which Broz made her figurines encourages viewers to see the care with which Green considered surface, color and depth, while Green’s expansive installation and gestural abstraction pushes against the diminutive cuteness of Broz’s animals.
Debra Broz, Fanged Bunnies, 2010; found ceramic objects, epoxy compounds, paint and sealer on painted wooden stand; 3-1/2 x 6 x 4 inches; courtesy the artist and the Austin Museum of Art
Nathan Green, Dreamings and Decorations, 2011; mixed-media site-specific installation; dimensions variable; courtesy the artist and Art Palace Gallery, Houston; photo by Peggy Tenison
Other rooms are less effective. Though it makes sense that the curators would choose to pair the only two artists working with self-portraiture together, putting Ian Ingram’s sophomoric drawings across from Santiago Forero’s more conceptually sophisticated photographs is grating. Ingram is clearly an accomplished draftsman, but his huge photorealistic drawings are poorly composed and overly sentimental. Ingram’s display of technical skill pales in relation to the more difficult conceptual flexibility demonstrated in Forero’s work. Capitalizing on his uncommonly proportioned body, Forero poses his diminutive figure as an Olympic athlete with a hammer or discus, and the disjuncture between the limits of his body and the idealized physiques of the Olympic Games is both hilarious and poignant. In Hammer—Self Portrait (2010), Forero managed to capture athletic action at its climax: He squats with his hammer fully extended at the moment of near-release, yet there is no motion-indicating blur. His approach emphasizes the image’s static and disjointed quality, in a way rather similar to the ancient Greek sculpture Discobolus. Forero’s work thus seems not only a humorous take on self/alterity but also a meditation on the nature of photography and figural representation. It’s unfortunate that Ingram’s drawings greet viewers as they enter the exhibition space, while Forero’s—hung on the wall standing behind viewers when they walk in—may easily be overlooked.
In addition to pairing the two self-portraitists, it appears that the curators tried to form other connections between Austin’s artists. The show is heavy on photography, with six of the fifteen exhibited artists—Forero, Elizabeth Chiles, Anna Krachey, Ben Ruggiero, Adam Schreiber and Barry Stone—working with cameras. Yet the exhibited selections are quite different. Schreiber’s rather facile photographs of DeLorean car parts don’t have much to do with Stone’s adjacently hung reflections on photographic mediation. Stone’s Crop, The Golden Hour by Thomas Moran, 1875, 2010, Jack S. Blanton Museum, Austin 1.2.2010 (2010) shows a black-and-white photograph of part of Moran’s Romantic landscape. Stone purposefully offers an inadequate copy. Where Moran’s painting is an exercise in light and expressive color, Stone’s photographic fragment (printed larger than the original) excises color and becomes a study of painterly texture. Though most photographic reproductions of paintings attempt to stay as “true” to the original as possible—despite shifts in scale, value, color and texture—Stone makes the mediation of photography explicit (ironically by focusing on a painting’s texture, the trait that photographs often lose).
Barry Stone, Crop, The Golden Hour by Thomas Moran, 1875, 2010, Jack S. Blanton Museum, Austin 1.2.2010, 2010; archival inkjet print; 34 x 51 inches; courtesy the artist and the Austin Museum of Art
Ben Ruggiero, Untitled, 2010; cyanotype; 9 x 11 inches; private collection
Though Stone’s other photographs in this exhibition manifest similar concerns, the selection is too piecemeal for viewers to fully explore the subtleties of his practice. It’s particularly surprising that the curators chose to place Stone’s studio-mate Ben Ruggiero’s work in the same gallery yet blocked from immediate comparison by a wall. Ruggiero’s cyanotypes and digital images share with Stone a similar engagement with photography and its relationship to other forms of representation. Ruggiero’s 2010 multi-work exploration of Frederic Edwin Church’s 1861 painting The Icebergs—in which Ruggiero features a glass pane captured atop a sidewalk or printed in cyan, among other variations—would be more interestingly seen in relation to Stone’s Crop, The Golden Hour, at least within this exhibition. Ruggiero’s placement between Anna Krachey’s photographs and J. Parker Valentine’s installation is of little help to viewers. And like other bodies of work in the show, Ruggiero’s works are hung too close to each other; though his series is a coherent and unified whole, these images also deserve to stand as single works in and of themselves. Their installation here presents his images more as pretty pictures than the conceptually rigorous considerations of the history of painting and photography that they are, and his prints and cyanotypes unfortunately lose some of their potency.
With the recent opening of UT’s Visual Art Center, Champion gallery and the re-opening of Arthouse, as well as Art Palace’s move to Houston and the hiatus at Okay Mountain, the Austin art community and its institutional support is experiencing considerable change (for better or worse). Considering such quick shifts in the art world here—including AMOA’s incipient closing of its downtown location—it may be time to reconsider how Austin’s art institutions might best serve their communities. Some such discussion is beginning to happen; note, for instance, the issues that emerged in the wake of Arthouse’s recent and not-so-covert censorship of Michelle Handelman’s queer-oriented video Dorian, a cinematic perfume (2009), and the subsequent panel following Noah Simblist’s criticism of that censorship.1
The New Art in Austin triennial always seemed to me like a stopgap—a temporary solution that won’t work for long. I don’t believe that showcasing Austin artists and developing a strong and coherent exhibition are mutually exclusive: why not have Austin-based curators who are in dialogue with local artists look for ideas and practices that have a strong presence in the area, and curate a show with relevant artists? If Dave Hickey managed it in the late 1960s with A Clean, Well-Lighted Place—in what’s now Austin’s West Campus area—I don’t see why it’s not possible now.2
Ariel Evans is a PhD student in art history at the University of Texas at Austin and Assistant Editor at Art Lies.
This exhibition will remain on view through May 22, 2011.
1. Noah Simblist, “Culture Wars at Arthouse?” Glasstire (March 9, 2011), http://glasstire.com/?p=25700.
2. For an overview of the history of A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, see Kendall Curlee’s entry on the gallery in The Handbook of Texas Online, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/kjclt.