I recently visited the studios of Karen Mahaffy, Andrea Caillouet and Chris Sauter, three San Antonio artists among whom there are deep, connective tissues, particularly in their production of seductive objects and images that center on domestic space.
Beauty seems never to stand alone. Think of familiar titles such as Beauty and the Beast , The Beautiful and the Damned and the surrealist predilection for 'convulsive beauty.' Dave Hickey, an art theorist and cultural commentator who teaches creative writing at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, transformed contemporary thinking in the 1990s by defending beauty against the disdain of the art world in The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (Art Issues, 1993), a thin volume that quickly became a cult classic. He put his aesthetic ideas to the test in Beau Monde:Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism at SITE Santa Fe's 2002 biennial, answered at the following biennial by Robert Storr's Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque in 2004. Texas has seen similar counterpoints — in 2005 the McNay Art Museum, with guest curator Michael Duncan, organized High Drama: Eugene Berman and the Legacy of the Melancholic Sublime, while in Houston shows like the Blaffer Gallery's Populence offered a different sugary aesthetic.
From the moment the avant-garde fled the salons full of Venuses on the half-shell and began muddying their palettes, using castoffs and displaying urinals, the public challenged the supposedly democratic nature of the un-beautiful. When viewing art, most people may relate to violence, tragedy and grotesquerie as reflecting their real lives, but they generally prefer escape into beauty as an antidote. In the press release for his SITE Santa Fe exhibition, Hickey addressed this artistic hedonism by saying, 'More specifically, I believe that one's aim, when working as a curator in a public space, is to create art lovers, not to impress one's fellow professionals with expertise.' So while art's purpose is unquestionably to challenge authority and report back on the state of the world, its original and perpetual purpose is to record a sense of wonder.
I recently visited the studios of Karen Mahaffy, Andrea Caillouet and Chris Sauter, three San Antonio artists among whom there are deep, connective tissues, particularly in their production of seductive objects and images that center on domestic space. All three artists tend to reject, or repackage, the body — therefore avoiding troublesome Western ideals of physical beauty — in favor of 'secondary vibrations.' They reveal a process of formulaic problem solving that often ends in clean, finely crafted objects and images that just happen to be beautiful.
Karen Mahaffy is a Midwesterner who came to Texas to enter the MFA sculpture program at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) in 1996. In graduate school, she recalls how the critical language shifted from Cartesian logic to feminist terms such as 'body memory.' Her work at the time was anthropomorphized but abstracted — sacks filled with sand slumped into human postures. These objects often resembled lost limbs or torsos, but rather than presenting them as grotesque, Mahaffy made them confectionary. She began filling the sacks with sugar or salt and giving them rubbery, skin-like surfaces, often colored pink, making them strangely alluring and tactile. She prefers to champion the subtle, the elegant, and the isolated form.
Losing interest in portraying the body, but not in her process, Mahaffy next explored domestic articles like pillows, sheets and women's slips — whatever she thought was habitual, comfortable and associative, and might also inspire absent-minded touching. While Mahaffy explored these issues, Frances Colpitt included her in Neo-Rococo at the UTSA gallery where the artist presented Slip (2000), a rack of sewn slips with words like “pretty” and “pride” delicately embroidered on them, and Drops (2000), three taffeta skirts dropped into pools on the gallery floor.
At her most confectionary, Mahaffy presented Untitled (Wallflower) (2001) at Smack-Mellon Studios in NY, which was sweetly enough a former cinnamon factory. This work involved a painstaking process of producing faux wallpaper on a 10 x 21-foot wall. For this installation, Mahaffy's, painstaking process of producing faux-wallpaper on a 10' x 21' wall called for her to pipe very fine, intricate swirls of fondant icing onto it by hand. To complete the pink candy wall, chairrails were made of cast sugar. Mahaffy said that while viewers found it beautiful, they missed the hours of process involved in her work. She needed to stop her compulsive processes — or at least reveal them for viewers to participate in.
Mend (2001) was a departure from all the sewing Mahaffy did in graduate school, in a way. She turned to video for the exhibition Drawing the Thread, curated by Kathy Armstrong Gillis for the Southwest School of Art and Craft. In this piece, Mahaffy plays the part of The Odyssey's Penelope, who takes apart each day's weaving to hold off unwelcome suitors. The camera is trained on Mahaffy's hands as she takes apart a man's shirt and then sews it back together again. The quiet click of needle against button counts the moments like a ticking clock. This idea of sound and repetition marking time would come to characterize her later work.
Now firmly into video, Mahaffy produced a calm series of works including Untitled (You Live Such a Pretty Life) (2002) where the artist sits on a couch watching a British melodrama, barely captured in shadow by the camera. It is the angle of the shot with its warmly lit lamp that makes her life, indeed, seem pretty. Another work, Drip (2003), features the artist's dripping bathroom sink, shot from outside her window with street reflection. The effect is that of a water clock ticking off dusk's arrival. These videos allude to objects both inside and outside the frame, or the domestic, and the marking of time.
This leads us up to possibly Mahaffy's biggest success to date. For her December 2005 solo show at SA's Sala Diaz, she created an installation in half of a duplex in the “compound” where until recently Mahaffy had inhabited a similar duplex. Using video projections embedded in the wall of both rooms, Mahaffy tested the viewers' mettle. She had been reading Roland Barthes's essay The World as Object, where he described Dutch still-life as an accumulation of secondary vibrations. This validated her idea to create two slow-moving video still-lifes, scenes that breathe with the occasional bubble in a glass of water or sluggishly decaying fruit. She realized she had created both a masculine and a feminine still-life and liked the indirect reference to gender. It was a way of recalling the body without portraying it explicitly. These videos traveled to The Dallas Contemporary for Moving Pictures (2006), where they garnered more praise before eventually being sold. And since they were one-of-a-kind (she doesn't consider video an edition) Mahaffy is relieved, because now she can move on to the next thing. We'll wait to see what it will be, but Mahaffy says she's not interested in pursuing work that doesn't pertain to beauty.
Andrea Caillouet, who grew up in Louisiana, was a fellow UTSA grad with Mahaffy and for years lived just down the street from Sala Diaz. Her work is also about the domestic — its charm and beauty – but she tends to elevate the mundane through color. Her focus on painting, however, soon morphed into an exploration of the processes of photography, sculpture and installation.
Caillouet's graduate show at the UTSA Satellite Space is still being talked about years later. Rollercade (1999) was a curved wall onto which the artist projected two videos taken at the local roller arcade. Sharing a subtle appreciation of sound with Mahaffy, Caillouet considers the methodical thump of rubber wheels hitting the floor intoxicating. Although she says her abstract paintings are rather dull, I can't help but see these videos as revealing her painter's eye: The shifting light show and repetitive action of the skaters' feet form a semiabstract painting on the move.
After finishing her degree, Caillouet paused and put her energy into making a beautiful home in one of Southtown's wooden houses. She painted each room a different deep pastel — blue, pink and green — and filled them with a few choice objects and mid-century furniture. Rather than a diversion from art, inspired homemaking informed her next series.
Home (2001-2002) is a series of photographs taken of her former duplex apartment from strategic angles. She finished these off by engraving the images with digital line drawings of birds or puzzle pieces. Her colors are acidly hot, created by intentionally using inappropriate film — exchanging daylight film for night, for example. Their saturated phosphorescence and lack of clutter is comforting but slightly uncanny, the everyday made better, more alluring. In her 2002 Cactus Bra show Night, Caillouet housed images in light boxes — videos of glowing house exteriors, including one that appears to be a still photograph until a woman comes to the window and briefly washes dishes. The soundtrack of clinking of dishes may remind you of summer days when everyone's windows are thrown open, and your neighbors' chatter and dishes clinking against the sink feel comforting.
In contemplating the personal, Caillouet also takes up tenuous human relationships. She once posted bills throughout San Antonio that simply read, 'LOST FRIEND,' a reminder of those with whom we've lost touch. The artist considers the body (and mind) in relation to others, again without ever using the body. In 2004 she created a billboard for the city's Contemporary Art month that ambiguously juxtaposed 'LONGING/BELONGING,' and then put 1,000 sheets of paper with the same text inside books at both the San Antonio Public Library and the Martin Luther King Library in Washington D.C. These two simple words — one a sense of 'poetic' unfulfillment and the other a safe respite — encompass fundamental ideas common to everyone.
Tracing similar threads through Mahaffy and Caillouet's work is effortless because their work share related nuances: the subtlety of sound and image, bodilessness or bodily truncation (hands or feet), and the ability to find luminescent beauty in the small comforts of home. Another similarity is the role of Sala Diaz in their oeuvre.
For Caillouet's 2004 solo show at Sala Diaz, she transformed the gallery's two rooms as very few artists have done in its 10 years of operation. For years, she lived in a home just down the street, built in the same era as the gallery, so she painted the gallery's white walls in her own home's shades of green and yellow, and occasionally hung a piece of art, but only one that would play off the wall's color. Her saturated photographs of green grass, drunk on chlorophyll, glowed against the painted walls. The green room was topped by an antique flowered chandelier, adding another faux-natural element. Caillouet filled in a doorway with a mesmerizing photograph of receding doorways, ending in a still photograph of her own home showing a sleek Danish modern chair as a place of repose. Another photograph of a home's blue-painted wooden exterior with a moon in its window hung in the gallery's real window. The result? A calming transformation that felt amazing — color theory at its most enveloping. The 'break' she had taken to paint her home after graduate school thus inspired a successful installation based largely on color's effect, as well as photographic trickery that made the gallery placeless: neither inside nor outside, neither home nor gallery.
Chris Sauter, like the other two artists, follows a taut line of ideas. Although not every object he makes is aesthetically beautiful — the early work was somewhat tongue-in-cheek and very handmade — they have become more elegant with every year spent examining issues such as human biology versus culture and its relation to science and natural formations.
A local boy from Boerne, he was at UTSA at the same time as Mahaffy and Caillouet, and remembers how body-centric the dialogue was there. Sauter says he was always interested in identity and how it is formed, but he wanted to avoid skin-deep notions about cultural or ethnic identity. He took his cues from medical diagrams, those flat-colored, cleanly shorthand human anatomy drawings that remove all trace of identity.
For Sauter, layering expresses compound experiences. With testing, hair reveals everything we've ingested. The digestive system, in the artist's hands, is a metaphor for our personal chronologies of experience: We take things in, process them and get rid of what we don't need. Skin — not the colored exterior but its renewing process — functions like the digestive system to mediate our environment's bombardment. In graduate school, Sauter obsessively depicted layered skin samples and hair follicles in drawing, painting and sculpture, including large cross-sections of skin made out of clothing or insulation with a single fabric or metal hair growing out the top. Each sculpture, humorously, could be rolled around on wheels.
After graduate school, his 1997 solo Cactus Bra show Gene Pool featured baked bread versions of the body's anatomy that the artist squeezed and molded by hand, accompanied in the exhibition by an oven constructed out of drywall. This strange work derived from more than just the easy Christian reference to the Eucharist. Sauter has put more thought into breads and cake than most people; he supported himself by working in H.E.B.'s bakery for seven years and is a master cake decorator. For him, these floury foods represent the coming together of nature and culture because it was only with the birth of agriculture that cities — and therefore human culture — were formed.
Both this idea and his use of drywall went further in Sauter's Artpace residency installation from 1999, which this time he named A Gene Pool (at Cactus Bra, viewers thought there was a second artist named Gene Pool). Here he cut out the gallery's walls and used the flat drywall to reconstruct his parents' dining room in Boerne. The result was a ghostly white architectural rendering of a domestic space where nature and culture meet — the supper table. Sauter says he draws a sharp contrast between eating (biology) and dining (culture), and sees this work as a coming together of nature and nurture to form identity.
Sauter continued to refine his ideas and his objects. Like Mahaffy and Caillouet, he emptied his work of direct body references and instead developed furniture as his surrogate object. His works continued to involve domestic objects but with strange juxtapositions. His hermaphroditic Oven Recliner (1999) is a La-Z-Boy recliner with an oven resting in its seat, both completely upholstered in the same plaid fabric. Mill (2000), an ironing board with a miniature lumber mill on its surface, is about reductive process and the removal of the body: Taking wrinkles out of a worn shirt is like washing away fingerprints. In addition, his recurring use of miniature flour and coal refineries in artworks reexamines both the continuation and fossilization of human history and ancestry.
These references to industrial means of controlling nature have grown continually larger and more beautiful in Sauter's work. His hand-sewn Hawaiian volcanoes situated on a coffee table, love seat and recliner are placed in scaled proximity to their real-life locations. "Volcanoes are a place where construction happens naturally," the artist says. One of these actual volcanoes, Mauno Kea, is dormant but has a major observatory at its peak. Like a hair and its root follicle, Sauter's former iconography, the volcano reaches to the center of the earth and up to the stars all at once. Another large object, Sleeper (2001), is a camouflage-covered sleeper sofa. Sauter upholstered its mattress in flowered sheets, building up its surface into a geological relief map of the Great Rift Valley where scientists discovered Lucy, a nearly complete australopithecine skeleton considered the 'Mother of Humanity.' (He marked the spot of this Eve figure with semen.) Sauter's sleeper rises out of the sofa like Eve from Adam's rib.
In addition to TX's Finesilver Gallery, Sauter now shows in NY at Elizabeth Dee Gallery and in Paris at Galerie Valerie Cueto, and here his exhibitions have referenced — and reverenced — marriage through scale models of constructions like the Hoover Dam, where the natural and manmade come together to spark electricity. At Valerie Cueto, his exhibition Big Bang (2005) used natural formations, miniature radio towers, a Louis XV chair and starry volcano drawings to create a smart, sensual experience. Radio towers let us listen in to outer space billions of years ago, another of Sauter's measurable histories, and in 2003 he used his Artpace Travel Grant to seek them out across the United States. His palm-sized versions in the Paris show clung to the wall and spelled out 'Daddy,' linking the microcosm of personal history with a device that listens to the macrocosm of the universe. Soiled (2005) continues the intergalactic theme: Sauter created a radiant galaxy by screening a spiral configuration onto sheets with semen and then dangling a blacklight overhead. In Subduction (2005) he recreated Krakatoa on mattresses overlaid like tectonic plates. All of these objects came together in the exhibition's title to talk about the big, big nature of creation.
Last year, Sauter created The Known Universe for FIAC, the Parisian art fair where Galerie Valerie Cueto featured his work. For this installation, he designed an intimate bedroom with rumpled bedclothes and photographs on the nightstand. Circles cut from the walls, furniture and wall art are reconfigured into a telescope at the foot of the bed. Like Caillouet's dancing rollercade light show, circles of light filters into the bedroom from the fair, bouncing and refracting magically over various surfaces.
Sauter's most recent exhibition Pioneer is now open at Finesilver Gallery, and he returns to his early work with agriculture to explore the literal beginnings of farming and the region of the Middle East known as the Fertile Crescent—including the region of modern day Iraq. Rather than making overly political art at the expense of his obsession with lines of descent and dissemination, Sauter draws his theme up to today using the historical, family-owned Pioneer Flour Mill in SA's art-saturated Southtown neighborhood.
Looking at these three artists, I am reminded of R. Buckminster Fuller, the American visionary and architect, who said, 'When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.' All three of these artists have a firm grasp of what their art is about, and for the last decade they have been working on a specific set of problems. As their thinking develops, they change their strategy — namely medium — for capturing their ideas' latest incarnations, but what remains largely the same is the end result: beautiful solutions
Images courtesy of artists.
Catherine Walworth is an artist, writer and curator currently living in San Antonio.