New Art in Austin – 20 to Watch is the third in a series of triennial art exhibits at the Austin Museum of Art showcasing contemporary art from Austin, Texas. But 20 to Watch isn’t just for the hometown crowd; it will also be traveling to San Antonio, Abilene and Houston. An exhibition of local artists has a built-in base of support, but will the show be able to catch and sustain the attention of the Texas art-viewing public over a period of eighteen months? Will it be able to cast a much needed spotlight on the Austin art scene or possibly even attract nationwide attention?
A museum show gives validation to work but, we should ask ourselves, does the work merit that validation? Are these artists really 20 to Watch? And how do we judge the works and the show?
Very often shows are reviewed based on instinct and experience. In this case, I prefer to rely on generally-accepted and common sense criteria and suppress the instinct as best I can. A show like this might have a serious influence on the career of a young artist. The curators – Diane Barber (Houston), Eva Buttacavoli (Austin), Bill FitzGibbons (San Antonio), Dennis Kois (Abilene) – thoroughly thought about what art to choose and how to show it. The same must be said for the critic. However, it is clear that sometimes the analytical method just doesn’t work and that our instinct makes the better decision.
Instead of a being a onetime stroke of luck, the work should evidence a preoccupation with its artistic matter. The art should be visually and aesthetically interesting. It need not be beautiful, although that helps, but it must stop us in our tracks and make us wonder how the visual impression we first perceive translates into emotions and thoughts. If those emotions and thoughts are complex enough that they can stimulate us intellectually and mentally on several levels, it is a good indicator that the work has merit. It should transcend ordinary meanings and contexts to a level only art can reach.
Of course, it should be technically well done or at least innovative. And the work should be able to perform the high wire act of being original and new while still being relevant in its historic and art historic context.
Meggie Chou’s NO. 3.1-2008, a huge installation sculpture made of steel piping and industrial water bladders interconnected by pump devices, causes immediate aesthetic arrest followed by bewilderment. Is this art? What does the artist want to tell us? Does this machine do anything? You go closer, not without apprehension, you listen to the pumps’ noise and see the pillow-like bladders expand and contract. This is eerie. Like a heart-lung machine at the intensive care unit, we are facing a form of extracorporeal circulation. The analogy to the human body becomes clear. This thing is alive – are we? Or are we just mechanically functioning, performing repetitive acts of pumping and respiration because we have no other choice?
Our fascination is increased by the choice of materials and the way the sculpture is put together. The soft rubber pillows and flexible plastic tubing contrast with the hard, skeletal sub-structure of steel, like organs surrounded by bones. The pumps can hardly be seen. Not unlike humans, “it” also has a higher frequency of operation between noon and five in the afternoon.
Chou’s work for me is entirely original, even if we can find connections to Beuys in the social and energy context, to Nauman in its reference to the body and to Rebecca Horn in the way a machine expresses the deepest of human emotions like fear of death, illness or senselessness. It is also a very consequent continuation of her previous "Suicide Machines" and "Incubators." In fact, this is the kind of work a museum should buy because it is worthy of preservation and most private collectors would lack the room for it.
Much easier to grasp, at least for people who – like the artist and the author of this article – have ever met the challenge of moving to another country and into another culture, is the work of the Korean Yoon Cho. Cho’s marriage brought her to Austin. Her three works tell a typically American story of immigration, assimilation and adaptation. Hair in the Box, 2007 and Haircut, 2007 belong together. Haircut is a split-screen video of Cho and her husband basically getting the same haircut. The change and sacrifice are bigger on her side for she had long hair before. The profile position is reminiscent of the famous wedding portrait of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza by Piero Della Francesca (1465-66, Uffizi, Florence). Hair in the Box shows still photos of the two spouses getting their hair cut and enshrines the fallen hair like relics.
Cutting one’s hair can represent a new beginning or catharsis but cutting hair can also be seen as an act of humiliation. The photos and the video are, however, also very personal memories of a decisive moment in individual lives. Much more complex is Cho’s 2007 video How to Spell My Name. Projected on the wall we see a chessboard of changing little screens. In each field of the grid, a friend or acquaintance of the artist tells the story of how to spell their name and how they feel, what they experience living in the United States. The perceptive viewer and listener will notice that Cho weaves individual narratives that form a universal experience. Perfectly adapting form to content, the voices overlap when their stories share a universal experience and become distinct when it is an individual’s story.
Eric Zimmerman’s approach is not autobiographic and carries more general questions with very specific esthetics. His minute ink, graphite and marker drawings strike me as futuristic or even utopian architectural plans, projects of a world to come. However, these blueprints, seemingly by some human yet mystical architect, vanish under a puddle of colorful ink, as if a higher force had destroyed the designs for a new world.
The finely constructed line drawings make for a beautiful contrast with the amorphous ink pools; a contrast of the willfully contracted and the accidental. Its esthetic is futuristic yet archetypical. It might as well be a crossing of constructivist Naum Gabo and surrealist André Masson. Zimmerman takes the two-dimensionality of the Trouvelot’s City drawings successfully to the third dimension in Observatory/Projector (both 2007) and the artist’s refined esthetic indicates that there is even more complex territory to be discovered. Definitely an artist to watch.
“Aesthetically totally uninteresting” would usually disqualify a work immediately. Not so for Kurt Mueller’s interactive video installation American Dream (2008), which is absolutely brilliant. A typical karaoke set-up of a monitor, an open mike and an amplifier is at the viewer’s disposal to deliver the famous speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
To combine this historical speech with a technique from the Asian entertainment industry and youth culture and present it in a museum probably most frequented by white visitors, in the year when an African-American is running for president, is indeed a strike of genius that makes technical execution or aesthetic appeal almost unimportant. Even though it is not Duchampian in nature, it still reminds me of Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of its Own Making (1961). Unfortunately, this work was not installed well, so that most visitors didn’t even perceive it as a work. It should have been on a pedestal in the center of a room with a note reading, “Please step up and speak.”
The show is definitely a must-see if you want to see the good, the bad and the ugly of the Austin art scene. So let’s not sweep under the rug the fact that Austin still suffers from an acceptance of art that is whimsical, comic inspired, not well-made or well thought out, nonsensical but so wryly and superficially funny that it must be either brilliant or bad. If there is brilliance, accomplishment or potential in the work of Matthew Rodriguez, this critic blatantly refuses to see it especially when there are such wonderful examples of better work next to it.
The sculptures of Stephanie Wagner’s Divinity Series, ceramic doggy figures in baroque clothes, are harder to dismiss. Objectively, they succeed in all the criteria outlined above. The art historic relevance is particularly interesting because these figures seem like the result of putting Spanish architect Gaudí, surrealist painter Max Ernst, Walt Disney and Jeff Koons into a room with a load of LSD under the condition that they cannot leave the room until all the LSD is gone and they have come up with suitable figures for the adult animated picture “Lapdogs from Hell.” Perhaps you don’t want to watch this one…
The first AMOA show was possibly the one with the most and most outstanding good art, featuring highlights like work by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler, Eduardo Muñoz-Ordoqui, Robert A. Pruitt, Irene Roderick and Scott Thom. The second show had Hunter Cross, Barna Kantor and Young-Min Kang. In all cases we could see that some of the best artists either didn’t come from Austin or were here because of UT. And in many cases the really good artists left the city to look for greener pastures. In this sense, New Art in Austin – 20 to Watch does exactly what Eva Buttacavoli, who spearheaded the curatorial team, says in her introduction: “it strengthens the local art infrastructure by providing curatorial review, critical dialog, and public exhibition in Austin…” What I’d wish for, probably along with all the artists, would be a greater sustainability of the temporary effect these exhibits have.
New Art in Austin – 20 to Watch
Austin Museum of Art
February 16 – May 11, 2008
Blue Star Contemporary Art Center
October 4 – December 28, 2008
Till Richter is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at the University of Texas
at Austin. He is an arts writer, curator and collector.
All images courtesy of Till Richter.