Entering Northern-Southern’s current exhibition fitting feels like stepping into a tranquil, light-filled living room. With its lush plants in ceramic vessels, warm wood furniture, and handheld puzzles, the exhibition is a welcome change from more typical gallery fare. Rachael Starbuck, Michael Muelhaupt, and Jesse Cline made these objects, and each piece is fascinating on its own. But what strikes the visitor most — and stays with them after leaving the gallery — is the collective ambience that these experimental, inviting pieces form. Placed together, they exude a quiet sense of home.
That feeling of creative closeness is fitting. Starbuck, Muelhaupt, and Cline have headed their collaborative curatorial project Partial Shade since 2018, and have lived together in houses around Austin since 2015. Their project at Northern-Southern reminded me of an afternoon last June, when I went to a plant sale at the artists’ shared home in north Austin. I stayed much longer than I’d originally intended that day, chatting with the artists in their backyard about their flourishing garden and bursting greenhouse. Something similar happened when I visited this exhibition. Seated in one of Muelhaupt’s carefully crafted, custom chairs, I found myself lingering longer, talking to Starbuck and gallerist Phillip Niemeyer.
Some of the same tropicals and succulents I saw in Starbuck’s greenhouse last summer appear in fitting. Here, they’re housed in slip cast ceramic pots and plastic buckets, materials that the artist recycled from iterations of Muelhaupt’s previous work. A thoughtful exhibition booklet with texts by the artists tells the personal-botanical lineage of each plant, from a golden pothos grown from a cutting taken from Starbuck’s childhood home to a spider ivy propagated from a plant that — before passing between a series of other artists — once belonged to Lee Krasner.
The plants are living, evolving avatars of crucial people and places in the artist’s life. An additional poetic touch comes from Starbuck’s gracefully curving gold metal supports, which — unlike most rigid garden stakes — strengthen plants in the places where they want to grow, not where we train them to. In this way, the artist’s plant pieces gently blur ideas of growth, memory, and time.
Like Starbuck’s plants, Muelhaupt’s chairs, shelves, and tables embody a constellation of connections close and far. In the exhibition booklet, the artist writes that his 2018 battle with a life-threatening brain tumor, and the subsequent outpouring of help from his friends and family, marked a shift in his artmaking practice. Muelhaupt’s outward, community-oriented view is reflected in his serendipitously sourced materials. Some pieces feature wood that was leftover from fellow artists, sold by Craigslist sellers, and found in neighbors’ curbside bulk trash. The seat of one chair is made up of leather belts once owned by Starbuck’s late father. Exquisitely detailed and surprisingly comfortable, Muelhaupt’s work represents the open way he moves through the world and his mission to support others.
Cline’s puzzles are made from off-cuts repurposed from Muelhaupt’s furniture pieces. Their interlocking, sinuous shapes inspire a sense of play while reminding us of the necessity of our relationships: after all, each piece requires another to form a whole. In addition to their art practices, Cline, Starbuck, and Muelhaupt are all educators, and a sense of service permeates their work. Like any good host, in fitting they’ve provided a place to stick around and stay a while.
fitting will be on view at Northern-Southern in Austin through April 30 2022.