Nestled in the hills behind The University of Texas in Austin, a discreet driveway humming with energy draws in visitors on a Friday night in September. Coolers lining the gravel drive request a Venmo donation in exchange for a beverage. Music radiates while friends warmly greet each other around me, none of whom I know, and I awkwardly proceed to walk toward a small building that houses Isolated Incident, Shedshows’ third group exhibition since the space’s debut in June.
The gallery, which is endearingly referred to as ‘the shed’ and is the project’s namesake: Shedshows, stands about eight feet wide and extends back nearly 16 feet. Fellow viewers kindly negotiate the compact space with each other as I approach Rebecca Marino’s installation on the back wall. A tufted black and white rug lays on the gravel walkway, beckoning me forward. Hung above, two tufted hands spiral into one another. Each hand has long red fingernails that lead into their inverted gestures, complementing the swirling patterns on the rug below. The fingers seem to dance as if they will momentarily conjure something into the space between them, but their hypnotic forms lead me to find a small centerpiece instead. A framed book of matches curling at the edges and burned from use bears bold black text reading “DOGSBODY IS DEAD,” a reference to Katherine Dunn’s novel Attic.
Sarah Stellman’s intricate oil paintings hang on the two walls perpendicular to Marino’s installation. At first glance, they appear like visual puzzles, strongly abstracted by superimposed patterns and fragmented forms. Their busyness is counterbalanced by the muted pastel color palette, allowing an entry point to begin scanning the composition. The largest of the three paintings, Always and unlimited forever, seemingly depicts an interior space spanning three vignettes. Outlines of chairs exist among other household objects, such as a mug, a hammer floating beside a lit match, and a cup with a toothbrush in it. The varying degrees of opacity imply layering in Stellman’s process, exuding dynamic energy from the rendered environment as if the artist is capturing a timelapse of past and present moments, or of multiple spaces, through which objects come and go.
James Thayer Turner’s contribution to the show strikes a balance between structure and randomness. In a mixed media work hung opposite Stellman’s, hand painted white dots appear seemingly sporadic, but a grid covering the wooden panel emerges through a geode-like form in the bottom-right quadrant of the composition. Based on the grid’s rows and columns, Turner built delicate designs and incorporated subtle green and blue hues that react like light inflections. The same pattern is mimicked below, in Turner’s floor installation; a block print on dyed rice paper covering styrofoam and plaster that is attached to a wooden plank. The two joined together, as one form, is a common motif in Turner’s practice.
While tactile differentiation thrives among the three visual artists’ work in Isolated Incidents, their color palettes harmonize. The prominent blues and greens in Stellman’s work are echoed across the shed in Turner’s pieces, and again in the highlights of Marino’s hands. The stark black and white contrasts in Marino’s marbled rug complement Turner’s piece on wood, while Stellman’s work situates itself in the nuances with moody charcoals. However, the throughline of the group exhibition is not necessarily stylistic, but interpersonal.
“Most of the artists in Isolated Incident are also our friends who have been very supportive of what Shedshows is trying to bring to the local art scene,” says Mai Snow, cofounder of the space. “We brought the artists and performers together, even though their material and conceptual work does not necessarily jive, and then the artists spent some time together talking about the shed and adapted their work within their own styles to fit the space.”
Snow, who lives in the house next to the shed, brought Shedshows into fruition alongside cofounder Greg Valentine. The pair conceptualized Shedshows over conversations as coworkers at The Contemporary Austin, then put in the grunt work after-hours. Using recycled wood salvaged from discarded pedestals, they installed an L-shaped wall where there had been no walls previously. The clean, white wall on the left side of the shed is evidence of their labor, while the right side maintains its original rustic wood, an important detail for both Snow and Valentine.
“We wanted to transform the shed, but not to the point where the shed didn’t feel like a shed anymore. Even though Greg and I did the hard shell work, we had help from lots of amazing friends — it definitely took a village,” Snow tells me. “Lindsey Culpepper, who is a good friend and also used to live at this house, designed our logo and has been designing our posters for us. Alex Boeshenstein, who is also a great pal, has been printing our posters and documenting our shows. James Turner helped us out a lot with the process of mudding the wall, and Nigel Rainey, who also lives in the house, helped flesh out details.”
Midway through the opening, visitors migrate toward the road to watch a performance by Katherine Vaughn and Stewart Skinner. The performers begin some distance apart, but Vaughn slowly rolls over to close the gap between them, while Skinner lays face-up on the pavement, palpitating. Once within proximity, Vaugn’s body acts as a buttress for Skinner, and both rise to their feet. With Vaughn’s arm hooked around Skinner’s neck, the duo recedes together from the road into the gravel drive, the crowd parting around them to create a clear path.
Their engagement is intensely physical; they slam their bodies against one another and the ground. They toe the line between fighting and supporting each other, but their relationship feels passionate. Vaughn and Skinner close the performance by parting ways yet again, but this time both are on their feet and moving fluidly without the other’s aid. It feels like we’ve just witnessed a journey between the two, one with hardships that ultimately made both stronger. It reminds me of how our closest relationships can require the most maintenance, which is what makes them substantial. Relationships are vital to creating and continuing a DIY project like Shedshows, which is born out of a network of artists and friends, and the space will continue to thrive by expanding that community.
“We want to continue to focus on local artists while expanding our programming. Most of the artists we have shown are our friends, but we want to extend the space to more artists and guest curators,” Snow says. “Our goal is to open Shedshows to new ideas and possibilities, where we engage the community not just with visual art, but also with performance, sound, time, video, and other transmedia installations and collaborations.”
Walking back to my car with a particular warmth brought on by good conversations, I reflect on that feeling of awkwardness and not knowing anyone upon my arrival. Now, I look forward to greeting familiar faces at the next opening, a testament to Shedshows’ goal of forging relationships among local creatives.
A friend of a friend is a friend, Shedshows’ next exhibition, opens on October 21, and will feature a collaborative piece produced by Phillip Niemeyer. Follow @shedshows on Instagram for details on forthcoming shows and information about visiting.