Art is often inspired, at least in part, by an artist’s life. Andy Warhol used his design and illustration sensibilities to create flat, brand-driven commentaries on society; Lenka Clayton draws on her experience as a mother to make funny, absurd, and honest artworks about daily life; and Georgia O’Keeffe found new ways to interpret her surroundings in unique, unexpected, and unrecognizable ways. While there are varying degrees of consciousness in these artists’ choices, one thing is clear: our background and who we are as people is inextricably linked to how we look at and navigate the world.
This sentiment rings true when considering the work of Austin-based artist Amy Banner Updegrove, whose first-ever solo exhibition, Echo, opens at Davis Gallery in Austin next week. Updegrove creates mixed media three-dimensional collages — or as she calls them, builds — that consider color, space, texture, materials, and framing as their structural components. From there, she employs a mix of aesthetics, intuition, and materials testing (in more of a design than laboratory sense) to see what works well together.
There’s a visual throughline that permeates Updegrove’s art: slightly imperfect grids of varying sizes; cooling shades of blue and white, which are sometimes punctuated by earthy browns and rich golds; and materials that present well but are not traditional. In works like Obstinate (2023), Updegrove uses paint swatches she collected from a local business to create subtle cube-like forms, complete with drop shadows. They are, in fact, completely flat. The piece still has body, however — the forms are held firmly in place by zinc nails, which stick a few millimeters out of the canvas’ surface. On the artwork’s corners, metal L-brackets are held in place with carpentry tacks, a final and more overt hint that this artwork has sprung forth from a hardware store.
Updegrove has always been a purposeful collector of materials. She lived for a stint in New York City, while working as a retail marketing director for Polo Ralph Lauren, and remembers her time in the city through the specialty stores that only New York can sustain: a shop selling hundreds (if not thousands) of kinds of ribbon; Pearl River Mart, which specializes in Asian home goods, art, and outerwear; and fabric stores with everything and anything you could possibly need for upholstery, curtains, clothing, and beyond.
Though she hasn’t wrapped ribbon around her pieces or used fabric swatches within them, this New York collecting has come though in certain works that employ, as their ground, the golden centers of joss paper. The paper has a rich history in Chinese culture: it is used in ancestral worship and is also burned at funerals and during worship in Chinese folk religion. Updegrove comes to the paper with an appreciation and respect of its cultural significance, its symbolism, and its singular appearance. She feels that it reflects a richness of life and a vibrancy she hasn’t found anywhere else.
Pieces like Rave utilize the paper as a ground. In this case, there is no layering of the paper — the gold stands on its own, the patchwork-like quality subtly representing the ways our lives are stitched together. Over the paper, copper and brass wires crisscross the surface of the panel in a grid pattern, creating various rectangles and squares. Shapes are created within shapes, with the culminating work almost recalling Robert Rauschenberg’s gold leaf shadow box pieces.
Though Updegrove’s art has a strong sense of movement (with some of the paint swatch works being similar in appearance to Latin American Op Art), its goal is instead stillness. Her work, she says, is a direct response to the nonstop freneticism of life, which, if left unchecked, could easily overtake us. When Updegrove started making artwork, she gravitated towards forms, colors, and patterns that calmed her. Inspiration comes from elements she notices on walks in her Austin neighborhood: the singular but unique way plant buds emerge and bloom, the formulaic but imperfect look of a tree’s rings. It also comes from other observations, gleaned during travel and from her collections: the stonework of a bridge in Central Park, the strong weave going through a monochromatic swatch of fabric.
Even though each of her artworks is laid out with clear and specific intent, and in an exceedingly meticulous way, Updegrove manages to avoid any feeling of obsessiveness. This likely comes from the calm and collected way Updegrove approaches her art; it similarly doesn’t hurt that the works’ square forms and cool colors denote a sense of balanced stability.
Through her careers in design and publishing, Updegrove has had to perfect the way she manages (seemingly) effortless elegance. She talks of hallway-long mood boards in the Ralph Lauren office, from which employees could approach and glean inspiration. This cluttered but purposeful visual vocabulary is what Updegrove has managed to pump back into her art. There’s a sense of it being unconscious — at one point the artist wondered aloud if a person falls into a career because of who they are, or if a person becomes who they are because of their career.
The answer, it would seem, is yes to both. You can’t separate a person from what drives them, and, if they’re lucky, they’re able to lean further into who they are by making their passion their life’s work. Updegrove did this for decades in her various corporate jobs, and it is now, in the interleaving years where she has been able to take a step back and collect herself, that she is doing this with her own artwork.
Updegrove isn’t a new artist — she made things when she was growing up, studied modes of art making in college, and regularly flexed her creative muscles on various design projects — but she is fairly new at considering herself an Artist with a capital A. Echo is a beginning, an introduction to a newly minted artist with a rich background, which means she likely has many more ideas, processes, and modes of working still to come.
Amy Banner Updegrove: Echo will be on view at Davis Gallery in Austin from November 4 to November 22, 2023. Learn more by visiting Davis Gallery’s website.