Above: Wedding (2004) © Beth Block
issue # 47, June 24, 2005 Austin, Texas
I. New American Talent at Arthouse
II. Cracks in the Pavement
III. Triple Negative? Three Views on Photography in Austin: AMoA, the Harry Ransom Center, and Private Galleries
I. New American Talent at Arthouse
On view through August 21, 2005
One week ago, on June 17, Arthouse kicked off its 20th exhibition of New American Talent. A perennial favorite, the event shines a spotlight on a handful of artists (28 to be exact) who’ve yet to experience their official comeuppance, but who appear to be well on their way “up.” Considering that Austin art-goers have few opportunities to encounter such a wide array of contemporary visual works en masse, New American Talent provides a welcome opportunity to view a motley cross-section of fresh work. This is big city talent and multi-gallery diversity minus the drive to Houston or Dallas.
This year’s exhibition was juried by Dan Cameron, Senior Curator at Large at New York City’s New Museum of Contemporary Art. More often than not, Cameron’s taste was for candy-colored gravitas. While some pieces lean toward the humorous, the exhibition as a whole imparts a tone of vital and vibrant seriousness. Three works in particular demonstrate the juror’s preference for uneasy humor: Wesley Heiss’ Everlast, a television encased in a red foam-and-rubber egg structure reminiscent of a heavyweight punching bag, Leah Markov-Lindsey’s RX, embroidered renderings of prescription bottles, and Matt Woff’s soap opera mock-up I Feel Love. While these pieces have definitively comic aspects, they could hardly be described as light-hearted.
In stark contrast to the works described above, the photography selected for the exhibition conveyed serene eeriness. J. Bennett Fitts’ sweeping suburban landscapes and Adam Schreiber’s single aqueous image form the flip-side of Kathryn Dunlevie’s frantic urban creations. Retaining a sense of mystery, the work of all three photographers resonates with potent palettes and crisp imagery. Together, their pieces form an impressive portfolio.
As the Arthouse exhibition demonstrates, there is a sizable corps of emerging artists toiling to distill the poignant from an increasingly manufactured world. Regardless of one’s definition of talent, the importance of this undertaking in contemporary art should be a point of consensus. It can be difficult to apprehend the magnitude of the strides artists are making when only one or two pieces from their body of work are shown, but Arthouse has made a temporary home for many hopeful intimations. What emerges from the exhibition is not simple comfort, but works that are lively and bold, confusing and cacophonous, and (occasionally) cohesive.
Austin is fortunate
to host a show juried by a curator of Cameron's caliber. We await the
day when American curatorial talent not only juries, but also curates
exhibitions in Austin.
Cracks in the Pavement
An Excerpt from the Cracks in the Pavement Guestbook, 1:52 AM Wednesday, June 23, 2005:
Describe what you found: Found - by chance - a print/drawing
Where did you find it?: At the Town Hall, Wiesbaden, Germany
What were your first impressions of it?: Because of
this coincidence I
Your name, if your like: Boris the Slacker*
Currently in its
second year, Cracks in the Pavement challenges the producer/consumer
model that characterizes much of our experience of art. There is no
guarantee that you will find what you are looking for, just as there
is no guarantee that all the works will be found, as last year’s
three-day rain deluge at the beginning of the project insured. And that
is fine, according to Johnson, who says, “I like the idea of some
fisherman in the Bay of Mexico finding one [of the pieces]” having
traveled its own unforeseeable journey to get there.
III. Triple Negative? Three Views on Photography in Austin
The moment seems ripe for considering the state of photography in Austin. Local art spaces are exhibiting photography widely and many of the paintings and drawings now hanging in Austin galleries give credit to their obvious photographic roots. At the Harry Ransom Center, two very different photography exhibitions have occupied much of the large first-floor gallery hall since May. These Late Spring exhibitions, Place: Photographs of Environment and Community and The Battle for the Eastern Front: Photographs from the William Broyles, Jr. Collection, will remain on view through July 17. On their heels follows Ansel Adam’s: A Legacy, which opens at the HRC in early August. Meanwhile, Annie Leibovitz: American Music, headlines at AMoA until August 7; and this just after their winter exhibition of Andy Goldsworthy’s photographs.
As if this activity weren’t enough to signal a city-wide interest in the medium, a number of painting and drawing exhibitions this summer echo the strong photographic sentiment. Works like Charles Mary Kubricht’s geological landscapes in Scanning the Grand Canyon tell the story of a rafting trip down the Colorado with camera at the ready. Now at AMoA, Kubricht’s work reflects a time when her digital camera became an “electronic sketchbook” recording the shifting conditions of rock and light. The paintings themselves take on aspects of the digital as they appear to project light through an ever-present geometric grid. Each square in the grid appears as a pixilated bit, magnified and enlarged to near-abstraction.
Likewise, the recent
Ewan Gibbs and upcoming Jim Torok: Artists are Great
shows at Lora Reynolds Gallery dispel the myth of a strict dichotomy
between hand-rendered and machine-made arts. Through a method reminiscent
of Chuck Close’s working process, Gibbs composes his drawings
by transferring photographs onto a visible grid structure. Alternatively,
Torok, whose meticulously rendered head-and-shoulder-length portraits
also recall Close’s work, does not appear to use this organizational
tool. True to form, the Artists are Great exhibition will include
a miniature 5 in. x 4 in. portrait of Close (painted by Torok after
a familiar photograph) as homage to the form’s most renowned practitioner.
Lastly, though her work appears less interested in inter-media dialogue
than either Torok's or Gibbs’ pieces, Kate Breakey’s hand
painted photographs at Stephen L. Clark Gallery address some of the
same questions about the relationship between hand and eye, brush and
lens, that are being raised in ever new ways around Austin.
As a chronicler of musicians, movie stars, politicians, and other celebrities there is probably no photographer better known to the general populace than Annie Leibovitz. Leibovitz came to prominence in the seventies as a documenter of rock and roll music via her compelling images in Rolling Stone Magazine. She continued to refine her style over the years, adding new methods of portraiture to her bag of tricks. Her work can be very chameleon-like, moving from gritty black and white action photographs to refined and staged color photographs depending on her mood and what she decides the portrait should convey. With her new book and the traveling exhibition American Music now showing at the Austin Museum of Art, Leibovitz has concentrated solely on her recent images of musicians.
Much as I might wish otherwise, it seems impossible to discuss the photographs without also analyzing the show and its venue. Austin seems an apt city in which to show these photographs, as it has a love for live music and a rich musical heritage. Additionally, several of the photographs were taken in Austin’s environs, like the photograph of Don Walser and the Pure Texas Band that was made at Austin's legendary country-western club, the Broken Spoke. AMoA has capitalized on this by teaming up with Waterloo Records to bring in iPod listening stations where museum visitors can listen to music by some of the artists on display. Music also pipes out onto the street in front of AMoA, enticing passersby to enter.
Unfortunately, what this adds up to feels like a show for music fans more interested in an icon than an image. Leibovitz’s telltale style adds to this feeling. Her photographs immerse themselves in preconceptions of who we think these performers are and rarely challenge these notions. Bruce Springsteen is shown in earnest at a table, looking over his notes. Emmy Lou Harris stands alone on a country road at twilight, guitar in hand, the lonely troubadour in a crepuscular light. Similarly, Leibovitz allows certain performers to project their own vision of themselves by pandering to their self-aggrandization. The photograph of P.Diddy at Bridgehampton, New York shows us the P. Diddy Sean Combs wants to be shown as: a wealthy Rap mogul in a white greatcoat in front of his Rolls Royce. The image does not go beyond this, neither psychologically nor intellectually, and what we are left with is a blank view of the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
Leibovitz works best when she puts herself in the middle of an event, such as the photographs of musicians in juke joints and dancehalls. Perhaps this is because the musicians are lost in their music and Leibovitz is too. Neither photographer nor subject gets the upper hand in the matter, and what comes through is more of an expression of music and its energy. A photograph of the Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church Choir in full swing has this sort of ragged energy. It pours the soulful sweat of spiritual music, and gives viewers the feeling that they are privileged to observe the scene before them. It is also interesting that her most successful photographs are of the less famous, or celebrity-averse musicians. It is as if these musicians are less preoccupied with projecting an idea of themselves and because of this Leibovitz can enable an interesting moment to be captured on film.
There is a photograph
of the rapper and actor Mos Def in his dressing room at the Ambassador
Theater in New York. It captures a restless, mercurial quality to popular
rapper by means of his gentle posture and the warm glow of the light
in the room. It is unfortunate that only a small percentage of Leibovitz’s
work captures this sort of energy. Much of the rest of the exhibition
exists as a showcase for musical celebrity, not a probing exploration
of the vitality of American music. Leibovitz’s photographs work
best on the printed page; preferably in a magazine like Rolling Stone
or Vanity Fair. The space between works on the museum’s walls
doesn’t allow the images to cohere, and it felt awfully lonely
in AMoA the several times I visited last week. Not for lack of visitors,
rather for a desire to feel something more powerful and stimulating
on the walls.
Last night at 7 PM, a panel of four photographers discussed their work in the Harry Ransom Center exhibition, Place: Photographs of Environment and Community. An interesting exhibition on a number of levels, it seems that viewers have as much to learn from the images in this show as they do by considering its curatorial theme. What does it mean to photograph “place?" How does “place” differ from landscape? As the exhibition’s title implies, the answer would seem to be that “place” puts more emphasis on capturing the inexplicable feeling one gets within an environment than on the translation of topography onto a two-dimensional surface. Sometimes the environment is conveyed by atmosphere and light. Just as often it comes through the moods and attitudes of the people who inhabit the environment. As Beth Block described the phenomenon in her photographs, some spaces absorb a “human deposit,” retaining the energy their inhabitants left behind. That certainly seems to be the case in Block's image above, Wedding, an evocative photograph from the series "From There to Here" that seems charged with the presence of its three cropped and veiled figures.
Place, so it would seem, is just as much about people as geography. But the ways that people contribute to the feeling associated with a place is messy business. Even before reading the wall text that accompanies Rufus Lovett’s six black and white photographs, I knew that the town of Weeping Mary, TX (pop. 200) was a poor community. Aspects of Weeping Mary’s poverty don’t appear too hard to bear. The six children in Clothespins bouncing simultaneously on a trampoline don’t seem overly concerned that the rest of the world’s duds are being dried in spin cycles. Yet, in others of Lovett’s photographs Weeping Mary seems filled with the sort of down-time that could be enjoyable for a few days, but for longer periods could kill one’s spirit. Technical merit aside, I will be really impressed with Lovett’s photography when he can capture the same compelling emotional states from the financially comfortable as from the destitute.
On the wall adjacent to Lovett’s work , Marla Sweeny’s eleven color photographs from her Home as Found series raise another set of questions about how people contribute to a sense of place. Many of the figures in Sweeny’s photographs seemed like eccentric souls. Her subjects are primarily small-town personalities who, God bless ‘em, seem like they would be easier to embrace as oddities than to try to understand. When looking at figures of men posed awkwardly in overalls and large women looming in winter coats, I began to wonder if this was how these people would want themselves to be shown. Perhaps this was why associate curator of photography at the Ransom Center, David Coleman, used last night's panel discussion as a forum to discuss the paradox of making the private public and the public private that complicates many of the photographs in Place.
to geography and, more importantly, to history, remain prevalent throughout
the Ransom Center’ exhibition The Battle for the Eastern Front:
Photographs from the William Broyles, Jr. Collection. Gregori Khomzor’s
photograph of the Brandenburg Gate on May 1, 1945 (one day before General
Weilding’s surrender to the Soviets) is an image charged with
enough patriotism to approach the status of propaganda. Shown on the
opposite wall, Aleksandr Ustinov’s Prisoners Bodies (1945)
was among the most shocking photographs included in the exhibition.
Appearing in a composition reminiscent of a WWII peita, a common grave
of naked emaciated bodies drape across each other inside a makeshift
hearse. In less emotionally exhausting images, a barrage of Soviet hammers
and sickles mix with the foreign looking letters of the Cyrilic alphabet.
Tank warfare is glorified in distinctly Soviet-style black and white
photographs with raking shadows and light. Between these scenes of warfare,
one can only hope for moments as peaceful as Emanuil Evzerikhin’s
symbolic image of an anonymous musician pulling his unharmed base violin
through the threshold of a bomb-ravaged building.
L. Clark Gallery
On view through June 25
Jim Torok: Artists are Great
On view July 1 through August 31
In the private sector, two Austin galleries seem particularly committed to photography as a fine art medium: Stephen L. Clark Gallery and Lora Reynolds Gallery. Strictly speaking, neither of these spaces is currently featuring photographs of the traditional sort (with the notable exception of Ed Ruscha’s Parking Lot Series hung at the back of Lora Reynolds Gallery). Kate Breakey’s pieces at Stephen L. Clark are hand-colored silver gelatin prints, while the drawings by Ewan Gibbs at Lora Reynolds are based on photographs the artist took from the observation deck of the Empire State Building. Nonetheless, each body of work depends ultimately upon the schematized light and dark values captured on black-and-white film.
In every visible way Gibbs' drawings are simple. Their size, support (a sheet of graph paper), and medium, even their length of line, is diminutive. Yet Gibbs uses these simple tools with tremendous success. Referring to the photograph as a formal guide, his work delves into the mechanisms that create shape, tone, and form within a colorless image. His technique is equally fresh. By limiting each pen or pencil stroke to a single graph square Gibbs transforms the continuity of the photographic forms into a composition of discrete packets of visual information—in effect, digitizing the photograph manually.
Breakey’s work also calls upon the two-dimensional flattening process of photography, though here it seems more a crutch than an avenue of exploration. Breakey’s familiar studies of bird and flower specimens in front of mottled backdrops build upon the centuries old technology of the camera obscura. Historically, this device allowed a desired image to be projected onto a glass plate, presenting the spatial relations of three-dimensions onto a flat surface and facilitating the image’s subsequent execution on canvas. The camera obscura was used extensively in the seventeenth century, most famously by the painter Johannes Vermeer. While it is certainly unfair to compare Breakey’s images with Dutch genre paintings, she seeks a similar anatomical correctness, labeling each image with the scientific name of the plant or animal illustrated. Using the silver gelatin print as the support for each image, Breakey allows the contour and value provided by the photograph to serve as a template over which she lays the unique color of each work. If the coloristic variations across an edition of any one piece could be seen together, perhaps the works would seem more inspired.
newer work, while quite different in subject and format, press even
more strongly for a comparison to Europe and Old Master still life paintings.
Perhaps a fourth of the size of the images discussed above, Breakey’s
still lives frame a central subject (e.g. a vase or a bowl of fruit)
on a table or window sill. A handful of the images are even taken directly
from Old Master works, such as Rembrandt’s The Shell
and Zurbarán’s Still Life with Lemons. All of
these, again, are hand-colored photographs, though their conventional
compositions drain much of the organic animation photography can impart.
One wonders whether Breakey means for these works to be received as
technical, almost scientific, paintings or as documentary photographs
made conventionally artful by the presence of the artist’s hand
on the picture surface.
Artpace San Antonio has announced an open call for submissions by Texas artists who would like to be considered for the 2007 International Artist-in-Residence program. Application and guidelines are available at Artpace and online at www.artpace.org/aboutTheResidency.php. Submissions are due by 5:00 PM, September 9, 2005. For additional information, please contact Artpace by phone 210.212.4900 x 123, fax 210.212.4990, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. Cracks in the Pavement's Heather Johnson Included in Brooklyn Exhibition, "Somewhere Outside It"
If you happen to find yourself in New York next month check out Austin artist Heather Johnson’s work at Schroeder Romero Gallery, 173A North 3rd St., Brooklyn. Johnson’s work is included in the “Somewhere Outside It” exhibition that runs from June 25 – July 24 (closed July 4th weekend).
3. We can’t forget CAM!San Antonio’s Contemporary Arts Month Calendar is available to view online at: http://camsanantonio.org/2005/calendar.htm. Check it out!
Image Courtesy of
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