Where Are We Going? Artists Address the Issues of the 21st Century

AMOA, Austin

Through November 2, 2008
by Katie Geha

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      Installation View, Jonathan Marshall's Bicycle Boat (2007), Waves (2007) and Book of Lenny (2007), Austin Museum of Art (see slideshow for full credit)
      Courtesy Austin Museum of Art
      Photo: Peggy Tenison

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      Hidden in the front gallery of the Austin Museum of Art, Vija Celmins’s small works are the perfect metaphors for an exhibition that asks big questions. Celmins’s two prints depict a flat expanse of a night sky and a grey-tinted spider web, respectively. Like this exhibition of big questions, the prints expand out, into the vastness of the open sky, and contract, telescoping in to minute forms of life. Art Historian Lane Relyea describes Celmins' work as both a “nest and a void.”[1] The exhibition, curated by Dana Friis-Hansen, Executive Director and Chief Curator of the museum, poses questions about modern life: “Where are we going?” “Who are we?” and “What is our relationship to nature?” The exhibition succeeds in asking big questions while refusing to tacitly serve up clean answers. Rather, the often phenomenal works, all of which come from Austin institutions or private collections, complicate the big questions—they scan out to the void, while simultaneously tightening the nest.

      What is easy about the exhibition is the digestible themes through which Friis-Hansen organized the works. The first gallery, “Where are we going?” is filled by Jonathan Marshall’s large-scale works. Not unlike the story of Huck Finn, the epic Marshall tells is the, albeit somewhat vague, story of Lenny, a supposed everyman searching for something. Friis-Hansen does a nice job of creating a tableaux among the works: a large bike-motored boat sculpture is placed in front of a large canvas depicting a wide expanse of blue sky. The two objects act as remnants of a larger story depicted in an adjacent video—an awkward journey in which Lenny encounters costumed bears and fords rivers in search of his truth, whatever that may be. And while Marshall may not know exactly where we are going, Lenny is a hopeful vision for those active enough to start wondering and looking.

      Like Marshall’s wandering man, a painting by Owen McAuley also implies that “where we are going” is unclear. Madison, NY (2004) is covered almost entirely in a photographic black that suggests depth. In the foreground, a small section of snow with fresh tracks is expertly depicted. The painting has a narrative quality—the spectator appears to be sitting in a car, the snow illuminated by the headlights, the icy road ahead. It reminded this viewer of the last lines of a Tobias Wolff story, a story that describes a dangerous night drive in the snow: “And the best was yet to come—switchbacks and hairpins impossible to describe. Except maybe to say this: If you haven’t driven fresh powder, you haven’t driven.”[2]

      Does this work convey that “where we are going” is a dangerous place? If so, the theme of the connecting gallery is an apt one: “Paradise Lost and Found.” This gallery looks at humans’ relationship to nature and the changing environment. At times the works in the gallery points toward the broader story, as in, for example, Chris Jordan’s large scale photographs of crushed cars, and at other moments, the works offer smaller, more intricate meditations, such as Anna Appleby’s glowing set of four monochromatic paintings Shirley Poppy (2004). The muted green and pink colors in the canvases are abstracted from the actual hues of the flower and the addition of wax to the oil paint creates a dimension of luminosity. Surprisingly, these minimal paintings are the only works in the exhibition that even hint that “where we are going” has anything to do with the legacy of modernism.

      The paintings in the exhibition are largely figurative and this is no more apparent than in the next section: “Who are we?”—a big question, addressed by a series of portraits in varying media. On all my visits, a crowd was gathered around Noah Kalina’s video portrait Everyday January 11,2000—July 31, 2006 (2000-2006), a time-lapsed video that, in 5 minutes and 45 seconds, shows a picture of the artist everyday over a six year time-span. The fast paced movement of the images makes the work mesmerizing, like a screen saver on your computer, and it’s neat to see Kalina’s hair grow and then get cut, just to grow again. But the over-seriousness of the work is bothersome—Kalina’s big doe eyes and straight set mouth remain the same in each frame while a piano intones a heavy-handed melody. The work implies that “who we are” is in stasis—a state where only our hair changes, a state where we never laugh or smile or have any sense to not take ourselves so seriously. Does changing, growing old or moving forward, have to be such a somber act? Yet, the influence of the work is undeniable—it is a viral video (it has had 10 million views on youtube) that has inspired many knock-offs, including a commercial for Time Warner cable and a spoof on The Simpsons.

      Margarita Cabrera’s recreation of the contents of an immigrant’s backpack—a backpack she found in the border patrol’s archives—looks more carefully at who we might be in the 21st century. The objects of what one carries into a new life—a bottle of water, a can of beans, and a pornographic comic book—are reconstructed in fabric. Such a rendering creates a dual portrait—one that describes, through the choices of objects, the immigrant, and one that describes the artist as her hand traces these objects in the remaking of their forms in cloth.

      The exhibition is most successful when the pieces, like Cabrera’s, do not hold too literally to the theme to which they are assigned. An artist addressing the question “Where are we going?” is not, by any means, a new phenomenon. We can agree that to be an artist is to be a visionary. Thus, the best pieces in this exhibition extend and subvert the themes under which they are grouped. These works continue to complicate the big questions; they are the works that point out the difficulty in finding our way.

      [1] Lane Relyea, "Vija Celmins' Twilight Zone," in Vija Celmins, Lane Relyea, Robert Gober, Briony Fer (New York: Phaidon Press, 2004): 87.

      [2] Tobias Wolff, “Powder,” The Night in Question (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 37.

      Katie Geha is pursuing a Ph.D. in Art History at The University of Texas at Austin.

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