The Okay Mountain Mural

Austin Ventures, Austin

By appointment... maybe
by Dan Boehl

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      Okay Mountain
      Austin Ventures Mural
      2008

      View Gallery

      The idea for the Okay Mountain (OK) mural on the 22nd floor offices of Austin Ventures (AV), the downtown investment capital firm, came from Julie Thornton, art collector, supporter of local arts organizations and wife of AV partner John Thornton. Broken up by workspaces and file cabinets, doorways, windows and functionless alcoves, there is a lot of wall space, but not enough room to hang any art. Home to the functionaries, the accountants, the IT staff, the associates, and the assistants, the 22nd floor is mostly dark, half empty, lined with cubicles, lain with oatmeal colored carpet. Wishing to dispel the blandness of the place, Julie Thornton approached artist and curator Dave Bryant to come up with a solution. Bryant suggested that Okay Mountain do a series of murals based on the game of life with an entrepreneur as the game player.

      Taken all together, the finished mural panels are amazing. Bright splashes of colored game board snake the walls, growing into lively narrative panels. The life stages of a new company—Idea, Invention, Capital, Production, Market and Profit—structure the mural. Comical, fun, vibrant, with a healthy mix of doleful prognostication, they brighten the AV offices while delivering their stunning cautionary tale.

      The first panel introduces the entrepreneur, Oliver, as he sits in a dirt patch, light bulb floating over his head. In the next panel, white boxes sprout like potatoes from the ground while farm animals look on. Oliver holds a pitchfork, looking earnest, under a smiling sun. As with each of the panels, the colorful backgrounds and ancillary elements move the narrative, but it is Oliver, the creation of OK partner Ryan Hennessee, who brings emotion into the composition. Black and white, slightly pudgy, styled but unaware of his appearance, Oliver inhabits the role of the everyman entrepreneur. Throughout the cartoonish panels, Oliver’s monochrome expressions keep him human while his tale unfolds in vibrant palettes. In the end, Oliver sits on a chaise lounge, like Kane at Xanadu, flanked by the accoutrements of fast won wealth: cavernous mansion, yellow Lamborghini, neo-Classical sculpture, exotic pets, and sycophantic servants. A martini glass in his hand, a wry smile crosses Oliver’s face. He doesn’t seem to care how vapid his life appears. Anyway, he doesn’t have to care. He’s rich.

      The audience is undoubtedly the employees of AV, the very agents of capitalism that the mural warns against, who spent one third of their day surrounded by the mural's message, while they pursue financial gain. Rather than focusing on the inequities inherent in wealth creation, the mural highlights the lonely distance monetary gain fosters in its pursuers. The mural strikes a nice balance of indictment and levity, though, never becoming self-righteous or preachy. An agent of satire, Oliver functions like Homer in a Simpsons episode. The viewer identifies with Oliver's humanity in the earlier panels, but seeing him lounge in a coin filled bathtub clutching an uncorked bottle of Champagne in a later panel, the viewer realizes Oliver is taking things too far. Drowning in his own wealth, Oliver soaks alone. It’s is a mistake the viewer is less likely to make.

      In all, the mural is adept at creating a work of art that spoofs the organization that commissioned it, but OK did have some back and forth with AV over some elements. AV voiced concern about a number of the mural’s elements, and Okay Mountain toned them down. In the Capital panel, Oliver presents his box product to the group of investors. The design called for stiff backed suits, which came across like gangsters in Hogan's Alley, the classic Nintendo game. AV pointed out their relaxed dress code. They weren't gangsters, but partners in the entrepreneurial process. After completing the other panels, the OK partners returned to the suits and replaced them with cash bestowing fairy tale heroes: Robin Hood, the Easter Bunny, grandmom and her apple pie, William Randolph Hearst in profile with a question mark for an eye. It comes across as the least satisfying composition, but it is hardly a compromise. Instead of being depicted as men of import and influence, the beneficent investors are spooks, figments of childish imagination.

      During the time the OK partners spent at AV, AV staff marveled at the OK creative energy, asking them to explain the symbolism lurking behind every figure and image. At one point, Carlos Rosales-Silva explained to two women that the animals represented farm animals. That’s all. As something foreign to them, the process of painting fascinated the AV staff. At another point, Tim Brown oversaw an IT administrator as he meticulously applied paint to a boot. Afraid to “fuck it up,” by the time the IT guy was finished he was drenched in sweat.

      In the most complex and visual compelling panel, a graying cityscape covers an entire wall. Pedestrians head downtown or stumble like zombies in the crumbling intercity. Oliver gazes from the opposite wall, perched like Bruce Wayne on the top of a building, gripping his product, flanked by his only company, the pigeons. These panels constitute the climax of the cautionary tale. Success is empty without someone to share it with. Standing between the panels, turning north, a window looks out at Austin below. From here, the viewer gets the sense of inhabiting a space somewhere between product and entrepreneur, a space between wealth and loneliness.

      There is a missing seventh panel that OK didn’t paint. Oliver, soft and bleary with decadence, was to be surrounded by a mound of moneybags. If the seventh panel ever does get painted, I think I’d like to see the other side of the story. In this one, Oliver eschews vanity and excess, finds love, raises a family, supports the workers’ union, collects art, creates a foundation and donates boxes to Africa’s poor.

      The mural series isn’t the story of a lonely entrepreneurial pioneer. It is the story of how Okay Mountain and Austin Ventures came together to create an ambitious work of inspiration. Both parties benefit. AV as collector and investor houses a large-scale work from a stable of talented artists with solid careers. OK completed an ambitious project that would have been impossible without AV’s financial resources. In the process OK developed a powerful collaborative language of narrative, planning and execution. In November, OK will spend a week creating a mural at the Urban Culture Project Space in Kansas City, an impossible feat if not couched in their AV experience. In the end, like Oliver, everyone profits. Except maybe you. Unless someone throws an unveiling, you’ll have to pitch a company to Austin Ventures to see it.

      Dan Boehl lives in Austin, Texas, where he is working on a post-petroleum children's novel.

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