WorkSpace, Blanton Museum of Art, Austin
Through November 1
by Dan Boehl
I Will Show you the Woe-Joy Man, 2009
see image gallery for complete caption
The WorkSpace program at the Blanton Museum of Art is one of the best things going for contemporary art in Austin. The program brings an early-career artist to Austin, funds a new space-specific work, and provides public access to the artist through gallery talks and UT classes. It also provides the artist a laboratory for experimentation. Offering relief from the dominant gallery-driven commercial production model that encourages artists to display continuity of style and medium, WorkSpace exists blissfully outside of the coastal art centers and their scrutinizing gaze. It’s like what happens in Austin stays in Austin. Not all WorkSpace artists experiment while participating in the program, but Jim Drain has wandered from his studio practice so far as to seem like a new artist altogether.
Specializing in bulbous knit sculptures and collage, Drain eschewed his practice for I Will Show You the Joy-Woe Man (2009). Instead, he created an out of control multi-tiered sculpture and video installation that rampages like the Frankenstein monster. File cabinets fill the gallery, providing a mute architecture for the eight video projections of debauchery and excess that swirl up the walls. In the videos, made-up and costumed revelers gyrate, dance, regurgitate bird squawks and dialogue in an orgiastic hierarchy of excess. It’s quite literarily an ungodly mess; while watching a large bloodcovered man in lycra finger his chest wounds like stigmata, I felt physically ill.
Though Drain says the Epic of Gilgamesh inspired the Joy-Woe Man, the installation resists narrative. The file cabinet sculpture anchors the installation, providing a kind of fixed solidity. Florescent lights and pig masks rest in drawers and nooks like ideas. The three-tier videos become morally minded as they move up the wall. On the second tier, the neon sign “EZ” appears and pans, seeming to cast a moral gaze on the revelers. “The Promiseland” sign floats on the top tier like the gift of heaven way up there, beautiful, stolid, unobtainable.
The video vernacular is borrowed straight from Ryan Trecartin. An androgynous figure slowly dances, seeming to beckon with romantic love. A skeletal kachina doll lords over a pig carcass like an omen. Grackles chitter. There’s a lot going on everywhere in an enthralling, sickening disaster. The sculptural elements are well placed and calming, though latticed webbing and bones upset the placid workaday structure. In essence, Drain has created a monster, combining media with the semblance of reason, never predicting the outcome. It’s an unholy experiment. One he wouldn’t have the opportunity to conduct anywhere but in the WorkSpace gallery, and in that way, it’s a triumph.
I Will Show You the Joy-Woe Man was created with a lot of help from Austin art outfits. The video shoot was staged at the Okay Mountain gallery, and the Totally Wreck crew provided many of the bodies, costumes, and even some sculptural elements for the completed exhibition. UT staff helped with the video editing and production. I note these facts because I noticed a large contingent of the Austin art community present at the opening, something I haven’t seen in the years I’ve been associated with the Blanton.
This isn’t the first time the WorkSpace exhibition relied heavily on the labor of the Austin community. The Blanton enlisted local artists in the construction of Lisi Raskin’s Armada (2009). As I mentioned before, this collaboration between the guest artist and locals makes the WorkSpace program exciting and vibrant. But the collaboration raises broader issues. Why would a local institution pay an outside artist to create work using the free labor of local artists? If the Blanton is going to rely on community good will to create projects in a ticketed museum setting, how are the locals to benefit? In return for this good will, how does the Blanton promote locals in other venues and US cities?
Now, I’ll not profess to know the ins and outs of the WorkSpace program or the promotional habits of the Blanton curatorial staff. They may be stumping for Austin artists wherever they travel. The issue of museum/community collaboration has been on the top of mind for years, and I was thinking about this article published in Technology In The Arts when I saw Austin artists featured in the Drain videos. The Blanton is doing something very special with WorkSpace. They gave Drain a laboratory in which to embody his Franken-kinetic fantasies. Austin artists accessed an upcoming talent. But what is the next step in this collaboration between the Blanton and the art community?
Dan Boehl is a poet. His chapbook Les MISERES ET LES MAL-HEURS DE LA GUERRE will be available from Greying Ghost this fall.