Champion Contemporary, Austin
Through October 16, 2010
by Allison Myers
When gallery goers won’t let the taco truck leave, you know it’s been a good opening. Last month Champion Contemporary opened its doors with the group exhibition Interrupted Landscapes, and the Austin art community turned out in full force to welcome it. One of the more salient aspects of Champion’s programming is its dedication to displaying both local and international emerging artists—a strategy that succeeds here, despite the otherwise uninspired theme.
The exhibition takes a long view of landscape by setting nature-inspired images against conceptualized or politicized views of the land. Many of the works play nicely off each other. Shay Kun’s Ammunition (2007), a painting of a surreal warship at the foot of colorful, Lisa Frank-esque mountains, suggests the absurdity underlying the political landscape in Richard Mosse’s well-known documentary photograph of soldiers stationed at Iraq’s Uday Palace. Barry Stone’s circular, middle-gray intervention in an Ansel Adams photograph (2010) is especially compelling when compared to Scott Hocking’s Ziggurat (2010), a photograph documenting a pyramidal sculpture the artist built from decaying wooden blocks in an abandoned factory. Both Stone and Hocking use iconic images and appropriated materials to disrupt landscape. For Stone, this leads to questioning the truth-value of representation; for Hocking, it leads to an awareness of forgotten places and lost histories. Stone’s middle-gray intervention also engages with Adam Schreiber’s Lac du Flambeau, a photographic tondo placed directly opposite Stone’s. Where Stone’s circular form interrupts Ansel Adam’s photograph with its blankness, Schreiber’s work fills in the circle with a lush, leafy landscape—making for a fun visual game.
All in all, however, Champion’s inaugural show is more of a whisper than a roar. Despite the presence of some strong work, the exhibition feels too safe. On the whole, Austin is a city that values experimentation, and Champion would have done better to debut with something that had a little more punch. Even keeping the tried-and-true subject of landscape, a larger presence of sculpture or installation inside the gallery would have helped enliven the space. Also, though the show includes a video by Ben Rivers (I Know Where I’m Going, 2009), the work is cloistered next to the office area and doesn’t read visually as part of the exhibition. Rather than a cutting edge break into the scene, what Champion ended up with is a collector-friendly exhibition that doesn’t muster the kind of general excitement the gallery needs to survive.
I would like to add a word of clarification here: being collector-friendly is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a feature that makes Champion stand out. Alongside the gallery, Champion advertises an art advisory service, which includes representing clients at auction and placing works in the secondary market in addition to helping collectors and companies invest in contemporary work. Owner Sonia Dutton comes to Austin from New York, where she worked as a curatorial advisor for the Artist Pension Trust—a position she continues to hold from her new homebase in Texas. Her experience with the politics of collecting and her interest in placing these services at the front may prove to be the boon that keeps the gallery alive.
And really, beyond the first show, this is the question at hand for Champion: what does it need to survive? Austin has a quick turnover rate—of both galleries and artists—and only a handful of the galleries that have opened have stuck around long enough to become community staples, such as Women and Their Work or Lora Reynolds. Many people complain about Austin’s art scene being too small, too incestuous, too not-New-York-or-L.A. I’ve only been in the city three years and I’m already tired of hearing it. The first task in attacking this problem would be to ask ourselves, “Do we really have a problem?” Austin is small, for sure, but that smallness affords a community structure that is close, supportive and friendly. If that’s not enough, then we have to ask ourselves a second question: “What can we do to change it?”
According to Champion, what needs to change is contextualization and exposure. Showing Texas artists alongside international or national artists engenders dialogue and establishes our currency within a larger conversation. Likewise, introducing Texas artists to more collectors and museums produces exposure, which provides more opportunities for contextualization. Right now many Austin-based artists find gallery representation in New York, bypassing any chance for the city itself to become an arm in the game. Champion aims at making the Austin art scene more self-sufficient and in turn, stronger. This is something I heartily applaud.
Despite the flatness of the first show, I have high hopes for Champion. Dutton has a fine program lined up for the coming months; a solo exhibition by our own Sonya Berg is up next. Let’s keep the openings packed.
EDITOR'S NOTE: We regret that this review was initially run with fact-checking errors, which have been corrected here.
Allison Myers is pursuing her Ph.D. in art history at the University of Texas Austin.