New Art in Austin
Austin Museum of Art
Through May 22
by Michael Bise
I’m not sure if it’s a good thing that New Art in Austin: 15 To Watch at The Austin Museum of Art can be broken down into a gold, silver and bronze medal winner, while much of the rest of the work flounders between sturdy mediocrity and I’m-not-even-trying-failure. Ever the optimist, I’ve chosen to read the successful exceptions as a positive sign.
The standout body of work in the show is Anna Krachey’s series of unmanipulated film photographs that appear on first glance to be the work of a Photoshop geek circa 1999. Red Vs. Green (A Diptych), 2010, consists of two different photographs of a stop sign from the same perspective-- one with a green cast and the other with red. It requires a little patience to realize that the color difference has not come from digital enhancement, but rather from two different colored light sources. Another photograph, Four Corners, depicts a sheet of metallic paper that catches light in such a way that it turns the white ground upon which it lays four different colors on each corner of the paper. The key to the enjoyment of Krachey’s pictures lies in the fact that, although she never gives away her techniques, visual concentration is ultimately rewarded in the revelation that her images exist in the three-dimensional world of actual objects. Krachey’s work can be hit-or-miss, as I noticed from her installation last year at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, but all her pictures at AMOA demonstrated visual intelligence and technical sophistication.
The next gallery over, but a hundred miles away in visual rigor, is Elizabeth Chiles’ series of pedestrian photographs of tree canopies in the cities of Austin, New York and London. The images are so boring, technically mediocre, and conceptually void that juror and Menil curator Toby Kamps resorts to the following statement in his catalogue essay for their justification: “The final photographs in Theatre were made near the Brooklyn grave of Samuel Morse, painter, inventor of the…telegraph code, and pioneer of photography in the United States. [Chiles’] Romantic questions had catalyzed a Romantic quest – to create a group of images that branched (pun intended) into the why-are-we-here questions at the heart of art, science and philosophy.” Chiles’ vague images and Kamps’ mushy reading of them participate in the questionable notion that quality and meaning exist only in the artist’s subjective interpretation, and that precise formal logic or aesthetic system-building as methods of imparting meaning are clubs in the hands of intellectual thugs.
Fortunately, Robert Melton’s three short videos of minor domestic disasters require no supplementary texts. Melton has a real sense of cinematography and his small, richly colored setups seem larger than life and take on a genuinely cinematic quality. The best of the three is Last Resort (2009), which opens onto a scene with a raging but contained circular fire against a typical beige wall. The fire diminishes slowly in size and intensity, and it isn’t until very near the end that we realize that a smoke alarm has been on fire, and that what we assumed was a dying flame is the video being played in reverse. Rather than dissipating the energy, the discovery of the backwards “gimmick” causes us to imagine the fiery chaos that must have occurred just before the video began. We’re able to insert ourselves into the narrative, a key to successful filmmaking. Melton should raise some money, abandon the art world, and make a movie.
It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t point out the emperor-with-no-clothes installation that is J. Parker Valentine’s exercise of what Kamps calls an “in-depth study of the morphology of form.” Her work in the AMOA exhibition consists of pseudo-encyclopedic notations in charcoal of abstract and figurative marks that she picked up “examining modernist art in a London conservation lab.” Drawn on brown MDF and paper, the drawing are laid flat, stood upright, curled and occasionally obscured by other objects on saw horse-like tables. Inert and despairingly brown, Valentine’s carefully unkempt installation encourages an essentially text-based reading. Valentine’s found marks, styles and objects seem combined not for their visual effect, but for their historical significance. Kamps argues in his essay that Valentine not only knows how “to tell a compelling story of modernist abstraction,” but that she also manages to “create a living version of it.” Simply looking at Valentine’s installation is an experience of rapidly diminishing returns and offers little in comparison to artists like André Masson, Jackson Pollock or Joan Mitchell, to whom Kamps’ essay compares her. In fact, Valentine’s attempt to categorize the strategies of modernist mark-making fall far short of similar attempts by lesser artists like David Reed or Brice Marden.
If Valentine’s work suffers the fate of visual insignificance at the expense of rhetoric, the visually sumptuous but conceptually hamstrung work of Miguel A. Aragon suffers the opposite fate. A printmaker, Aragon calls his process “burned residue embossing.” Using graphic images of cartel violence gathered from Mexican news media, Aragon strips the images of color, laser cuts them into cardboard, and using ash, puts the boards through a printing press. This process results in a series of snow-white and ash-grey images that hover on the edge of abstraction and representation. Their beauty lies in the evident embossing, the ambiguity of the images and the subtle coloration of the ash after moving through the press. Unfortunately juror and AMOA interim curator Andrea Mellard’s essay (and, I suspect, Aragon’s own discussions of his work) revolves almost exclusively around the content of the source imagery. The artist’s family still lives in Juarez, where the daily fear of cartel violence must be visceral, but the success or failure of his prints has little to do with the barely-visible images. This is not to suggest that the content of the work should be abandoned or that Aragon’s process is in need of revision, but Mellard’s didactic justification of the work does a disservice to its visual strength. As soon as the viewer reads the explanation on the wall label, they cease to experience the power and imagination of the work and turn instead to a kind of pitying sentiment for the artist and his victimized family.
Juror and Director of the Rubin Center for the Visual Arts at the University of Texas El Paso, Kate Bonansinga pulls out the big, black Clement Greenberg hat from which she attempts to fish some reasonable explanation for the inclusion of Nathan Green’s work. Green creates small abstract paintings and rickety painted sculptures from wood and other scraps taken from his job as an art handler. In her essay, Bonansinga performs the obligatory rehearsal of Greenberg’s fundamental characteristics of the picture plane and Michael Fried’s ideas about what constitutes theatricality in the visual arts. Bonansinga states that Green’s work, in opposition to these modernist philosophical hallmarks, is essentially anti-modernist. This is perhaps true enough, but it goes no distance toward explaining Green’s simplistic use of color, random composition, or haphazard installation strategy. Green’s installation of garish paintings and semi-sculptural structures recalls Frank Stella’s almost bipolar descent from the rigor of his early Black paintings and the precision and sophisticated color of the Protractor series to the mess of his “maximalist” period. Green takes everything that is undisciplined and slapdash in late Stella, leaves behind the careful execution, and emerges with little more than art historical scraps. Unlike Jonathan Lasker or Tomma Abts, who continue to explore the possibility of rigorous abstraction after the bomb, Green’s work exhibits no need to be taken seriously.
With the notable exceptions of Krachey, Melton and Aragon, our gold, silver and bronze medalists respectively, New Art in Austin: 15 to Watch offers little to visually investigate. What it does offer is a great deal of justification for artworks that, while not egregiously awful, seem a long way from meriting serious consideration in a museum exhibition. More than a few artists in the show take on projects of artists before them and find themselves outmatched. One of the more trivial bodies of work in the exhibition consists of ceramic chimera by Debra Broz. Broz, who owns a ceramic restoration company, relatively seamlessly fuses leopards and birds, bunnies and fangs in what amounts to a slightly sophomoric quotation of Jeff Koons’ ceramic and porcelain sculptures and Meyer Vaisman’s late-‘80s turkeys. Like Broz, Leslie Mutchler also “likes stuff.” She combs Crate and Barrel, Ikea and Pottery Barn Catalogs and collages elements from the consumer objects within into tableaux that recall the Death Star from the early Star Wars films and the circular, revolving hallway from Jupiter One in 2001: A Space Odyssey. As precise as her collage techniques are, and as much as she would like to open a discourse on consumerism, Mutchler’s works in the exhibition do little beyond trading in on sci-fi nostalgia, reminding us of the infinite evil of Darth Vader and the HAL 9000.
One feature of the exhibition that communicates more than any one artist’s work is the tiny, low-to-the-ground table with supplementary reading materials set up in one of the galleries. That this is a distraction speaks volumes about the exhibition's inability to hold the viewer’s attention. The jurors’ reference-heavy essays equally suggest their seeming awareness of the fact that without very narrowly circumscribed contexts, many of the works in the show fail to hold much interest as objects in themselves.
Michael Bise is an artist living and working in Houston.