20 to Watch: New Art in Austin
Austin Museum of Art, Austin
February 16 - May 11, 2008
by Claire Ruud
Every three years since 2002, AMOA’s New Art in Austin has brought together twenty or so emerging artists who live and work within fifty miles of Austin. In this year’s catalogue, AMOA curator Eva Buttacavoli claims that the triennial “strengthens the local art infrastructure by providing curatorial review, critical dialogue and public exhibition.” Buttacavoli goes on to suggest that the exhibition directly affects the future success of artist’s careers—a sentiment echoed in the museum’s press preview, as well as an Austin Chronicle article that tracked the effect of earlier editions of New Art in Austin on ten artists’ careers.
New Art in Austin provides a valuable experience for emerging artists. The exhibition offers some artists their first “official” studio visit, initiates artists into the process of working with a large institution and contributes thoughtful scholarship on artists’ work in the form of catalogue essays. Yet, despite all the talk, this year's 20 to Watch: New Art in Austin does a crucial disservice to the artists it professes to serve: the installation—random at best and counterproductive at worst—elides critical distinctions between the artists’ ideas and intentions.
Case in point: Perhaps because of the constraints of the inferior gallery space at AMOA (a problem the museum plans to rectify through the construction of a new building, announced last week), the curators have chosen to position Jill Pangallo’s video and multimedia installation, Note to Self (2008), in a small gallery across from Buster Graybill’s inner-tube installation, Come Along Johnny (2008). Pangallo’s video documents the artist engaged in various activities with Jill, a My Twinn™ doll whose features resembles the artist’s. The video is installed alongside the doll herself, her wardrobe and other paraphernalia of girlhood. Strapped to the opposite wall and ceiling, Graybill’s Come Along Johnny is a jumble of bulging inner-tubes. The inner-tubes appear to burst through the museum wall, straining against the ratchet straps that hold them back. Looming overhead in the gallery, Graybill’s inner-tubes threaten to collapse on Pangallo’s installation. The juxtaposition draws out a set of tired binaries between female and male artist, intimate and monumental scale, and domestic and industrial imagery. Both Pangallo and Graybill are working with far more complex sets of issues, but the installation encourages a reading that reduces Note to Self and Come Along Johnny to the war of the sexes.
The curators have done little in the way of creative installation that might check a viewer’s temptation to read adjacent works as related works. Another gallery presents a group of works that seems to deal (tangentially) with the natural world. Here, we find an installation reminiscent of a natural history museum display by the Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemerata (artist duo Jen Hirt and Scott Webel), a series of amoeba-like organic abstractions by Xochi Solis, a pixellated fire sculpture by Shawn Smith and large-scale drawings of crocodiles by Jules Buck Jones. Among other concepts and traditions, Hirt and Webel deal poignantly with archives, Solis engages with the legacy of abstraction, Smith investigates the way the virtual space of Internet transforms our perception of the world and Jones engages with environmental concerns such as predation and the threat of extinction. However, the installation does nothing to bring out these vast differences.
20 to Watch exemplifies the inherently problematic nature of biennials and triennials that attempt to provide an overview of artistic production in a certain city, state or nation. Geographic parameters are often arbitrary: at the press preview, Buttacavoli revealed that New Art in Austin’s curatorial team Google-maps artists to ensure that they live within a fifty-mile radius of the city. The grab-bag of artists that this parameter produces makes smart pairings difficult.
If the museum wants a “cheap feel-good show,” (as Executive Director Dana Friis-Hansen told the press), this may be it. But, if AMOA’s goal is to serve these artists, the curators should rethink the exhibition’s format. A series of thoughtfully organized themed exhibitions (that put artists in productive dialogue) and a few solo shows (modeled after the Blanton’s WorkSpace?) would be more valuable for Austin’s emerging artists.
Claire Ruud is Managing Editor of ...might be good.