MBG Issue #119: The Dirty Cheap Made This City

Issue # 119

The Dirty Cheap Made This City

March 27, 2009

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Lee Baxter Davis, Sister DeeBee (detail), 2007, Ink wash, watercolor and collage on paper, 28 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist and the Texas Biennial.

from the editor

Austin’s got its fair share of round-up exhibitions these days: Arthouse’s annual New American Talent, AMOA’s triennial New Art in Austin and the Texas Biennial. Do we really need them all? I’m beginning to wonder whether we could pool our resources and develop one single biennial (or triennial) instead—something both broader and deeper than any one of us could orchestrate alone. We need a coalition—a temporary alliance—that works across our various organizational structures and purposes. Together, we could support a larger, city-wide exhibition of public art and solo shows at a variety of venues, from Arthouse to Big Medium to testsite.

Coalition isn’t easy. To build an event like this, TXB and AMOA might have to give up their regional parameters. Arthouse might have to make the inclusion of Texas-based artists a larger priority. Art in Public Places might have to convince the city to fund wilder, less conventional public art. It would be hard, but think what we might do.

Discussing TXB in this issue, Russell Etchen of Domy Books mentions New Orleans’s Prospect.1 as a possible model for the future—an art event structured less around region and more around shared concerns. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Dunbar of Arthouse makes a powerful argument for showing more work by fewer artists next time. Also in this issue, Gavin Morrison’s proposal for a Texan Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale seems intimately related to the discussion of a Biennial within the state. Morrison’s piece investigates the idea of Texas in the public imagination; he conceptualizes Texas not as a geo-political state with fixed borders, but as an ever-changing entity that is constantly being renegotiated within cultural, political and economic spheres.

In our upcoming issue, I’m particularly looking forward to reviews of Kehinde Wiley at Artpace San Antonio and Phantom Sightings at Museo Alameda. We’ll also check in with former CORE resident Mequitta Ahuja to talk about her recent work and sit down with UT art history professor Roberto Tejada to talk about his new book, National Camera: Photography and Mexico’s Image Environment—with its transnational theoretical framework, a great follow up to Morrison's discussion of Texas this week.

Claire Ruud is Editor of ...might be good and Associate Coordinator of testsite.


Russell Etchen

By Kate Watson

Russell Etchen & Tim Kerr at Domy Books.

Last week, Russell Etchen talked to ...might be good about art communities, biennials and making things happen in Austin.

How do you conceptualize the art world or art communities you’re involved in?

I idealize our community all of the time—I choose to live in a world surrounded by only a small group of people and what those people are doing is the only thing that matters. I did this in Houston and I’m doing it here now. My work, now that I’m here, is to look around every day and say, ok…what do people want? What’s not here? Domy Books is, of course, at the center of this effort.

Really, all of us here are just hustling to stay in the art world. We want to make things happen, make the things we love, make money. It’s all very fleeting, though. If the most vibrant people here moved away, the scene would implode and start over again.

What works for you about the Biennial? What doesn’t?

Ultimately, I’m not sure if it makes sense to try and organize Texas as some sort of state-wide community. I’m just interested in working with friends and like-minded people. To me, an unbiased art event organizing strangers into some sort of community feels, in a way, like going to a mall. If I were organizing a major art event, my goal would be to connect with the audience on a personal level. I’m inspired by genuine enthusiasm. I might ask myself questions like: are we pissing people off? Making them laugh? Regional concerns just aren’t as interesting to me.

Of course, though, it’s great that someone is taking on this kind of project. Personally, I know that before I came to Austin that the Texas Biennial didn’t have any meaning for me and that the concept of “biennials” has always seemed like a status thing. It’s a great thing for individual artists, and it’s definitely bringing people to the store, but ultimately I’m just glad that people are doing something. There should always be more. We shouldn’t rest on this as any sort of plateau of achievement—it’s just a thing that is happening. Call it what you will, do it every two years—it’s the energy behind it that matters.

If you were organizing a large-scale art event in Austin, how would you structure it?

The pitfalls of the group show are a concern to me. If I were to organize something this big, I would spread out the work across town to many more spaces and include more pieces from each individual. Prospect.1 in New Orleans was a great example of this. Make people trek around the town! Who cares? Make it like EAST—EAST is awesome! It doesn’t matter if there’s crappy art in it sometimes—it gets people out all over our community.

I can always go back to punk rock here. Because Tim Kerr was and is always saying, “what are you doing? Start your own band/zine/whatever.” Aaron Rose (director of “Beautiful Losers” and participant in the early-mid-90’s New York-based DIY scene) was just in town talking about the same thing. We’re all hustling and who cares where the money comes from! It’s great that there are people interested in examining a cohesive identity of Texas artists, but I just wanted to come to Austin and fuck it up and push people’s buttons in the best way possible.

Kate Watson is Coordinator of testsite and Associate Editor of ...might be good.


Paul Beck
Austin Art History Lesson I
c. 1997

By Rachel Koper

Paul Beck, Porcelain at Eeka Beeka (installation view), 1997. Photo: Billy Kirkland for Eeka Beeka.

This conversation is the first article in a series intended to excavate the histories of Austin's art scenes.

Austin is a growing city; as a college town, new talented artists pass through about every 5 years. Each crop of artists attempts to establish itself anew, with fresh passion to innovate, discover and create alongside peers. The flip side of this turnover is that arts groups tend to annoyingly re-invent wheel or blissfully ignore our regional art history and the lessons learned.

When I moved here in 1996, I went to see Paul Beck’s artwork and loved it. Paul’s art is half accessible “Dick and Jane” imagery and half wry, cynical social commentary. He uses happy pop imagery to broach subjects like human rights, greed and gluttony. He’s always inspired me, so I decided to interview him about what the art scene in Austin was like in the 90s.

Paul Beck grew up in South Austin and Manchaca, Texas, as did his mother. He attended Texas State University, went to San Francisco around 1992 for a couple of years, then moved back to Austin in 1995. Since then Paul Beck has worked as a solo artist and in conjunction with the Organization of Contemporary Media Arts (OCMA) on projects such as Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly and Archer $Beck. His collectors vary, from one of the Butthole Surfers, to one of the owners of the K.F.C. Corporation.

...might be good: When you were a kid, what did you want to be?

Paul Beck: Everything, I still do. [...] I drew a picture of Willy Nelson when I was 10 and sold it to a guy down the street.

...mbg: Did you study art formally?

PB: I went broke in San Francisco but it was great. Twist was starting to cross over into big time galleries. Juxtapoz was just beginning. There was a really good feel as outside artists started taking over. I would make stickers of my work and put them in high-end galleries and invite people to my opening within an opening.

...mbg: When did you move to Austin?

PB: In 1995, the art scene here was wild. We were not concerned about making downtown look great or helping some group sell their lifestyle. Hell, the dirty cheap is what made this city. Now it’s been polished into some strange theme park for your credit card. It is sad to see Austin being sold by developers using the arts and creativity as selling points while artists are slowly being squeezed out and replaced by boutiques.

...mbg: How did you get your first art show in Austin?

PB: I would submit slides when I had money to make them. Eleven Eleven, set up by Nathan Jensen, allowed me to show off new work that no gallery was interested in. I sold a few pieces and met Billy and Mary Kirkland. Billy had opened a new space called Eeka Beeka on South First Street, next door to Alternate Current Gallery and Laughing at the Sun. Billy really brought good energy and interesting art to Austin. I did a show in 1997 with Steve Brudniak there called Porcelain. It had paintings and dolls that amplified sounds from other rooms in the gallery. In 1996, Lombardi popped up, as well as the Artplex. Holy 8 Ball was downtown.

...mbg: What were the venues you aspired to show at?

PB: Women and Their Work opened when I was around 18. The Guerrilla Girls were doing their thing. There were others like Air Gallery and Acme Art. I was into their raw, offbeat works. Eventually I was being invited to show and discuss my artwork at the Texas Fine Arts Association [now Arthouse] and AMOA, which was a real honor for a kid from Manchaca.

...mbg: What other artists or things were you looking at?

PB: Nathan Jensen, his never-ending energy and good heart. Jason Huerta, The Amazing Hancock Brothers, Steve Brudniak, Scott Stevens, Billy Kirkland, Do Dat, Jesus Lizard, Artcore, punk rock posters, Rothko Chapel, Juxtapoz when it first came out, Up All Night, Lombardi events, electric art, street art and erotica. Fun things, places that were open to anything, unpretentious. One of the most surprising moments I recall was when Bill Davis, which was then the Tarrytown Gallery, showed work from Malcolm Bucknall, the artist that did the cover of Jesus Lizard’s CD Down.

...mbg: What's the best award you've ever received?

PB: Best of Show at F.F.A. [Future Farmers of America]—I won scholarship money. I wasn’t planning on going to college, but with the money, it changed my life. I have had people get what I am up to with my art and hug me. Also, being invited to show work sometimes makes me want to cry, knowing that someone I don’t know cares.

...mbg: What can you say generally about the scene and being an artist in Austin?

Austin has always had an “art scene.” I am always confused when I hear that it did or does not. I think some of this comes from the media attention that some artists crave. Trust me, just ’cause you’re in a magazine doesn’t mean you’re the shit. To me, being in a scene to get attention can be dangerous thing to get sucked into. Like having tunnel vision with your ideas, your world shrinks…but some people need group hugs. I grew up in a large family and don’t mind being alone.

I think it’s hard to understand art and ideas when it’s reduced to a scene, a gallery, an opening night or a critic’s choice. Like nature ever changing, it is all just a moment in time and bigger than you can imagine.

Rachel Koper is an artist, curator and writer in Austin.

Lee Baxter Davis
TXB @ The Pump Project, Austin
Through April 11

By Michael Agresta

Lee Baxter Davis, Idiot Self, A Night on the Town, 2005, Ink wash, watercolor on paper, 36 x 44 inches. Courtesy the artist and the Texas Biennial.

To the fast-moving eye of the contemporary art world, Lee Baxter Davis’s career would seem lost in the brambles of East Texas. Seventy years old this year, Davis has spent most of his life in and around the rural community of Greenville, teaching art at East Texas State University and serving as assistant pastor of St. William the Confessor Catholic Church—both honorable occupations, but not exactly platforms to attract the attention of international art dealers and critics. He works in large pen and ink drawings, often accented with watercolor, usually focused on a human subject. Bosch and Dürer are his two most obvious historical reference points (the former’s narrative mannerisms and the latter’s compositional sense), and indeed Davis’s art sometimes seems arrested in their late-medieval milieu of mysticism, alchemy and visions of eternal life.

Then, of course, one notices the fighter jets, the shotguns, the cowboys, the barbed wire, the jockeys playing badminton. The contemporary, or some mythical version of it, does get its due in Davis’s work, though often in the details. The central figures of each scene don’t exactly suggest the past, either, even as they act out mysterious parables. In Wild Ass (2007), a shirtless man in a safari hat, kilt and argyle socks fires a round through the back of his hobby horse’s head. In Vigilance of Penelope (2007), a nude older woman sips tea and reads a book in her hammock while the aforementioned jockeys (who are also angels) knock a shuttlecock (which is also a racehorse) over and around her body. Large animals dominate a few of the less active drawings, like Blood Has Flowed, the Crisis Has Passed (2004), where an iconic rhinoceros carries the naked and mutilated corpse of a man.

Given so much rich material, it’s tempting to trace stories, commentaries and references to Davis’s personal and spiritual life. The old pastor must be alluding to Tristam Shandy, The Odyssey, the Book of Job. He must be saying something about intellectual preoccupations, about fidelity, about divine power reflected in powerful earthly creatures. But the exact sentiment is never clear. As one wanders through the gallery, one’s meaning-making capacity is more and more bewildered. One is concerned at not “getting” all the references, that the work is either too personal to understand or beyond one’s education. This sort of dissonance may be Davis’s precise aim, something that he learned from the masters. As de Certeau says of Bosch, “The secret of The Garden is to make you believe that it possesses some sayable secret—or rather to promise one secret (meanings hidden from the understanding) in place of another (the enjoyment given to the eye.)”

Davis himself, teetering on the edge of outsider-ism, is another part of the puzzle. If Bosch’s garden is activated every time someone tries to pluck meaning from it, then how does that formula change when the artist is less famous, older and facing potential obscurity? What good is this whole language of symbols, if Davis is the only one fluent enough to know whether it’s nonsense? These questions lead to serious considerations about art (or the soul, for that matter) transcending death. Davis claims this as the real subject of his work: “The conflict between observed biological facts and certain metaphysical models of paradise, or the reality of death and concept of immortality.” These quasi-allegorical scenes take on a much more rooted meaning when cast in that light.

The viewer may also be pleased to learn that Davis’s fine legacy as a teacher is beginning to advance his career as an artist. A few members of the generation of Texas artists he’s mentored—including Trenton Doyle Hancock, Gary Panter, Georgeanne Deen, Greg Metz and Robyn O’Neill—have recently helped to bring his work to larger audiences. From the Texas Biennial to New York, art appreciators are taking up the task of untangling Davis’s dense symbolic web.

Michael Agresta is a writer based in Austin. He's working on a book of fiction.

Birth of the Cool
Blanton Museum of Art, Austin
Through May 17

By Katie Geha

Lorser Feitelson, Dichotomic Organization, 1959, Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches, Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Utah State University, Logan, Utah, Marie Eccles Caine Foundation, Gift. © Feitelson Arts Foundation.

Mad Men, the acclaimed AMC series, details the trials and tribulations of a late 1950s advertising executive on Madison Avenue: the dapper, smoldering Don Draper. In a recent episode, Draper’s underlings at the ad agency sneak into the head boss’s office. The group doesn’t make this covert trip to ooo and ahh over the perfectly stream-lined mid-century furniture that adorns the office, but rather to behold a strange new painting: a large Rothko color-field. With a slight tilt of the head, Ken Cosgrove says, "It's like looking into something very deep. You could fall in."

There are no Rothkos in the Blanton exhibition Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Mid-Century and there’s little one could describe as “deep.” Yet what the exhibition lacks in profundity, it makes up for in slick sheer investment in cool. And not the cool associated with a martini and a drag from a cigarette in downtown Manhattan, but the cool of the angles and reflections of a glass house jutting over the bright lights of Los Angeles.

In relishing California cool, the exhibition celebrates the decorative. Every hard-edged painting by Lorser Feltson, Karl Benjamin or Helen Lundeberg looks attractive with its clean interlocking forms and bright colors, yet none stand out as magnificent works. Instead, they feel like set pieces, just another part of the interior tableau that opens the show. A tableau that, significantly, also features mid-century furniture and objects that would make any furniture enthusiasts drool.

The combination of the high and the low makes the show feel light and easy, evoking an idea of an era, not a complex acquired taste. A Noguchi sculpture sits on a pedestal just opposite a Vernon stacking chair also on a pedestal; a delirious Charles and Ray Eames film of spinning tops plays around the corner from a zany Road Runner cartoon by Chuck Jones. This combination of art, design, furniture and popular culture has a bit of a leveling off quality—nothing feels singular, everything feels cultural. Yet, the exhibition’s slickness, its sheer coolness captures a Southern California mid-century mentality of comforting (frightening?) simplicity; a time before the civil rights movement, Stonewall, Vietnam and the student uprisings. While Miles Davis floats across the gallery, it’s tempting to imagine an America of Bucky Fuller geodesic domes, hoop skirts and Saarinen Tulip chairs. The gloss of this exhibition, like a sparkling piece of costume jewelry, is pleasing to the eye, shallow, a daddy-o ditty.

Katie Geha is pursuing her Ph.D. in art history at The University of Texas at Austin.

Tom Molloy
Lora Reynolds Gallery, Austin
Through April 25

By Lauren Hamer

Tom Molloy, Lucid (detail), 2008, Pencil on paper, Suite of 6 drawings, Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Lora Reynolds Gallery.

Tom Molloy's new show at Lora Reynolds Gallery manages to be both aesthetically spare and conceptually diffuse, a light touch packing a soft punch. Though the messages in the works seem easily read, the two-plus-two logic at work doesn’t flatter the audience, nor is Molloy’s commentary far enough removed from the ubiquitous complaint, America-as-war-and-sex-machine, to make it any more acidic than the mild reassurance that you are, indeed, in an art gallery post 2004. With the addition of a misplaced jab at "the role of women in society,” Molloy’s seem a standard set of subjects for early 21st century angst: American self-deception, the ethics of the traumatic image, the mediatized half-life of 9/11 and so on.

Like (that other icon-shuffler) Hans Haacke, Molloy's political commentary is delivered in the materials and symbols most apropos its didactic content. Thus the production of the works is a factor here, one that the artist took pains to clarify during his talk in the gallery last week. In the back of the gallery, referred to as the "female room" in his talk, Molloy presents forty-five small, embroidered portraits of America's first ladies in tight black thread on white ground. After his own sewing abilities proved too crude to render the more or less famous faces of Jackie-O and Abigail Adams, Molloy paid a woman, one of his neighbors in Ireland, minimum wage to complete the piece. As a work of embroidery, it is neatly done. Mamie Eisenhower looks well. As a work of conceptual art, however, the witty symmetry of power and position is at best self-deprecating and at worst mildly annoying. This work, entitled Behind Every Great Man (2008), suffers moreover from its existence as a titular one-liner. One wonders if the work might have carried greater ironic heft had the artist simply presented his own failed attempts.

In the front of the gallery, yes, "the male room," Molloy presents two drawn works and two of photography. In Self-Portrait (2008) Molloy photographed himself in color, frowning, holding a copy of The New York Times on the day the Abu Ghraib story broke. On the cover of the newspaper that Molloy holds, a frowning man holds the image of the tortured prisoner. Removing the artwork off the wall and taking a candid of yourself frowning might complete the implied act: images of violence and the portrait of the artist, selling newspapers and selling art, mediatized and dehumanized, but each a little less than the last. (Big frowns all around).

Adjacent to Self-Portrait, Molloy’s piece, Lucid (2008), functions as the show’s centerpiece. It is composed of six soft graphite drawings, each a familiar and arresting scene of war superimposed upon a porn still. Examined one way you can distinguish the iconic image of the 1963 self-immolation of a Tibetan monk in Saigon, on second glance it’s “girl-on-girl action.” Photoshop was used to create the layered effect, the drawings worked up from the print-out. Firearms and genitals dovetail neatly. But to imply that in our image-glutted age we have begun to blur the distinction feels at once heavy handed and superficial.

Lauren Hamer is a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin.

Rachel Hecker
Texas Gallery, Houston
Through April 18

By Michael Bise

Rachel Hecker, my world is really small and you are in it (installation view), 2006-2009, All works acrylic on canvas. Courtesy the artist and Texas Gallery.

Rachel Hecker’s new paintings in her current exhibition my world is really small and you are in it at Texas Gallery are a lot like the artist herself; they display a hard-as-nails formal perfection that surrounds a great big beating heart. The paintings in Hecker’s first solo show since 2002 depict handwritten lists, notes and appointments jotted on a wide range of random and ephemeral paper from hotel stationary to post-it notes. She amplifies these notes and scribbles by blowing them up to nearly twenty times their original size and painting them on canvas in a flawlessly crisp style that walks a tightrope between fetishism and invisibility.

While her paintings are rooted in the history of Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Hecker’s intention seems dramatically different. Where classic Pop artists made works that commented on a larger culture, Hecker’s paintings revolve around philosophies that ultimately find their beginning and end in a very personal realm.

The most interesting turn in Hecker’s relationship to the Pop Art canon lies in her incorporation of the elegiac qualities of that period that many current artists increasingly recognize. Her Warhol is not the Warhol of the early Factories and wild parties but the Warhol that emerged after he was shot and as he gradually became more and more obsessed with religion and death.

Hecker’s meticulously recreated handwritten text on top of a meticulously recreated "While-You-Were-Out" note functions both as a doubling and a cancellation of the Pop Art impulse. Rather than trying to “be a machine” as Warhol once famously stated he wanted to be, Hecker recreates the clean look of the machine by hand. In doing this, she communicates to the viewer an investment of time that ultimately translates into an investment of life-time. Time spent painting is time spent dying.

Hecker also distances herself from painting per se in the installation of her paintings in the gallery. Instead of hanging them on the wall, she stacks the paintings, one on top of another along the two longest walls of the gallery. However, as with her engagement with Pop Art, Hecker’s primary motivation is not to provide an institutional critique of the gallery space, but to recreate a personal space; the space of the refrigerator door, the desk drawer or the studio wall. As always, her work brings us back to a space that can only be described as personal and profoundly human.

Michael Bise is an artist living and working in Houston.

Florian Slotawa
P.S.1, New York
Through September 14

By Lyra Kilston

Florian Slotawa, Pier and Water, 2009, Mixed media, Dimensions variable. Courtesy P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center.

How differently would Duchamp’s Fountain be regarded if the urinal had come from the artist’s own bathroom and was returned there for his daily use after its display? Questions like this one fascinate Berlin-based conceptual artist Florian Slotawa, who displays his own possessions as artwork and is compelled by the idea that a refrigerator can become sculpture in a museum and then return to cooling milk in his kitchen. Since 1996 Slotawa has created various iterations of a project called Besitzarbeiten, or “property works,” in which he uses his personal property, such as a table, washing machine, chairs or clothing, as artistic material. As long as he owns it, it’s fair game.

Ownership, of course, is nearly as inherent to art as creativity or production. The promise of ownership (i.e. patronage) enabled the creation and preservation of much of the art now in our museums. Each artwork morphs in meaning on its journey from studio to gallery to condominium penthouse, where it nestles in among carefully harmonized furniture, drapery and carpeting.

At PS.1, the twelfth iteration of Besitzarbeiten features a large stack of Slotawa’s furniture, reaching almost to the ceiling. Tasteful, minimal wooden pieces, like a dresser and a table, share space with a white dishwasher, an upended bright blue chair and a white porcelain sink. The furniture is assembled with regard to balance and beauty—a handsome, modern European selection of amber woods, metal and glass. A wall text explains that Slotawa built the stack to look oval (after some squinting this became apparent), in homage to a series of oval Mondrian paintings titled Pier and Ocean (1915). Generally agreed to signal Mondrian’s turn toward total abstraction, Pier and Ocean pared the horizontal and vertical lines of a pier and water down to hatch marks, pluses, minuses, dashes and grids, and drained out all color besides whites and grays. On the other side of the room, Slotawa presented small reproductions of the Mondrian paintings, whose geometric forms echo the lines of Slotawa’s cupboards, tables and lamps.

In past iterations of Besitzarbeiten, Slotawa often installed his things more chaotically, with furniture tilted and stacked haphazardly and personal items spilling out of drawers. The chaos gave the impression of a hasty evacuation—even signaling an escape from a crisis to the temporary refuge of a gallery. In those pieces, the personality of the artist/owner came through more vividly; we could see what kind of clothes he wore and what kind of books he liked; our voyeuristic desires were indulged.

In this new work, however, Slotawa—following Mondrian—repressed as much self-exposure as possible. What can these stacked pieces of furniture really tell us about the artist? As Mondrian peeled away layer after layer of figuration, so Slotawa strips his possessions of any personal aura, leaving only the objects as forms, without even the personalizing signature of his R. Mutt.

Much of the discourse around Slotawa’s work focuses on how his work “blurs boundaries between public and private.” Placing your belongings in the gallery seems a rather innocuous gesture though, in light of projects in which artists (Marina Abramovic, among others) have literally moved in. While his project raises questions of institutional contexts, artistic material and the relationship between voyeurism and abstraction, the deadpan result felt like a closed circuit—an inside-joke the artist was playing with himself. Sure, our possessions define us, and these days there’s no discernible difference between sculpture we might see in a gallery, IKEA or junkyard. But rather than challenge these well-worn facts, Slotawa merely reinforces them.

Lyra Kilston is a writer living in New York. She is an editor at Modern Painters.

Cowboys on the Lido*

By Gavin Morrison

Sean Snyder, Still from video component of "Dallas Southfork in Hermes Land," Slobozia, Romania, 2001. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel.

The year 2011 will see both the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Texas and, in a potentially auspicious convergence, the 54th Venice Biennale. This calendar collision initiated a thought: what would it be for Texas to have a pavilion in Venice?

The Venice Biennale is a curiosity. Its central geo-political structure consists of a series of national pavilions. A stroll through the almost pastoral setting of the Giardini—where the 'old guard' pavilions of Germany, Great Britain, France, etc. are clustered—can initially be heady with the utopianism of this 'meeting of the nations.' However, this quickly gives way to the realization that the enclave is smothered by a distinctly languid colonial air. This central structure has been augmented more recently by a burgeoning periphery of non-nation-state exhibitions and projects. These offer a multitude of alternatives to the satiated world-view created by the national pavilions. There are exhibitions and pavilions by countries that are newly asserting their cultural identity and independence (for instance, Scotland and Ukraine); there are cities and regions utilizing the cultural leverage which the Biennale affords to a variety of ends (for example, The Manchester Pavilion which was part of the 49th and 50th Biennales or the Catalonia Pavilion which will be new to the Biennale in 2009). Within all of this is the palpable sense that both nations and non-nations are using art with political intent and that a presence at the Biennale is a form of cultural capital. Dependent upon one's perspective, Venice during the Biennale is either a glut of art jingoism or the site of a profusion of diverse cultural expression.

The appearance of a Catalonia Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year asserts a distinct cultural identity, establishing a clear parallel to the region's aspiration for autonomy from Spain. The pavilion has been contentious within Catalonia, partly due to the perception that the selected artists are better known within a context of political activism than in the art world.** Within such a situation it becomes overtly provocative for art to 'represent' a country both in terms of the work displayed but also in the effect that the artist becomes understood as a type of functionary agent for the host nation/non-nation. A further example is that of Mark Titchner, an English artist who represented the Ukraine in the 2007 Biennale. Titchner worked with the Kiev based art collective Revolutionary Experimental Space (REP), and created a billboard-sized work that exclaimed, in Ukrainian and English, 'We Are Ukrainians, What Else Matters?' The question seems of utmost relevance within the contemporary climate: who determines cultural identity and where are its limits?

It was partly in response to the dizzying accumulation of these types of meta-narratives that the Manchester Pavilion came into being. The northern English city's presence in Venice was almost surreptitious, taking the form of a simple name change: the bar Osteria de Codroma became “The Manchester Pavilion” for the duration of the Biennale. The bar remained ostensibly unaltered apart from the addition of the neon sign in the window to display its new name and a mandate to keep the bar free of works of art. The bar/pavilion provided a respite from the art excesses of the Biennale and related to the cultural identity of the eponymous city by "[b]uilding on Manchester's international reputation for a lively and distinctive nightlife. The Manchester Pavilion will fill an essential role within this year's Biennale by providing somewhere to go after about 10pm in an otherwise early-to-bed Italian town." With its intentional detachment and focus on socializing, it was perhaps a more eloquent portrayal of cultural identity than most endeavors in Venice.

A Texan presence at the Venice Biennale would further complicate the formation and continuity of cultural identity. Recently, I was reminded of the not uncommon bumper sticker: "I wasn't born in Texas but I got here as soon as I could." Although variants of this sentiment are undoubtedly voiced in other states, it seems particularly applicable for Texas, as Texas enjoys a very recognizable 'here' or sense of place. In many respects, as an identifiable culture, Texas seems more specific and quantifiable than America, although such notions of identity are often based upon clichés and stereotypes. The entity that is Texas has a cultural currency and truth to it that is due to the prevalence, if not the veracity, of such ideas. A Texan Pavilion, exploiting these cultural tropes in the right way, could offer an opportunity to explore some other, perhaps more compelling, cultural facets.

Sean Snyder's Dallas Southfork in Hermes Land, Slobozia, Romania (2001) suggests some of the productive ways that the idea of Texas can explode our definitions of cultural and political identity. The installation, which consists of video, photographs, architectural models and other documents, exposes the ways in which cultural identification with Texas becomes misdirected, re-configured and modified. Snyder's installation offers an idiosyncratic documentation of a recreation in Romania of the Southfork Ranch from the TV series Dallas. Former Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu apparently screened episodes of Dallas as a moral warning to the Romanians not to wish for free-market reforms or they too would end up as corrupted and immoral as those portrayed in the TV show. Of course the effect was not that simple. Dallas became hugely popular in Romania, to the extent that in the mid 1990s, the Romanian billionaire Ilie Alexandru decided to build his own version of the Southfork Ranch outside of Bucharest. He realized that re-creating the version in Texas would be too small for him, so he scaled the building up to make his version 20% larger. Snyder's installation represents three related but distinct Southforks: the Southfork Ranch that appeared as a Hollywood invention on TV; the actual Southfork Ranch outside of Dallas; and the Romanian reconstruction. Texas is the invented fantasy, the idealization and the moral punchline.

If nothing else, perhaps the notion of a Texas presence at Venice will inspire a new contemporary art parlor game: what art would you show in a Texan Pavilion? However the potential is far greater; in this moment of cultural history, a moment at which there is an almost incessant reinterpretation and re-defining of cultural identity, Texas is reflexive of a cultural presence produced, in large part, by a globalized perception. While Venice isn't in need of any more art, Texas could be present in an eloquent and considered manner that might articulate the complexities of this fascinating land as it exists within an ever-shifting world.

*This essay is an edited adaptation of a lecture given at the The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth on March 3, 2009.

**Roberta Bosco, “Catalonia goes its own way at Venice Biennale,” The Art Newspaper, no. 199 (February 2009): 8.

Gavin Morrison is curator at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts, The Art Galleries at TCU and a director of Atopia Projects, a curatorial and publishing initiative based in France, UK and USA.

to the editor

Elizabeth Dunbar

To the editor in response to TXB 09,

The Texas Biennial is moving in the right direction. After visiting this year’s iteration—an ambitious and sprawling show selected by esteemed curator Michael Duncan—my primary comment concerns its purpose. What IS the Biennial’s purpose? Is it to promote the work of Texas artists? Bring national/international attention to the Texas art scene? To celebrate artists working in Texas? I'm just not clear as to what the Biennial wants to accomplish, especially after seeing it. If it is to celebrate artists in Texas, it does so very successfully. There are A LOT of artists. But if it is to promote those artists and bring greater outside attention to our vibrant Texas art scene (which, personally, is what I would like it to do), then I think it still needs some work.

The trouble with this year's Texas Biennial, for me, is that there's just too much stuff in it. There is so much that one loses sight of what is relevant, original and exciting. We have some amazing artists working in Texas, and some are in this show. And while there are some real gems in the exhibition, it is easy to overlook them in the overcrowded mix that makes up the two group exhibitions. Some may say that more is more, but I'm a believer in more is less, especially in this case. If the goals of the Texas Biennial include promoting and celebrating the artists living in Texas, then the artists should be given adequate space and focus so they can be seen at their best. Present multiple works so we can really get a sense of what those artists are about. In my mind, the solo shows that are part of the Biennial are a better way to go, although I do have some issues with this approach too. (By definition, the Texas Biennial is a regional exhibition; by further limiting the solo shows to a single artist from each quadrant of the state, it becomes even more regional. Too regional. But I digress...). While I applaud Michael Duncan for selecting such a diverse group of artists, I would have liked to have seen fewer artists but in greater depth. Perhaps something between the two extremes would have been more satisfying. For the Biennial to really have meaning and impact beyond the Texas border, it needs to be more than just a smorgasbord.

Elizabeth Dunbar
Curator, Arthouse

...mbg recommends

the Panhandle?
Wichita Falls Museum of Art
Opens April 3, 6-8 pm

By Kate Watson

Cande Aguilar, Mixta Nueve, 2004, Mixed media with found object on panel, 61 x 96 inches. Courtesy the artist and Wichita Falls Art Museum.

Wait, what? There's another Texas Biennial? According to their website, the Wichita Falls Museum of Art's upcoming exhibtion, Texas Twelve: The 2nd Biennial Survey of Texas Art and Artists is "the only invitational biennial exhibition of Texas artists in the state."

Museum director Cohn Drennan says, “...we’re not looking for the newest of practitioners, but definitely those artists whose work is relevant in the current development of art and its dialogue across the state.”

This seems like a deliberate response to our rabble rousing local version and brings up many questions about how best to represent a state's artistic output. Specifically, it appears that this alternate attempt seeks to include a variety of mid-career artists (hell, even Eric Zimmerman seems mid-career in the context of Austin's TXB!).

The WFMA has taken on interesting curatorial challenges before—one of our favorite shows in the last few years was Leona Scull-Hons' and (our own staff writer) Rachel Cook's exhibition, Cherry Picked: 2007 Survey of Texas Art and Artists. Read Glasstire's Rainey Knudson's May 2007 story about the controversy that show kicked up.

announcements: exhibitions

Austin Openings

Erick Michaud
Art Palace
Opening Reception March 28, 7-9pm

The Gates of Dawn features new video, sculpture, performance, installation, drawing, painting and wood burnings by Erick Michaud. Through a personal mythology, Michaud explores ideas of death, youth, failure, home and nostalgia.

Shawn Camp & Diana Carulli
1305 Position
Opening Reception March 28, 6-8pm

Shawn Camp's thick, textured paintings explore landscapes and skyscapes in abstract terms. Diana Carulli's video installations explore greek myths and the idea of the labyrinth.

Justin Boyd & Nick Tosches
Opening Reception April 5, 4-6pm

A conversation between two “cultural contributors” is at the heart of every testsite project. Justin Boyd and Nick Tosches began their conversation with a common interest in American culture; both Boyd, over the last few years, and Tosches, over the past few decades, have created bodies of work exploring the American spirit—ugly, bold, yet ever hopeful. But what happens to a conversation about our national identity when everything around us seems to shift overnight?

Austin on View

Birth of the Cool
Blanton Museum of Art
Through May 17

See Katie Geha's review of Birth of the Cool in this issue.

Lisi Raskin
Blanton Museum of Art
Through June 21

Working with zones of power like military defense systems, Lisi Raskin investigates a culture of anxiety stemming from the Cold War and resonating with our current cultural and political climate. Armada is a series of new sculptures based on the forms she found at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), a storage facility for military airplanes and aerospace crafts located at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Arizona.

Tom Molloy
Lora Reynolds Gallery
Through April 25

See Lauren Hamer's review of Lucid in this issue.

Texas Biennial 2009
Various Locations
Through April 11

Two group shows at Women & Their Work and The Mexican American Cultural Center. Four solo shows: Kelli Vance at Big Medium, Jayne Lawrence at MASS, Lee Baxter Davis at Pump Project and William Cannings at Okay Mountain. (See Claire Ruud's review of Kelli Vance and Mike Agresta's review of Lee Baxter Davis in ...might be good and Ivan Lozano's post about William Cannings on Glasstire.) Temporary public installations around town, see the TXB map.

Dallas Openings

Dark Energy/Dark Matter: Work by Edward Setina
Opening Reception, March 28, 6 - 8 pm

For his solo exhibition, Setina fuses a sculptor's sensibility with painting. While exploring dreamlike narratives of dislocation, paranoia, and an almost myth-laden destruction, the paintings' sculpted foundations became verbal and active. With a nod to epic film making, Setina's short video narratives deal with the current mode of ubiquitous self-reference and upend it into absurdity, with humor steeped in defeat.

Susan kae Grant: Visions of an Insomniac
Conduit Gallery
Opening Reception, March 28, 5:30 - 8:30pm

This interdisciplinary exhibition of experimental works explores the mysterious space between illusion and reality. The works will consist of large scale digital images juxtaposed with cast shadows and psycho-acoustic sound.  Large-scale images, sound and projection will suggest a theatrical world that references the ridiculous, the tragic and the unexpected. The walls, floor and ceiling will be illuminated with experimental lighting techniques to create a sense of surprise and wonder. Make sure to also check out Paul Greenberg's exhibition, Museum Guards, and Kate Rivers' Nesting in the Project Room. 

Frances Bagley: Mixed Messages
Marty Walker Gallery
Opening Reception, March 28, 6-8 pm

Frances Bagley’s new work engages the viewer with an alluring and provocative layering of mixed-media, combining the artist’s signature figures with carefully constructed, although seemingly haphazard, assemblages of objects and materials. The end result is a mutation of mediums, fantastically depicting abstract narratives that can be seen as both painting and sculpture.

Fort Worth on View

FOCUS: Jeff Elrod
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
On View Through March 29

To create his large, abstract canvases, Elrod explores the intersections between drawing and painting, words and pictures, organic and geometric form, and digitally generated and freely drawn imagery. Through Elrod’s creative process—the action of transferring drawings onto canvas by hand—space and imagery take on a hybrid quality in which flatness and depth coexist. This exhibition will mark the artist’s first solo exhibition in an American museum.

Houston Openings

Human Nature
Houston Center for Photography
Opening Reception, April 3, 6-8 pm

Human Nature raises questions about the current state of our relationship to the natural environment — are we living for success, or excess? What kinds of stewardship methodologies are being practiced? How are we managing other species´ relationships with Earth? What types of energy are we using? What does population growth/urban sprawl look like on the landscape? What activities are taking place on a local level to support local farmers and growers and promote community?

Houston On View

Henrique Oliveira: Tapumes
Rice University Art Gallery
On View Through May 9

Oliveira’s installations, which he refers to as “tridimensionals,” have evolved into massive, spatial constructions that combine painting, architecture, and sculpture. Using his primary material, discarded wood collected on the streets of São Paulo, the artist examines the visual and tactile qualities of wood that has been exposed to the elements.

Houston on View

Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave
Menil Collection
On View Through June 21

This exhibition will be the first mid-career survey of the critically acclaimed painter’s work to be mounted in the United States. The show will include approximately 65 paintings and 25 drawings and will be installed thematically in order to emphasize the serial nature in which the work was conceived and realized.

announcements: events

Austin Events

Living Cool: Panel Discussion
Blanton Museum of Art, Smith Building
March 28, 1pm

A panel discussion in conjunction with the exhibition Birth of the Cool highlights the enduring influence of 1950s West Coast style as reflected in the culture, architecture and lifestyle of Austin today.

Critique & Discussion
March 29, 6-9pm

Eric Zimmerman leads this month's open, informal crit at Co-Lab.

Easter Huevos
April 5, 7-11pm

Afraid of the Easter Bunny? Jesus Benavente and his team of Bunny Buddies, through video and live performance, attempt to exorcise scary childhood memories and replace them with happy ones. The performance will include an  Easter egg hunt.

Houston Events

Systems of Sustainability: Art, Innovation, Action
University of Houston and Blaffer Gallery
March 27-29, 2009
Admission: $10.00 registration fee

Part arts festival, part academic symposium, Systems of Sustainability (S.O.S.) looks at creative enterprise as an integral tool for cultural growth and social change. Experience a range of events that showcase innovative practices from local, national, and international participants including prominent artists, researchers, activists, and scholars. The program includes site-specific projects, participatory activities, lectures, scholarly panels, and many opportunities for dialogue.

This is going to be amazing! Don't miss it.

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