MBG Issue #53: September 9, 2005

Issue # 53

September 9, 2005

September 9, 2005

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From Vacant Building to Public Geometry
On view now

You can't drive along 1-35 in downtown San Antonio anymore without noticing the side of the old Lack's building on the corner of San Pedro and Quincy. Bright, with multicolored shapes like the Colorforms we used to play with as kids, the vacant building has been transformed into a support for bankrupt industrial symbols. (Click here for image detail). Anton Vidokle used his summer Artpace exhibition, Optica, to complete the third installment of a project series he has been working on for 4 or 5 years. Working in a similar fashion, Vidokle can now check another piece in a series off his list with Public Geometry, an extension of his Popular Geometries. Although he had previously attempted to create this wall piece in Brussels, the city began tearing up the street the same day his work was to start, effectively shutting down his operation. In San Antonio, the artist saw his idea completed at the end of August with support by Artpace, as well as the American Payroll Association, who offered up their now-vacant building into perpetuity (or at least until the building sells or gets rented.)

Vidokle believes that public art, like his Popular Geometries series, is important for creating shared experiences. The easy, decorative nature of this most recent piece contributes to its status as part of a popular movement. Vidokle, who came to America from Russia when he was 15, revives elements of Russian Constructivism in his work. He pulls from this movement as if its history contained remnants of failed Utopia. His interest lies in that brief moment when geometric abstraction was the voice of the people, and when art was connected to science, engineering, efficiency, and internationalism.

Today, geometric abstraction is most often seen by the "common man" in private sector logos and brand symbols. Vidokle strives to capture this paradox on his newest billboard-sized creation. He takes the stripped down brandings from Eastern European and Latin American corporations who couldn't compete on the world market, and uses them to create a two-dimensional bouquet of solid-color shapes designed to be pleasing to the eye. Many of them resemble El Lissitsky's abstractions or Naum Gabo's translucent string sculptures, but at first glance they are clearly elements of industrial sign language. In Latin America, where Vidokle says modemism was strongly embraced in the 1930s, symbols tend towards interlocking forms and visual tricks from Gestalt psychology—like the three diamonds that make up a two-dimensional rendering of a cube, these abstract forms resist fixed meaning.

While former Austinite, Mikey Reyes, filmed the "installation" process for a documentary, Vidokle directed assistants on the scissor lift from an air-conditioned minivan. This account recalled stories of Henri Matisse directing assistants from his recuperation bed in the 1940s. Matisse's experimentation with colored cut-outs led to his highly-regarded Jazz, which happens to be on view right now at the McNay. Like Public Geometry, Jazz plays with formal elements like composition and color. Now, In such close proximity, the two works make a formidable duo in San Antonio.

No Place Like Home: Two Views on Gallery 3's First Show
On view through October 1

With last week's unforeseeable trauma fresh in our minds, an exhibition focusing on the stability of home is all too apt, and, in a bizarre and equally unforeseeable way, comforting. As our neighbors from Louisiana arrive shell-shocked and stumbling into shelters and safety-nets in Texas, some trailing clothing, photo-albums, family heirlooms, and some with nothing at all, the psychic qualities of "home" are very much in the public mind. Similarly, in the aftermath of a natural disaster which permanently altered both architecture and geography, the physical qualities of home, which often seem inviolable, have been shown to be unstable as well.

The works in No Place Like Home illuminate disquietude with the concept of home in distinctly different ways. While the four-artist show seems to fragment at times due to the proximity of four vastly different styles, their combination under the banner of "home" (or no place like it) gives the viewer an opportunity to consider this seemingly straightforward theme from vantages that are refreshingly askance.

In Ali Fitzgerald's mural-size, hallucinogenic contribution to the exhibition, history, geography, and personality crowd the swirling canvas. Fitzgerald's style speaks to the layering of memory, myth, and tall-tales across the West. Covered wagons drop to the background, nodding to modern 18-wheeler pioneers, and wanderers from our day head straight for the brassy cowgirl of yore at the painting's center. Fitzgerald deftly accents the bluebonnet in the bottom right of her canvas, punctuating the mono-chromatic composition with the signature of Texas, as it was, is, and will be. Using a markedly different vocabulary, Erick Michaud attacks his subject with a camcorder, focusing on the stasis of the physical, despite the fact that his neighborhood is rapidly evaporating. His town has headed for better jobs and increased opportunity in larger communities, while Michaud, it seems, has arrived only in time to record their wake.

Works by Dave Woody and Jared Steffensen appear serene in comparison to the aforementioned frantic layering of history and emotional confrontation. Woody's images of Austin residents have a photojournalistic quality evocative of images made by WPA artists. His subjects include a young Hispanic boxer tight-lipped and emotionless after a fight, and a laborer, shoulders slightly bowed and eyes full of resignation. They appear foreign and timeless, holding their own personal histories close to their chests, inserting mystery into the Austin community we thought we knew. Steffensen's fabric and cloth constructions, on the other hand, offer the most overt narrative of displacement in the exhibition. With portable cloth mountains and felt trees on rolling platforms, the artist implies not only that we can reconstruct place as easily as we construct clothing, but that it is the traveler's choice (and burden) to drag places from the past along with him. By blind luck (or so it seems) the School of Architecture's Solar Decathlon house model occupies Gallery 3 as well. This scale model, accompanied with glossy site elevations and slick posters, represents our best-laid plans for a stable, sustainable, impermeable homestead. Inadvertently thrown into relief by its closeness to the Solar Decathlon, No Place Like Home seems to be the emotional response to the engineered ideal: it communicates a belief that homes cannot be blueprinted, but must be created in the process of living.

"The Secret of the Ruby Slippers"
Thoughts on No Place Like Home by curator Amanda Douberley

Where is home? Is it the place you live, the town where you were born, or the house you grew up in? How does a new environment become home, or at least like home? Is home even a place at all, or is it no place, more a memory or illusion than an actual location? We typically think of home as a stable place, fixed in one location, embedded in our everyday lives as a source of comfort and ease. Being at home is a physical state as well as a psychological condition, however, and just as where you're living now may not feel quite like home, where you're from may eventually end up being a place you can only visit in your memories. These competing interpretations of home are examined in No Place Like Home through paintings, photographs, sculptures, and videos inspired by the places where these artists live and work.

The physical passage from one place to another, from home to "where I'm living now," (to use Dave Hickey's term) leaves us psychologically homeless, at least until the latter becomes home. For some artists in the exhibition, this transition drives work that reflects their efforts to make a home in Texas. David Woody and All Fitzgerald take opposite approaches; while Fitzgerald explores Wild Western stereotypes, reveling in cowgirls, cacti and cowpokes, Woody focuses his large-format camera on the individuals he encounters in his wanderings around Austin and beyond.

Other artists in the exhibition look back on the places they consider home, inspired by a sense of longing for the things they have left behind. Jared Steffensen's recent sculptures are born out of homesickness, nostalgia, and reverie. Based on elements of the Salt Lake City landscape that he left two years ago for Austin, these portable, often wearable sculptures literalize the idea that we carry our past around with us—or at least that we wish we could.

In the video Garage Sate, Erick Michaud addresses another widespread experience; his hometown is slowly disappearing. This summer Michaud returned to Madawaska, Maine to find the town dotted with "For Sale" signs. He spent four hours walking up and down the streets of his old neighborhood and nearby downtown, surveying the impact of recent layoffs at the local paper mill. The relentless repetition of signs on the video loop reflects Michaud's mounting anxiety as he trudges past favorite hangouts and childhood haunts, all soon to be vacant or already abandoned. His frustration lies not only in the thought that some day he may not have much of a town to return to, but also in the loss of a way of life as factories across the United States continue to be outfitted with machines that take the place of workers.

For the artists in No Place Like Home, home is in a state of constant flux, characterized more by instability than permanence, constantly recreated and reformulated as much by global economics as individuals' decisions to leave town and start again some place else. As Salman Rushdie writes in an essay on The Wizard of Oz, "...the truth is that once we have left our childhood places and started out to make up our lives, armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real secret of the ruby slippers is not that 'there's no place like home,' but rather that there is no longer any such place as home: except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz: which is anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which we began."

Resonance from the Past African Art at SAMA
Special Exhibition in the Cowden Gallery
On view through October 2

Resonance from the Past sets a portion of the New Orleans Museum of Art's collection of Sub-Saharan African sculpture on a summer road trip. As it appears now at the San Antonio Museum of Art, the well organized texts and objects give viewers a cultural tour of Africa and a sampling of its diverse styles, rites, and traditions. With Africa so often portrayed by the media as a monolith, it is important to realize that this immense continent is a tapestry of different cultures.

For example, objects by the Asante and Fante are naturalistic. In contrast, Dogon artists expressed qualities through abstraction and simplified forms particularly heavy with symbolism. The Baule stopped making wooden doors by the mid-1960s, but a single example at SAMA depicts the cannibalistic act of one fish devouring another.

The three-dimensional works from NOMA begin to challenge our definition of art as a separate category of cultural discourse. These wares are for everyday use and ceremony—masks, bowls, utensils—and rather than being commodities for sale, they display merit. In the Dan section of objects, "Perfect Women" possess carved wooden ladles that are ordained by the Supreme Being to be the female counterpart to men's masks. The surfaces of both kinds of objects are burnished and beautiful. Interestingly, one of the masks includes forehead scarification thought to relieve migraine headaches.

Many of the objects are political. An adze from the Democratic Republic of Congo gives the chief the power to speak with authority. An iron blade juts out of the mouth of a carved head as its lowered eyes contemplate the strange protrusion. Meanwhile, a reptile climbs the adze's shaft, alluding to the speaker's supernatural powers. Meanwhile, the We peoples of Cote d'lvoire have masks with a very appealing purpose—they are worn by members of a secret association to call an end to unstoppable wars and political disputes. This notion of "art" ending war is phenomenal.

A dance costume looms over the viewer from its pedestal in the middle of an aisle, masked and full skirted, a collage of soft, textured material and beadwork. Egungun is the spirit of the dead that returns to dance among, and judge, the living. When the wearer spins, he sets "spirit in motion." The Yoruba peoples passed this tradition into the African Diaspora, including traditional cultures of Brazil, Cuba, Barbados, and the United States.

Amazing beadwork is also part of the royal tradition in the Cameroon grasslands. Smoothly decorated, colorful masks and accessories contrast with a frightful monkey mask used to combat witches. African art is often assumed to appear frightening, possibly because the items that are meant to instill fear are so well executed, they are unforgettable. A reliquary figure from the Sango peoples is so unsightly and dangerous, for instance, it is kept in the darkest corner and only the initiated can look at it.

There is just as much beauty in these works, though. An Mboko Bowl Bearer, a carving of a male figure holding an open vessel, is a traditional genre of Luba peoples in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These figures hold the finest goods in the house, such as beads and chalk. Chalk, in their culture, is "surrogate moonlight," symbolizing benevolence and peace. When visitors come, they pull out some white chalk and rub it on their arms and chest out of respect.

Concepts such as these weave a spell throughout the exhibition, which at first is almost depressing with its low light levels. Culturally, there is a lot to take away from this show, and of course Westerners have been taking the physical forms back to their studios since the age of imperialism. This exhibition brings out distinctive nuanced style, so even if you've seen your share of African art, you haven't seen everything yet.


Pilson Talks Shop: Hudson (Show)room artist and visiting professor at Bard College, John Pilson, will speak at Artpace on the evening of Thursday, September 22. His talk, entitled "Disappearer: Optical Anxieties Before and After Photoshop," will begin at 6:30 PM.

NPR Senior Correspondent Ketzel Levine Speaks at Blue Star: In conjunction with Blue Star Contemporary Art Center's exhibition, In Response to Place: Photograph's from The Nature Conservancy's Last Great Places, NPR senior correspondent Ketzel Levine will speak about experiencing pristine natural places. Levine's talk will run from 6- 9 PM on September 9. Attendance Is free, but call 1.800.622.9877 to reserve a seat.

Art21: Stay tuned to PBS for the third season of Art21. The close of each episode this season will feature a short piece by University of Texas at Austin professor of art Teresa Hubbard and her partner Alexander Birchler. The four-part Art21 series will be structured around the themes: Power, Memory, Structures and Play. It will air on Friday nights starting September 16 and running consecutively through October 7.

Poetry on the Plaza: On September 28 and 30, actors from the London Stage will recite poetry in the Harry Ransom Center's Prothro Theater. Poetry begins at noon, and following the recitation listeners can attend the HRC's exhibition of Ansel Adams photography, Ansel Adams: A Legacy.

Chalk It Up! Artpace is seeking volunteers for its annual chalk-art festival. Chalk it Up! The outdoor event will take place on Saturday, September 24. Volunteers are needed for four three-hour-long shifts throughout the day. The first shift starts at 7:30 AM and the last shift ends at 6:00 PM. Call 210.212.4900 to volunteer, and please respond by September 14.

Loads of Openings this Weekend: If you're out and about in Austin this weekend, make a point to look at some of the city's newly-opened exhibitions: Lora Reynold's Gallery (opened Thursday), Fielding Lecht Gallery (Friday), Creative Research Laboratory (Friday), Arthouse (Saturday). Look for reviews of these exhibitions in the next issue of ...might be good.

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