Grip River and Austin fever

Whoa, I’ve got many miles to cover in this month’s Art Capades, intrepid readers, so I’ll step lively. First stop: Artpace, where this past Thursday the current artists-in-residence exhibition, New Works: 08.3, opened to the public. Curated by Swiss critical juggernaut Hans Ulrich Obrist, the show features Richie Budd (of San Antonio), Lu Chunsheng (of Shanghai, China), and Taryn Simon (of New York City). Maybe you already knew about Budd’s Artpace residency `see “Mind Over Matter,” October 29-November 3`. It was fun to finally see Budd’s finished, sensory-inclusive, oddly insectile apparatus, now entitled “Absorbing Liminal Homeostasis,” do its musical flash-smoke-and-bubble act as wizard-behind-the-curtain Budd sat within its spindly embrace, controlling it. Crowd reaction varied from giggles (at the initial strains of Bach and flurry of bubbles) to dance freakouts to wide-eyed sensory overload and, in a couple of cases, a hasty retreat from the strobe-lit, smoky thump of the presentation’s more harshly atavistic moments. To be fair, Richie warned the crowd beforehand, “If you have seizures, you should probably just leave.”

Taryn Simon is a New York-based artist perhaps best-known for two mesmerizing large-scale photographic series: “The Innocents,” haunting and sometimes mordantly funny portraits of former prisoners wrongfully convicted by the American criminal justice system; and “An American Index of the Hidden and the Familiar,” an exploration of “secret” loci including CIA offices, a terrifying death row recreational cage, and a nuclear-waste facility of unearthly beauty.

Her “photo-sculptural installation” at Artpace, titled “Sepia Officinalis,” is something altogether different. Four largish aquariums sit nearly camouflaged against the studio’s back wall, and the floor of each tank is covered with a photograph. Three of the tanks’ floor photos (referred to in the show’s pamphlet as the “control group,”) portray sand, while the fourth, or “experimental,” tank’s floor-photo is a sort of black-and-white checkerboard pattern strongly suggesting a tiled parquet surface. In each aquarium resides a live cuttlefish, an intelligent marine mollusk of the order Sepiida, which also includes squid and octopi. On opening night, an Artpace staffer stopped would-be viewers in groups of three, explaining that a too-large or unruly crowd might cause the sensitive animals to release toxic ink into their tanks, which, given the closed confines, might endanger their lives.

So, there’s that. Also, cuttlefish, like other Sepiidae, can change color to blend in with their surroundings, and are employed thusly in order to collaborate both with Simon’s stated notions about “the image on the body,” and with the floor color-experiment placed in their watery cells. This is a bewitching idea, as though Damien Hirst had somehow engaged the cognitive teamwork of a living shark! But during their premiere, the cuttlefish seemed mostly brownish, and sad. True, the tiny artist-in-residence of the parquet-tiled tank evinced one small white square in the middle of his body … but it seemed like hard work, somehow. For its sheer experimental audacity, I applaud “Sepia Officinalis,” but as a piece of art in front of which you stand, and look, and think, it’s a flatly demoralizing experience. It very well could just be me, but aside from an almost-irresistible urge to anthropomorphize the cowering creatures — who, with their doleful, otherworldly eyes, seem to yearn to be someplace else — I had trouble thinking of anything except getting them the hell out of there. Perhaps, given Simon’s past inclination to explore notions of oppression, secrecy, and imprisonment, this is intentional. In any case, I was glad to read that the beautiful cuttlefish are to be donated to “local aquariums” post-residency. I hope they make it.

Lu Chunsheng’s unexpectedly captivating film, “The first man who bought a juicer bought it not for drinking juice,” was meanwhile screened, on a loop, in Artpace’s second-floor Gallery C. Scenes of a middle-aged man engaged in ordering and retrofitting a mechanical component for a John Deere combine, then plowing a field of grain, then harvesting it, shirtless and by hand, are saturated with color and steeped with lyrical power. The film is beautifully boring, and I mean that as a compliment. Against the epic sweep of a for-sale industrial space on SA’s near-South side, or set amid the rhythmic clang and hum of a machine shop, or the grasshopper-beset expanse of grain, Chunsheng offers no dialogue and no legend of interpretation. He merely, and mightily, offers the viewer a richly metaphorical backdrop against which, or in concert with which, to think. In this way, “The first man …” supersedes notions of either Chinese or American art (though the work strongly suggests a shared human experience, both of mechanization and agriculture) and forces us to reflect on the endlessly cyclic process of production, the beauty and treachery of the natural world, and the human body as instrument, document, and actor. After my first restless intitial five minutes (I came in about halfway through), I sat rapt for another showing-and-a-half, and would even like to see it again.

Where were we? Right — so, on to the Main, Middle and Project Space Galleries at Blue Star for New Art in Austin: 20 to Watch. According to the show literature, “This triennial exhibition, the third in the series initiated in 2002, focuses on emerging and lesser-known artists who reside within a 50-mile radius of the state capital.”

The work of these Austin artists is materially and technically diverse, from the abstract, flattened-yet-exuberant color explosions of painter/multimedia artist Xochi Solis, whose “I was not seized by jealousy at all” evokes some personal cosmology of lushness and desire, to Matthew Rodriguez’s massive, grandmotherly puppet-sculpture “Those Who Matter Don’t Mind,” which looks ready to come alive at any moment, a prospect both terrifying and to be devoutly wished. There’s abundant talent and seductive whimsy in this hip, fun show, as well as masterful rendering a-plenty. Jules Buck Jones’s larger-than-life drawings, such as “Saltwater Crocodile,” portray the creepy elegance of reptiles with real immediacy, as though fresh from the swamp of the subconscious, while his heavily worked treatment of the graphic surface and unusual, captivating perspective, often from below, skew the beasts, mysteriously post-modernizing them.

Sculptor Shawn Smith deals with the natural world, too, having meticulously pieced together, in painted plywood, the pixels of the lo-res Google image of an iconic campfire. It’s a clever, deft wooden punchline, and fun to look at. Rebecca Ward’s “site-specific installation projection,” a sort of video game recalling the spatial geometry of early Space Invaders and the square-by-square colonization of Tetris, is called, somewhat archly, “Phantastic Magoria.” Less airily fun, but no less thinking-heavy, are Raymond Uhlir’s painted illustrations of “a month of vivid nightmares,” a series of worst-case-scenario fantasy-scapes starring human-faced sharks and wolves menacing an oddly passive dude, acting out a fragmentary mythos. Elsewhere, Jen Hirt and Scott Webel, aka “The Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemerata,” display, among other things, old stereoscopes, and a letterheaded plea to Willie Nelson for a hair strand (they promise not to clone him.) It’s damn near impossible to describe the works of 20 artists here: Go see it.

A couple of trends seem to me to emerge from this terrific show, and therefore, mayhaps, from the contemporary Austin scene. One is a preoccupation with the psychic power of the pre- or non-rational (i.e. dreams and childhood nostalgia), a reclamation of the natural world (animals, landscape), an inclusive and innovative treatment of art materials, and an ever-growing fascination with the visual signs of technology (the pixel, in particular, as a unit of visual value). These commonalities, spotted in the work of 20 artists, are sometimes wildly successful, sometimes less so. In its best moments, “20 to Watch” does manage to reach beyond academic, intellectualized, hipsterish preoccupations and grope towards revelation.

Meanwhile, back in San Antonio, Ian O’Brien’s Seven Deadly Habits at UTSA Satellite Space, the current installation of O’Brien’s fictional town of Grip River, both lives up to its own hype, and explodes it. O’Brien is the municipality’s mayoral candidate, archivist, graphic designer, legislator, celebutante, sole inhabitant of Grip River, incorporated January 24, 2007. `See “Build it and they will come,” May 1, 2007.` Entering the Satellite Space is like going to a live-action demonstration of some four-dimensional world dreamed up by JRR Tolkien and Stephen Colbert. In this particular incarnation of Grip River’s meta-civic life, O’Brien — through photography, a video “debate,” a mock-office installation, and live performance — wrestles with political campaigning, the human frailty that fuels ambition, and very literal notions of Catholic sin. There’s a lot of ideation resonating in the GR, and O’Brien’s minutely imagined metaverse of detail (the generic letterhead on overdue bills from the Grip River Utilities Company and Grip River Telecom struck me as particularly poignant) all comes down to the notion of “One Man-One Town,” in which every soul’s an island. •


IAIR New Works: 08.3
Noon-5pm Wed-Sun, noon-8pm Thu,
& by appt.
Through Jan 11, 2009
445 N. Main
(210) 212-4900

New Art in Austin: 20 to Watch
Noon-6pm Wed-Sun
Through Jan 4, 2009
Blue Star Contemporary Art Center
116 Blue Star
(210) 227-6960

Ian O’Brien: Deadly Habits
Noon-6pm Fri-Sun
& by appt.
Through Nov 23
UTSA Satellite Space
112 Blue Star
(210) 212-7146

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