Natural history is written by the victor, too

I’m gonna start this review on a soapbox. My gripe? The “artist statement” and its often-obfuscating, needlessly jargony ubiquity. Now, I completely understand why artists write these statements (grant-, job-, and fellowship applications usually require them, and galleries increasingly employ them), and I even get why curators print them up — it’s probably not good form to send a press release to the local altweekly which reads, say, “What’s Her Name: Recent Paintings. Some of them kind of look like trees.”

But to make the Artist Statement available to the general public as herald of (or wall-mounted part of) a new exhibition is a double-edged sword. While this text can illuminate and clarify, it also runs the risk of pre-digesting an artist’s ideas before a viewer even interacts with the work on its own merits. Worse, artist’s statements are often rife with overripe college-boy verbiage along the lines of “an investigation into the dialectic nature of the meta-dialoguing between interior spaces and exterior culturally-mediated realities.” Eek.

One of the reasons I cringe inwardly at encountering artist statements is that I’ve written them. They are difficult as hell to compose, having as they do to accomplish about six different things at once: make clear the artist’s seriousness of purpose and intellectual rigor; indicate awareness of current contemporary art trends yet establish originality; address the technical particularities and superiority of the chosen materials, process, and/or medium; and hint at some tantalizing or illustrative aspect of the artist’s history, ancestry, or sexuality without putting too fine a point on it.

So it was with trepidation that I came across this mouthful about Marlys Dietrick’s show at Gallery 4 of Blue Star Contemporary Art Center, called The 29th Parallel by the Yard: North America Pattern: Alien Rhythms: “Alien species repeat across the geographic terrain of the 29th parallel. Their success is proven by how familiar they are to us. In this piece, the maps of the parallel and repeating patterns of these familiar invaders are fused into a ‘by the yard’ commodity. Orders can be taken.”

Uh-oh, I thought, unfamiliar as I was with Ms. Dietrick’s work. This sounds like some heavy, abstract shit I’m gonna have to parse the hell out of. Terrain? Alien Species? And who knows what on Earth she means by “maps.” It’ll be two plywood boxes full of gravel and a Styrofoam lean-to, and I’m gonna be up all night with the thesaurus.

Imagine both my delight and my chagrin to arrive at Blue Star and, after perusing the Austin: 20 to Watch show in the main gallery (which was indeed heavy on the high-concept text and, intermittently, a little on the wiggly conceptual side) to come across Dietrick’s winsome, potent, and funny one-person painting show in Gallery 4. Therein, actual (and beautifully rendered) maps are traversed by faithful renderings of invading non-native Texas animal and plant species: Recognizable, often surprising (cockroaches aren’t native?), and lovingly conjured images of avid, sparkly bluebirds, fire ants luscious in their fruitlike shine, fluffy squirrels, and creamy, glowing seashells. Which, as Dietrick points out, are completely familiar to us. And, as promised, the species do, in fact, repeat, advancing army-like against their cartographic backdrop by the actual, 3-foot yard.

In other words, rather than hinting at some intellectualized phantasmagoria and making (this) viewer feel chastened for not getting it, Marlys Dietrick, with charm, humor, and a deeply ambivalent knowledge of the regional nature, made a promise in her artist’s statement and then stuck to it. In this world, there exist few surprises as wholly welcome. •

Editor’s note: Unfortunately, this terrific show came down on November 30. Sarah Fisch regrets not having reviewed it sooner.

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