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AUSTIN — At a photography exhibition during the East Austin Studio Tour (EAST), visitors wondered aloud if Big Medium, the nonprofit that organizes the 11-year-old event, would ever jury the participants. The EAST catalogue, they noted, had expanded to nearly 550 pages to accommodate more than 400 artists and many “happenings.”
“It’s like ACL,” one of them said, referring to the Austin City Limits music festival. “They made it two weekends, so more people can come.”
Over opening weekend, I visited a dozen or so studios and exhibition spaces, and, in truth, a selection committee could have thinned the field. But then the tour wouldn’t truly be of Austin. A studio tour in any arts region (aspiring or well-developed) represents the breadth and depth of local talent as much as it demonstrates the potency of the arts on an institutional level, and EAST is no exception, from the range of quality to the event’s rapid expansion.
It probably helped that Art Alliance Austin, which this year hosted the preview party, jumped on board three or four years ago, bringing with it some establishment clout. The Alliance formed in 1956 and now supports the AMOA-Arthouse, currently hosting those neo-folk “Soundsuits” by Nick Cave. Like EAST itself, the preview night centered on painting, drawing, and sculpture with little innovation — which isn’t to say that I didn’t find a piece or two worth mentioning, like the hand-drilled portraits of Mexicans killed in drug-related violence by Miguel A. Aragón at Tiny Park Art Space.
The following night, local art blogger Salvador Castillo ran his Eyes Got It! open art competition. The judge’s marks seemed to reinforce the idea of a juried EAST, as they slashed collections that were either obviously incoherent or merely subpar. They chose photorealist Jason Webb as their winner, and though he’s no Richard Estes, Webb’s paintings of derelict spaces occupied by homeless people vividly illustrate the backside of Austin. I preferred Jaelah Kuehmichel’s collection. It wasn’t thematically cohesive, but the work — done with watercolors, acrylic, coffee, and collage materials — suggests a young artist who might be dangerous if she discovers her sense of urgency.
On Saturday and Sunday, I hit the streets the Austin Way — by foot and by bike. The shoptalk at some of the studios was inclusive and detailed, with the networking tending toward creative collaborations rather than investment partnerships. The tour revealed a lot of graffiti- and tattoo-influenced art, like the work of Gabriel Roderiguez, design-heavy abstract pieces by Misha Maynerick Blaise, or Landry McMeans’s Nouveau Western cardboard reliefs. Andrew Long’s abstract expressionist work echoes Robert Motherwell, so it’s no surprise he has a steady international clientele.
The more innovative pieces I came across were those by Rebecca Rothfus, Sodalitas, Joseph Phillips, and John Mulvaney. A schoolteacher, Rothfus accidentally stumbled upon territory inhabited by photographer Verne Stanford by creating architectural drawings depicing the invisible footprint left by cell phone towers. Phillips’s drawings treat the Earth as a man- made object in “artist representations” of developments. And Sodalitas depicts floating futuristic landscapes, built of metal, brush, and crystal formations.
Mulvaney’s collection, The Lie of the Land, was the most accomplished and relevant one I encountered, depicting a widespread loss of faith in institutions humans once relied on. Drawing on Byzantine devotional works and Mexican retablos, Mulvaney reconstitutes the citizens of the world as subject to the ghosts of terrible history, rather than betrayers of a higher standard.
Walking home Sunday night after a brutally tedious freestyle jam featuring bad art, I stopped at an outdoor installation I had passed several times in my car. Amy Scofield’s “Spare/Spheres” is an inherently Austin-centric piece, constructed out of 6,500 used bike tubes headed for the landfill. Here’s a work that maintains its message about waste by using waste without losing the art, and it speaks directly to Austin.
Austin is home to artists who may not aspire to national status, and their ability to earn a living by selling their art locally may not require them to. In fairness, Meredith Powell, the executive director at the Art Alliance, told me that the region suffers from a dearth of collectors, and that much of the new talent from the University of Texas transfers out after graduation. However, the very localized culture of Austin has made it so that art, like food, devalues in proportion to the amount of gas required to deliver it. I have no empirical evidence, only a hunch based on the success of strange, nichey little restaurants and stores that wouldn’t have purchase elsewhere but thrive here regardless of how much they proliferate.
The East Austin Studio Tour continues through November 18 in Austin, Texas.