AUSTIN, Tex. — A few months ago, when Salon.com announced its search for a new culture editor (who would be based in New York City), a fan quickly snarked on Facebook that Gotham is passé; Austin is the new home of American culture.
In truth, anyone involved in the arts has more than likely been to, or at least heard of, a festival in Austin honoring her particular form of creativity. For those of us who live here, the number and frequency of gatherings instigates an instinctive eye-roll — as happened to me the other day when a Whole Earth Provisions employee asked me what I was doing with the particularly gentle, sunny Sunday afternoon?
“I’m going to WEST,” I said. Adding, when I saw that the name didn’t register, “The West Austin Studio Tour.”
He rolled his eyes, and then, softening his manner, said, “Well, Austin is good at supporting its local artists.”
The gear-slinger’s change-of-heart speaks to my experience of having seldom been to a town whose residents so adore it, every cynical quip met with the expressed joy of having things to do and an appreciation of the people who make those things happen. Nonetheless an underlying suspicion of festivals pervades — they may make for a hip and lively culture, but they may not attract the most discerning characters, let alone the respect of more serious markets. And Austin so desperately wants to be taken seriously by the art world at-large.
The opening weekend of WEST, Austin also hosted the hybrid art week Fusebox Festival, Moontower Comedy Festival, and Wine and Food Festival. This story was meant to be a mid-week review of WEST, but the double billing of an installation as a part of Fusebox and of WEST turned me onto the theme of urban transformation via festivals, and Fusebox hosted two panels on “the future of festivals,” which became a lens through which I viewed everything else throughout the week.
Fusebox bills itself as a “hybrid arts festival,” but the program seems to me largely centered on the performing arts. Nonetheless, the nine-year-old gathering includes a sampling of visual arts, including “20FT Wide” (2013) by Dan Cheetham and Michelle Tarsney. Commissioned under the banner of Art Alliance Austin, the piece is “a case study in transforming a downtown alley into a vibrant public open space,” according the official literature. Indeed, the work does study, rather than actually initiate, transformation by using impermanent materials and unfinished objects. However, “20FT Wide” also became a transitional setting for Fusebox opening night activities, successfully transforming the incidental space into a social one.
Other visual works throughout the week shared this theme of urban re-imagination. Wardenclyffe Gallery employed the give-artists-a-container-and-see-what-they-do method in “Basements were Rooftops,” which attempted to create a Main Street in which the layers of development were so obvious that one could potentially track them backwards to the beginning. Johnny Walker’s “The Night Gardener” transforms — there’s that word again — neglected spaces into places of contemplation and beauty. Leading up to “20FT Wide,” Walker circled pieces of the hardened, black-stained gum dotting the sidewalk with chalk, calling the piece “gum drops.” And for “wind and waves,” he built T-bars for large sheets of plastic that lifted in the wind of a far, forgotten corner of the popular Zilker Park. As I drove by, I thought, “I didn’t even know that area was there.”
These spaces, perhaps intentionally, create a contrast to the festival Austin that so many people enjoy. Does the concentrated programming narrow our gaze, obscure the true Austin even from those of us who live here?
Walker showed up at Fusebox’s Hybrid Art Summit to ask what effect festivals have on the prevalence of art the rest of the year, which of course brought the group of theatre and museum professionals to the most basic question of “What is a festival?” Most agreed that the focus on particular programming and the people interested in that programming were essential. They could walk away feeling energized. “Changed” was one word that went around. “Conversation” was another, as in “The festival starts a conversation.”
Though the discussion got stuck on whether to charge door fees for programming — which cover only a small fraction of the actual cost — the group was concerned with a festival’s relationship to place. How does a festival reflect or depend on its location? One summit member suggested that festivals made Austin artists a part of the conversation, which others pointed out that many Austin residents plan vacations for the week of South By Southwest.
Following this theme of urban transformation takes me back to WEST, the second annual tour of “West Austin” studios, now in session. I put West Austin in quotation marks, because there wasn’t really a West Austin until there was an East Austin. The dividing line for the purposes of the tour is Interstate 35, which means that East Austin is much smaller. And West Austin includes, downtown, the University of Texas, the Northside and the Southside. Fewer artists are involved in WEST than in its counterpart, EAST, which completed its eleventh year last fall.
WEST artists tend to be more established, older and more conservative. Getting around to the various home studios requires a lot more driving if one wants to visit particular artists, but if one is more in it for the experience than the art — which tends to be the case with any festival/tour — she can park in the center of any one of several concentrated areas and walk around easily.
After flipping through the WEST catalogue at the opening party, I felt rather hopeful about the tour. A 24-year-old quipped that, being an art history student accustomed to more structured works, he didn’t understand the art on the walls that night. “They’re Spartans,” he said, referring to the artists. “They’re just exercising.” I took him to mean that because Sparta was the home to warriors, while Athens was home to artists/philosophers, Spartans should stick to working on their bodies rather than their canvases. He was arrogant and narrow-minded, but not entirely incorrect about the art on the walls that night. I had hoped, however, that the selection poorly represented the tour.
Driving around, last Sunday, I realized the tour would take all day if I stopped at every studio I thought might maybe, hopefully, produce interesting work. I blotted out nearly half of the studios I had circled on the map. I’m not trying to be cruel or superior: I did discover quite a bit of perfectly fine decorative art; I just didn’t find much innovation or intrigue.
The exceptions were Jaelah Kuehmichel, Katie Rose Pipkin, Kelly O’Connor, Bethany Johnson, and Terri St. Arnauld and Frank Yezer, with Cary Hulbert’s prints showing promise. O’Connor’s Last Resort at Women and their Work artspace forms a cohesive narrative about the golden days of Los Angeles — of the “swimming pools and movie stars” variety. The collection transforms the entire gallery into a space both immediate and nostalgic. “Snap,” depicting a black-and-white found photo of Judy Garland with art deco shapes flying from her fingertips across a geothermal landscape, is particularly striking in its humor. O’Connor’s intention might be open, as her artist statement states, but the image clearly pokes at magical American pastimes like visiting national parks, which once used apocryphal language to describe natural oddities like geysers and a petting-zoo atmosphere to attract visitors.
St. Arnauld and Yezer stumbled upon surrealist and strangely poignant photographic narratives when St. Arnauld suggested one day that they try the technique of weaving photos together. Otherwise skilled at straight-forward, if sentimental, portraits and still lifes, the couple brings a Cézanne-recalling sense of perspective to still life photography by weaving two images together. Their portraits occasionally suggest the duality of their subjects, while at other times inventing Beckettian figures, people without identities.
Johnson, who earned her MFA at the University of Texas, is the open mystery of the group. According to her artist’s statement, she “translates informational images (like maps, diagrams and scientific documentation) by hand to transform the conventionally factual source into a more poetic, abstract, open statement about the world around us.” While a lot of art seems to be making a statement that neither the artist nor critics seem neither qualified nor interested in clarifying, I’m intrigued by Johnson’s work. It confuses me like programming code, but I just know it means something. And there’s that work “transform” again.
The arts organization Big Medium runs both EAST and WEST, as well as the Texas Biennial and a new studio complex on the Eastside called Canopy. If you talk to the folks at BM, you’ll hear them say that their mission is to bring more attention to Austin visual arts. They have a if-one-of-us-succeeds-we-all-do philosophy, which compels them to make occasional curatorial decisions that highlight the contemporary work they find most accomplished, but for the most part the group is all-inclusive and they resist defining an Austin aesthetic. Rightfully so, as there doesn’t appear to be an Austin aesthetic, so much as the much-lauded Austin attitude that anything is possible here and the world should be taking notice.
The question remains, then, whether the festival is the ends or the means to a thriving Austin arts scene. Does a festival in a city of festivals concentrate artists in one place or confuse audiences about the everyday value of the arts?
The West Austin Studio Tour (WEST) continues on May 4 & 5 in the West Austin neighborhood of Austin, Texas.