I want to watch a time-lapse video of Andy Coolquitt installing his current exhibition (working title: “Pinto Beans”) at Bale Creek Allen Gallery. I’m told he started with only the three big abstract paintings on three walls, elegant, neat. But then the building began, and after a week-long install, something entirely more complex, strange and socially relevant took shape.
First let’s take the familiar. Coolquitt is known for quirky sculptures using found objects and creating assemblage with an unfinished quality, and a sort of swaggy style and DIY ethos. His 2012 exhibition “Attainable Excellence” at AMOA-Arthouse (now The Contemporary), and later at the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston, was accompanied by a beautiful monograph published by the University of Texas Press. It was around that time that Coolquitt’s usual rough edges began to appear more polished, his work more refined. Sculptures made of pipes and light bulbs or colorful plastic lighters, gleamed, pristine and perfectly at home in the highest art setting.
A link could be made between Coolquitt and the 1960s Situationists, who, in their critique of capitalism, wanted to break down barriers between art and consumers. Coolquitt reveals an awareness of this connection in his notes on the current show, writing “It’s a site of production set within the context of consumption. [A studio installed in a gallery.] Or possibly it is a set of a site of production… which is inherently consumable. What is the difference?”
Spent lighters and found objects call attention to paths we take in the urban environment, maybe even questioning ideas about social freedom. Coolquitt’s projects not only deal with society’s consumer castoffs but also a sense of place, both personal and social. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his project, “house,” a performance/studio/domestic space in East Austin that began as his master’s thesis project at UT. Part gathering space, part private home, “house” highlights Coolquitt’s process, aesthetic and collecting habits, as he incorporates things like bottlecaps and plastic bottles into the architecture and design. Like Surrealist René Magritte’s “Treachery of Images,” (“Ceci n’est pas une Pipe”), Coolquitt continues to cleverly question our relationships, assumptions and interpretation of everyday objects.
Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that when walking into this latest exhibition, I’m immediately met with an orange string dangling near my face. Surveying the room, stepladders, boxes, bathmats, towels, photographs and hand-scrawled notes emerge. The positioning of some items conveys a sense of randomness while other tableaux seem self-consciously arranged. Things like five empty probiotic containers tidily aligned on a shelf, a pair of black and white striped underwear, a charming bird sketch and handwritten poem on paper, along with a photo of a red neon sign reading PINTO BEANS, are just a handful of elements mounted to one of the large canvases.
Amidst this hodge-podge of quotidian images, keepsakes and detritus, three life-size mannequins appear. With full bodies — not the angular mannequin frames à la 1980s — these figures have smooth contours and eerily unblemished putty-hued “skin,” enticing the viewer to approach more closely and give them the once over. Each mannequin faces a separate painting hung on the wall. Poised as an art viewer would be, the mannequins are closed off, and immersed in their own activity of looking. They wear only tube socks and tennis shoes.
The addition of these figures definitely adds a welcome kink. Where Coolquitt’s former work transformed lighters and pipes, those items struggled somewhat to shake traces of their social purpose. Human simulacra curiously animate this environment and emphasize the phenomenological experience. I wonder whether they contaminate the found objects somehow.
Coolquitt’s notes state, “How do the two invade each other’s essence? How is private, unconscious thought invaded by our need to be publicly accepted and loved? All this is basically given, for every artist living and working in today’s society. So how am I saying anything new or fresh about this situation? What happens when the figures arrive?”
The arrival of the figure reminds me of art historian Michael Fried’s ideas about Minimalism being theatrical and offering some opportunity of performance. This meant sculpture could transcend objecthood and straddle the boundary between art and the everyday world. Not content with strictly Minimalist abstraction or even spare Anti-Form/Post Minimalism, here Coolquitt brings everything into the mix, abstract painting, the figure, representation and abstraction. No one tradition dominates.
Without the figures, the array of objects, reminders of consumption, might come unmoored. So many moving parts might prevent a thorough or balanced discussion of anything singular. The finished installation’s over the top-ness makes the process of artmaking evident, leaving me to ask how would that time-lapse video end?
How do we identify the moment in which the artist knows to stop?
Coolquitt lives and works in Austin, Texas. He has completed residencies at Artpace, San Antonio (2016); Chinati Foundation, Marfa, (2014), and 21er Haus, Vienna, Austria (2013). Recently he had solo exhibitions at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Portland, Lisa Cooley, New York and Galerie Krinzinger, Vienna. His work is included in the several important museum collections.
“Andy Coolquitt: Pinto Beans” is on view at Bale Creek Allen Gallery, Canopy, 916 Springdale, Bldg. 2 #103 through October 14. Viewing by appointment; 512-633-0545