Art is mortal

In Austin I can no longer discern determined optimism from denial


Here’s how I first began this article:

There is a sense that art is indomitable, that artists will find a way to work in any situation and still give us culture despite dismal levels of support, that true art doesn’t rely on anyone.


Perhaps Michelangelo would have made some art even if not awarded commissions by the Catholic Church for David and the Sistine Chapel and virtually all of his other works.  Perhaps Da Vinci would have painted the Mona Lisa in his spare time on weekends without wealthy patron after wealthy patron. Perhaps van Gogh could have produced his work without the money given to him time and time again by his brother. Perhaps Warhol would have been celebrated by the general public even if he never had an exhibition. Perhaps you might run across Pollock in his cold shed in Montana even if his work wasn’t propped up by the great machinations of an art scene on full tilt thousands of miles away.


Or perhaps culture is more fragile than we’d like to admit. Perhaps the sense that it is so resilient is a convenient thought, a way for us to shrug off the responsibility to keep it afloat. Perhaps art is mortal.

That was one way I could avoid writing, yet again, about the problems artists currently face in Austin. Abstraction has its comforts. It’s hard to write dispassionately about the scene as it is. I am engaged with it in every way I can be and so when it suffers I suffer. But when passionate writing has done so little, it’s time to try something else. Enough with abstractions. Here are the facts:

“Good Mourning, Tis of Thee,” at Co-lab Projects’s Demo Gallery, 716 Congress Ave.
Currently, a digital counter conceived by Alyssa Taylor Wendt is seen in Co-lab’ Projects’ shuttered space counting down the days, hours and minutes until the demolition of the building on Congress Avenue begins. It’s the last remnant of the final exhibition at the downtown space, ‘Good Mourning, Tis of Thee,” (Oct. 13- Nov. 25), a sprawling exhibition of over 60 local and national artists focused on themes of death, loss, rebirth, gentrification and renewal.

Co-lab Projects moved from its original East Austin space in 2015 when the property’s owner opted to develop the lot. Since then, the artist-run nonprofit has inhabited a space at the Canopy complex for a time and most recently, a donated vacant space downtown poignantly titled Demo Gallery due to the short shelf-life attached to it. (The building’s owner plans a high-rise condo tower.) With Demo Gallery closed in late November, Co-lab’s supplies and materials are now moving to storage. There are no specific plans for the next exhibition as the group continues to focus on finding a more permanent home.

“Trade Show,” at Pump Project Gallery, 702 Shady Lane,
The future of curation at Pump Project Gallery is as in flux as the fate of the building itself. Former Gallery Director Rebecca Marino has moved on to become Associate Director at Texas State University Galleries, and now the exhibition space at Pump Project ventures into the great rudderless unknown. The new curatorial era at least begins on a positive note with “Trade Show: A Collection of Traded Paintings,” (Dec. 1-23). The exhibition peels back the curtain of how artists collect art; that is, largely through trades within their social circle. All tied to guest curator and artist Rachel Wolfson Smith, the private collection of works share a classical technical sensibility combined with a fractious palimpsest angst. That magnetic combination (found in Wolfson Smith’s own practice as well) is not very common in Austin, but is a welcome refresher from the sarcasm and humor laden works we see and love week after week.

As Austin’s second largest artist studio complex goes on the level with city code, a hard blow comes down the pike. The building is being sold by its current owner and there is no option for the artist-run Pump Project to renew its lease. Without a longer lease, an already-awarded emergency assistance grant from the city does not trigger, leaving Pump Project, its exhibition spaces and its more than 50 artists in the cold come April.

‘Tiger Strikes Austin’ at ICOSA Gallery, 702 Shady Lane,              In another successful foray away from the founding format of the 20-artist collective (10 two-member shows a year plus two group member shows), ICOSA set up an exchange with a collective in Los Angeles, the California faction of Tiger Strikes Asteroid, and another artist-run space there called Monte Vista Projects. The playful group show (Dec. 1-Jan.6) is strong, and worthy of consideration on its own merits, but the exchange itself has sparked an even more important dialogue surrounding a potential wide net alliance of self-determinate, artist-run spaces like the organizations involved.

The timeline for ICOSA’s current space runs out in April (see Pump Project above), a problem compounded by a few vacancies in their 20-member pool. It remains to be seen whether new space will be found, and is as yet unclear whether ICOSA will strike out alone, or search collaboratively with their current sub-leasor, Pump Project.

“RISD Printmakers” at Not Gallery, Bolm Studios, 5305 Bolm Road,
In mid-January, Not Gallery will host a selection of Rhode Island School of Design artists working in the space between sculpture and printmaking. Coinciding with Print Austin, the show solidifies the continuing collaborative relationship between the artists of both communities and gives Austin a new take on the limits of the historically democratizing medium.

Rent will spike a whopping 50 percent next year for the studios and galleries in the Bolm complex in East Austin. Not Gallery has no plans to renew or relocate. It will shutter June of 2018.

‘What Hell YOU Playing?’ at ATM Gallery, Bolm Studios, 5305 Bolm Road,
Presented during this year’s East Austin Studio Tour (Nov. 11-19), ATM Gallery exhibited a peculiar grouping of non-traditional sculpture, audio, drawings, paintings and photography each representing an artist’s interpretation of the end of a certain period of time (a period different for each artist). The exhibition showed one side of the great range of work made in Austin and the way a gallery serves as a safe experimental place and intellectual hub for artists with related aesthetic and conceptual concerns.

ATM Gallery shares the fate of its neighbor Not Gallery and the surrounding studios at Bolm Studios complex: Rent will rise 50 percent in 2018. ATM plans to continually evaluate its options for the remainder of their lease, but short of a windfall, signs point to a relocation at best.

“LIVE HARD (Die Hard: The Musical)” at Museum of Human Achievement, 3200 Lyons Road,
MoHa sold out “LIVE HARD (Die Hard: The Musical)” (Dec. 10) starring an all female cast and reframing America’s favorite Christmas/action movie in Austin. If the premise isn’t riotous enough for you, just look at the cast — Wangene Hall as John McClane, Rebecca Havemeyer as Hans Gruber, Gretchen Phillips as Every Terrorist, Erica Nix as Ellis and the Cocaine, Jane Claire Hervey as Nakatomi Plaza, Minerva Villa as Sgt. Al Powell, Lindsey Beltran as Johnson and Johnson, Girlfriend ATX as Argyle, Kuniklo as 80s Party Goers and Hostages, Alexa Caperada as Glass, P1nkstar as Holly Gerano, Emily Lowe as FBI Agent Dwanye T Robinson, Jade Fusco as Mr. Takagi, and the list goes on.

Left in a lurch after it was denied funding from the city’s new Artist Space Assistance Fund (funding that instead went to Pump Project that will likely not be able to use it because it is closing), MoHa is doing what it does best — putting on some of the wildest, most inventive programming in town, and making money at the door when possible. If the revenue is right, MoHA might be able to make the improvements it needs to to stay put and continue serving as a friendly neighbor and aesthetic counterpoint to the increasingly corporate Canopy complex.

From Founder and Executive Director of MoHA Zac Traeger: “Due to the current climate of Austin, MoHA had begun working on a feasibility study around opening another location in an alternate (but parallel) dimension and selling speculative real estate there. This dimension will be henceforth known as MoHA4. Details TBA in 2018.”

MASS Gallery
“Staycation 2” at MASS Gallery.

Staycation 2 : What in the World?”  at MASS Gallery. 507 Calles St.
MASS’s local outreach tethered to their “Staycation” exhibit series brought together a powerful show this cycle (Nov. 10-Dec. 16) with artists exploring our relation to objects and the physical world. The show leaned far to the conceptual side, but even if some of the works seemed at first chilly and aloof, they warmed up with just a little attention and time. They are introvert objects and images in a way, but had intelligent things to say about our shared existence once you get them to speak up a bit.

At the moment the future of MASS seems a bit more certain than most. After some big changes in their financial structure, the collectively-run non-profit gallery concludes a period of introspection by reupping at their current location, albeit for a shorter lease, increased studio rent and new plans for fundraising.

“Rachel Stuckey: Good Days and Bad Days on the Internet” at Women & Their Work, 1710 Lavaca St.,
Artist and curator Rachel Stuckey finds herself in two roles at Women & Their Work now, first as exhibiting artist (scheduled several months ago) and more recently as newly-appointed Gallery Director. Her current solo exhibition, “Good Days and Bad Days on the Internet” (Nov. 18-Jan. 11), takes on the short-range nostalgia of early layperson interneting and offers the viewer a new way of looking at our recent past and our present relationship with technology. Emphasizing overlooked phenomena of decay and haywire recursion in digital environments, Stuckey deftly portrays our digital lives as rich in unintended beauty and chaos as our life removed from these technologies.  

After 25 years in its current location, Women and Their Work will be on the hunt for new space. Its Lavaca Street building has been sold by its current owner and the gallery’s lease runs out in 2020 without an option for renewal.

(A final note: There are several galleries and studios closing, or leaving their spaces with uncertain futures, in 2018 and 2019 that were not yet ready to go public with their news at the time this article was published. Keep an eye on Sightlines for updates.)

Seth Orion Schwaiger
Seth Orion Schwaiger
Seth Orion Schwaiger is an artist and writer living and working between Austin, Texas, and Kingston, New York.

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