Home Blog

With “Design for Everyone,” Grageriart adds to its shopping cart

Lana Lesly and Peter Stopschinski perform as Grageriart. Photo by Bret Brookshire.


Consumers bought more than 175 million items on Amazon during the two-day sales event earlier this week, according to the e-retailing giant, outperforming the company’s sales on last year’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.

That’s the kind of all-consuming consumerism that’s skewered by “Design for Everyone,” the latest from theater artist Lana Lesley and musician Peter Stopschinski. The pair of restlessly creative artists have been performing as Grageriart for a couple of years now, staging an ever-evolving and surreal musical show that pillories the idea that a lifestyle is something to be purchased.

It all started when Lesley and Stopschinski eviscerated an IKEA catalog, and it evolved into a devised show. Read all about that in “Grageriart Goes Shopping.”

Now — following retail sales strategy — the pair is offering a new and bigger show, with a couple of additional performers (Mari Akita and Eliza Renner possibly doing robot dances, we hear) and a line of “furnisculpture” by artist Aron Taylor.

Award-winning designer and style maven Leslie Bonnell is creating costumes and the show’s environs, and Jennifer Crump is crafting the lighting design.

Staged in a garage last November, Grageriart’s Garage Art” show was beyond sold-out. And while “Design for Everyone” is in Crash Box, the Rude Mechs new rehearsal studio, it’s still show for a small audience.

8 p.m. July 27 and 28. Crash Box, 5305 Bolm Road. $12. Tickets here

“Making life stylish and fun,” is among Grageriart’s tag lines. And yes, “Design For Everyone” is sure to be stylish and fun.

Lana Lesley and Peter Stopschinski performing as Grageriart
Lana Lesley and Peter Stopschinski in Grageriart’s “Garage Art”



Stephen Pruitt: Staging light to illuminate the new, and the transformed

Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company's
Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company's production "Be Still" with Stephen Pruitt's lighting design. Photo courtesy Stephen Pruitt

In every artist’s life, there is a moment when he or she encounters an art form for the first time. The creative work — a painting, a piece of music, a live theatrical performance — speaks to them and can change their perspective on the world.

For Stephen Pruitt, an Austin photographer and production designer for dance and theater, that moment of discovery came abruptly and dramatically altered his path.

Pruitt, who grew up in a small town on the border between Ohio and West Virginia, had been drawn to science as a young boy. “I’ve always been extremely into figuring out how things work and why things work the way they do,” he said.

He had a dream of working for NASA, which led him to major in aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. After graduation, he had job offers from defense contractors, but realized that was not the direction he wanted to take. Then, in his early twenties, Pruitt saw three shows that changed the course of his life.

He had never seen any kind of live theater before attending the Ensemble Theater of Cincinnati’s performance of  “Buckminster Fuller: In and Out of the Universe.” Its subject matter — the legendary American inventor and futurist — was part of the draw, but Pruitt also found the show to be “incredibly creative and super visual and that just dragged me in,” he said.

Pruitt was also wowed by experimental performance artist Laurie Anderson’s piece “Empty Places,” in which Anderson mixed singing with projected slides, music, and spoken word. The third formative show for Pruitt was “Mira Cycle II,” from a San Francisco interdisciplinary dance ensemble called Contraband. The group memorably mixed dance, music, and text, and Pruitt described a particular percussion sequence as being “burned into my brain as one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen in live theater.”

Of all three shows, he said “I was amazed that something you were watching in a room could have such an emotional effect on you,” he said. “These shows all put me in a daze for so long after.”

With the spark for live performance now lit, Pruitt started performing and designing and became the resident designer for the Cincinnati Contemporary Dance Theater.

Then in 1997 he moved to Austin, attracted by the city’s creative energy. Pruitt’s first theater job in town was working as a producer for Frontera Fest at Hyde Park Theater. Through that job, he met some members of the experimental company Rude Mechs and began designing for them. He has gone on to design for a multitude of Austin arts groups including Trouble Puppet, Salvage Vanguard, and Austin Film Society, racking up numerous local award nominations along the way.

Eventually Pruitt formed a business called Fluxion Scenic and Light, and began to specialize in design for dance. He is now the resident lighting designer for Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company, Forklift Danceworks, and Tapestry Dance.

But his work frequently goes beyond what one might expect from the title of lighting designer. Hamrick, a choreographer, described Pruitt as an all-around artistic partner and collaborator.

“Before I start choreographing any new dance work,” Hamrick said, “Stephen and I meet and I make a miserable attempt to describe the vague movement images and thematic ideas that are floating around in my head. He listens patiently while I flounder and then says something like, “it sounds like you need a very long, narrow space, so how about I build a theater inside a warehouse for you and put risers at one end and the musicians at the other?”

Hamrick continued: “He is able to grasp my vision for a new work and then expand on it not only with lighting, but also with ideas about sound, video, and even set designs. His contributions give each of my works a very distinct look and feel.”

Pruitt also designs for Forklift Danceworks, a community-centered dance company headed by Allison Orr. The company tends to do large-scale, site-specific projects, and Pruitt relishes the chance to create a unique environment for each performance.

“I’m a huge fan of having people walk into spaces, especially if they know them well, and having it be a new experience. [I love] transforming spaces and having people see things in a place where they had no idea these things could happen,” he said.

Sometimes this kind of work presents unique problems. For Forklift’s 2009 show “Trash Dance” which was a collaboration with the City of Austin’s Sanitation Department and featured actual trash trucks, Pruitt had to design for a vast outdoor space — the former airport tarmac.

Faced with the problem of losing power as they ran electric cables across long distances, Pruitt creatively decided to take advantage of the headlights on the trash trucks. Any trucks that were not in use would line up and shine their beams on the performance, which resulted in a unique and memorable image for the audience.

Currently, Pruitt is working on another Forklift project called “Givens Swims,” the third in a series of projects that are based at Austin city pools. He described the challenges of this environment.  “The pool was built in 1958,” he said. “It has no underwater lights and no above ground lights. We have to bring in everything.”

And then there’s the goal of making it feel new and different, which is a driving force for Pruitt. “For so many artists, the way you become a known artist is to do things that are very similar and do them again and again and have a style. And the most consistent thing I do is to ask ‘how can we do something we’ve never done before?’”

Pruitt also finds inspiration through travel and photography, which he has been doing since high school. His studio is filled with his photographs, which encompass both sweeping landscapes (Big Bend, the coast of Newfoundland) and intimate portraits of people.

As for what’s next for him, the visually oriented artist currently finds himself facing the challenge of having cataracts. He’ll be having surgery in August to remove them, and then plans to bounce back and continue his design work while expanding his photography. This fall he will jump into another Forklift project created in collaboration with the maintenance and custodial staff at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

In all his work, he will continue to try to answer the questions that have motivated him ever since he saw those first three impactful shows: “How can you show people things they haven’t seen before? How do you give people that same amazing feeling and experience that brought me into this world?”


In Lockhart, Commerce Gallery opens

    Commerce Gallery, in Lockhart, Texas
    Commerce Gallery, in Lockhart, Texas. Paintings by Stella Alesi are on the back wall. Photo courtesy Commerce Gallery

    When Donna Blair and Tamara Carlisle bought a 119-year-old building in downtown Lockhart right across the street from the Caldwell County Courthouse, the pair of entrepreneurs initially considered it a real estate investment. But almost immediately, they began to envision the high-ceilinged commercial space as perfect for an art gallery.

    “As soon as I saw the building, I felt like the space was screaming to be an art gallery,” said Blair.

    The pair — whose companies Blairfield Realty and Blair & Carlisle Homes are involved in home building/development and real estate in Austin — opened their gallery in March with an exhibit featuring Austin artist Patrick Puckett followed in May with a show by Dallas artist Matt Kaplinsky.

    Commerce Gallery also has an artist-in-residence. Painter Christopher St. Leger, a longtime Lockhart resident, rents a studio space in the back of the building and his paintings occupy a permanent place on one of the gallery’s long walls.

    But the big opening celebration was saved for July 5 when the large-scale paintings of Austin artist Stella Alesi went on view.

    Opening of Stella Alesi’s exhibit “Simplify” at Commerce Gallery in Lockhart. Paintings by gallery artist-in-residence Christopher St. Leger hang on the left wall. Photo courtesy Commerce Gallery.

    Blair and Carlisle — who describe themselves art enthusiasts and collectors — will together oversee all gallery operations, including artist selection and programming.

    To dovetail with Lockhart’s First Friday monthly happenings, the gallery will host bi-monthly pop-up exhibitions. Curated shows will take place Friday through Sunday every other month. Musician, visual artist, and Lockhart resident Dana Falconberry will launch the pop-up exhibition series on Friday, Aug. 2 from 6-9 p.m.

    Also, the gallery recently announced “LockhART Talks,” a monthly series of free artist talks. Held on Wednesday evenings from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., the first talk is on July 24 and features resident artist St. Leger. Falconberry will be featured Aug. 25 and Danika Ostrowski on Sept. 25.

    Blair and Carlisle have become quite the Lockhart enthusiasts. They also purchased and updated a 1912 house not far from the courthouse square as their weekend escape.

    About 30 miles from Austin, Lockhart is better known for its barbecue than for its contemporary art, the small town a popular destination for day trips. Nevertheless, Commerce Gallery joins Spellerberg Projects, a non-commercial effort of design agency Spellerberg Associates, which operates two small project spaces just across the courthouse square.

    Commerce Gallery is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays.


    The Weekly Line-up: 7.14.19

    Elizabeth Chiles, Figs from Thistles (no. 2), 2013
    Elizabeth Chiles, "Figs from Thistles (no. 02)," 2013, 52 x 44 inches (each), 52 x 91 inches (overall), film photography, archival pigment prints.


    A very short and selected list of what’s good and what’s new the week of July 14, 2019.

    Elizabeth Chiles: On Water
    Taken throughout Texas state parks and along the Colorado River, Elizabeth Chiles photographs in a new solo exhibition of 14 large scale photographs and photographic collages come from two series: Figs from Thistles, created in 2013 during the worst Texas drought in over a century, and On Water, created in 2018 during months of historic flooding along the Colorado River. Says Chiles: “Often, what’s happening to our environment is hardly visible on a day-to-day basis. This exhibition, through subtlety and feeling, asks questions about what’s happening to our water systems in Texas and hopefully inspires each of us to make changes toward protecting our planet.”
    Opening: 7 to 9 p.m. July 19. Exhibit continues through Aug. 16. Austin Central Library, 710 W. César Chávez St.

    New Music Mixer: Russell Podgorsek
    5 to 7 p.m. July 16. Program begins at 6 p.m. Friends & Allies Brewing, 979 Springdale Road. Free.
    Read: For composer Russell Podgorsek, music is potent — and playful

    Third Thursday at Austin Book Arts Center
    Drink sake and write a haiku at this free happening that includes a demonstration of the ancient art of suminagashi, Japanese paper marbling. Sake from Texas Sake Co.
    7 to 9 p.m. July 18, Austin Book Arts Center, 5501 N. Lamar

    “The Invisible Suburb”
    On July 18, Phonography Austin stages a free, outdoor sonic art installation in a now-empty area of the flood-plagued Onion Creek neighborhood.
    Read: “The Invisible Suburb” traces the sounds of domestic life

    Givens Swim: A Dance for a Pool and its People
    Forklift Danceworks presents the third and final performance of its ambitious three-year artistic residency in partnership with the City of Austin Parks & Recreation Department Aquatics Division and several East Austin neighborhoods. “Givens Swims” features the everyday movement of the people who maintain and swim at the pool. From neighborhood teens to community elders, the story of Givens Pool will be told by the people who have long lived, worked, and played around this historic place.
    July 20, 21, 27 and 28. Givens Pool, Free. Reservations needed.

    Read: Everybody into the Pool — Allison Orr’s inclusive art-making is radical for an arts world that ultimately equates excellence with exclusivity, however liberal its veneer 

    Wild Patience: A Feminist Poetry Reading
    Drawing inspiration from Adrienne Rich’s idea that “a wild patience has taken us this far,” a reading by seven women poets whose work engages feminist resistance: Lisa L. Moore, Aby Kaupang, Julie Choffel, Molly Sutton Kiefer, Deborah Ager, Jill Stengel, B.K. Fischer.
    7 to 9 p.m. July 19, BookWoman, 5501 N. Lamar

    “Fairly Intense”
    Marta Lee and Cheyenne Weaver depict the hidden and subtle aspects of our daily lives in a fairly intense way: Lee with two-dimensional mixed media work on canvas or found fabric, Weaver with eccentric clay sculptures.
    Opening: 7 to 10 p.m. July 19, Big Medium, Canopy, 979 Springdale Road

    More listings at nowplayingaustin.com and artaustin.org


    “The Invisible Suburb” traces the sounds of domestic life

      The Onion Creek neighborhood
      The Onion Creek neighborhood. Photo by Alex Keller/Phonography Austin


      What does a former neighborhood sound like?

      For one night, Phonography Austin will present “The Invisible Suburb,” an outdoor sonic art installation in a now-empty area of the flood-plagued Onion Creek neighborhood.

      “The Invisible Suburb” takes place 7 to 9 p.m. July 18. 7306 Onion Creek Drive. Admission is free.

      The installation will occupy about half a block along Onion Creek Drive, in an area that’s now a part of a city park. Battery-powered speakers will be hidden in the unmown grass and the public will be free to walk up and down the sidewalk as they please.

      Phonography Austin is staging the project as part of World Listening Day, an annual event held since 2008 on July 18 to celebrate the practice of listening and to raise awareness of the ecology of the world’s acoustic environments. This year’s theme, contributed international sound artist Annea Lockwood is “Listening With.”

      Answering questions together via e-mail, the event’s lead artists Vanessa Gelvin and Alex Keller say they interpreted “listening with” to mean listening “to the present, natural soundscape of a Texas park in the midsummer twilight interspersed with and augmented by recorded, domestic sounds as a gentle reminder and recollection of what the site may have sounded like on any summer evening.”

      Austin’s largest watershed and long prone to flooding, Onion Creek courses eastward across the city’s southern sector. In the mid-1970s, a middle-class neighborhood was built within a large bend of the creek. But as early as 1981, a flood destroyed houses. And there were more floods: one in 1998, the Halloween flood of 2013, then the Memorial Day flood of 2015. In all, hundreds of homes have been lost over the years.

      By 1999, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the City of Austin had began a homeowner’s buyout program which continues today. And the once residential now-houseless streets are being folded into Onion Creek Metropolitan Park.

      Say Gelvin and Keller: “We chose the site of Onion Creek Metropolitan Park because, at that location, ‘listening with’ means hearing a sonic environment through remnants of a domestic past and amid the flora and fauna of the present, thereby encouraging quiet contemplation.”

      Artists who have created field recordings for the project include Henna Chou, Anne Fichtner, Travis Putnam Hill, Neal B. Johnson, Lacey Lewis, Christopher McConnell, Daniy Oberle, Sean O’Neill, Travis Pope, Josh Ronsen, Christy Tappe, Jackson Warren and Gelvin and Keller.

      There’s no music in the recordings. No scripted or performed text.  Instead, say Gelvin and Keller, what will be heard are “the sounds of domesticity and of what one hears in domestic life — the scrapes of pans while cooking in the kitchen, the muffled laughter of children heard through a shut window, the hum of air conditioning keeping a family cool.”

      “The Invisible Suburb” is an audio homage to the Onion Creek neighborhood’s residential past while a chance to listen within in its present as a park.


      Mexic-Arte Museum’s “Buen Vivir/Vivir Bien”

        Dalton Paula
        Dalton Paula, "Implantar anamú," 50-minute video, 2016.


        When Mexic-Arte Museum asked Tatiane Santa Rosa to curate the 24th rendition of its Young Latinx Artists (YLA) exhibition, she was thrilled. The Brazilian-born emerging curator, art critic and historian has an impressive résumé — Whitney Museum Independent Study Program fellow, Ph.D. candidate in the History of Art and Visual Culture, creative director at AnnexB artist residency, visiting faculty of the San Francisco Art Institute, a curatorial intern at MoMA and the Whitney. But the invitation from Mexic-Arte was her first opportunity to independently curate an entire museum exhibition. She took it on without hesitation.

        The open-ended nature of YLA — which annually highlights a group of emerging Latinx artists around a relevant theme — allows each year’s guest curator a generous amount of creative freedom. Yet it was that very freedom, which gave Rosa pause.

        “One thing I’m really concerned about is the categories that are used,” she says. “They can be very problematic because they usually try to lump different communities together and that is useful to the market, the art market, and that is convenient for institutions as well.”

        Installation view of Fernando Poyon's "Usos alternativos de bandera."
        Installation view of Fernando Poyon’s “Usos alternativos de bandera.” Photo by Sarah Palma for Mexic-Arte Museum

        And while she believes these categories are important for the solidarity they can bring amongst distinct communities, she also says that “we have to push against them and complicate them a little bit.”

        With that idea in mind, her original proposition was to look at how Latinx communities deal with climate change. But that vision evolved, both narrowing in focus and broadening in scope, eventually culminating in “Buen Vivir/Vivir Bien,” which is on view through Aug. 25. Literally translating to “Good Living/Living Well,” the exhibition interrogates what living well means for certain Latinx communities and reclaims non-Western, decolonized ideas of such a lifestyle.

        “Instead of the progressive idea of living well which means consuming, living through consumption, participating in global capitalism, buen vivir is opposing that,” she says.

        Despite seeming like an intuitive concept, “buen vivir” has quite specific political roots. It comes from the indigenous Quechua community of Ecuador and their concept of Sumac Kawsay, or “full life.” Sumac Kawsay describes a way of living wherein humans exist in harmony not only amongst themselves, but also between a community and nature, who they consider a rights-bearing entity. The ideology of “buen vivir” has extended from its Quechua-specific philosophy to broad anti-capitalistic and socially progressive movements across Latin America.

        Collectivism is essential to both Sumac Kawsay and “buen vivir.” Running counter to the individualism intrinsic to capitalism, Sumac Kawsay and “buen vivir” understand economic development occurring within the context of the social and cultural communities and natural environment.

        Bel Falleiros, "Untitled (Sacred Geography),"
        Bel Falleiros, “Untitled (Sacred Geography),” 2016-2017. Photo by Sarah Palma for Mexic-Arte Museum

        The most groundbreaking application of “buen vivir” occurred in the 2008 Ecuadorian constitution. The document adopted The Rights of Nature wherein Nature is a rights-bearing entity that holds value in itself, apart from human use, rather than an asset owned by humans to cultivate or damage as they wish. It reads, “Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.”

        It demands an extraordinary detachment from reality to imagine such legislation ever happening in the United States, which is almost the point Rosa is trying to make with the Mexic-Arte exhibition. She sees Latinx communities demanding a better life, but not within the same framework of global capitalism and legacies of Western colonialism. Instead, she sees them, by their own methods demanding a wholesale revolution, an upending of the current assumed definitions of living well that match a neoliberal worldview.

        “If to live well is to consume and engage in certain economies, that’s a very reductive thinking of how we live well,” Rosa says. “I’m making a show that demands humanity and not only humanity but the right to live well, according to our own, different perspectives. We demand something that we are not satisfied with what the West has to offer in terms of global capitalism. We want to propose something else.”

        It naturally follows that Rosa’s lineup of 11 artists is wide-ranging. They have roots as near to Austin as the U.S.-Mexico border cities of Matamoros/Brownsville and as far as Guatemala, Ecuador and Brazil. And the artists use different mediums, from painting to sculpture to film to address distinct issues of their communities related to cultural and economic decolonization.

        Angel Poyon, Estudios del Fracaso Medidos en tiempo y espacio
        Angel Poyon, “Estudios del Fracaso Medidos en tiempo y espacio”, 2008, Mechanical clocks. Photo by Sarah Palma for Mexic-Arte Museum

        Siblings Angel and Fernando Poyon, for instance, draw on their childhood in a Mayan community of Comapala, Guatemala. The former isolates and abstracts ordinary objects like a peasant hat or the face of a clock to imply the objectification of labor and reclaim indigenous culture over Western norms. New York-based Ronny Quevedo, originally of Ecuador, likewise reclaims the artistic tradition of geometric abstraction in indigenous art, placing abstract shapes on fabric in patterns reminiscent of ancient textiles.

        Quevedo and Poyon critique the traditional Western-centric art history scholarship that assumes that Latin Americans only looked to European notions of geometric abstraction in the 20th century, such as Bauhaus or Russian Constructivism — scholarship that fails to acknowledge the entire tradition of geometric abstraction in precolonial visual culture.

        Fernando Poyon works with symbolism more directly in his work, creating a film of indigenous women from his community “beating their breast” as symbol of enforced guilt from colonial Christian indoctrination. And his “Usos alternativos de bandera,” a large birdcage with small flags of various Latin American countries strung around it, sits eerily empty, a metaphor for migration and the loss of cultural identity.

        Other direct references to colonialism are present in Mauricio Cortes Ortega’s series of small paintings that depict a Navajo serape enshrouding a crown, a reference to a specific 17th-century crown found in Colombia that is said to be made from melting down the precious metals of the Incas.

        Mauricio Cortes Ortega Crown paintings
        Mauricio Cortes Ortega, “Crown V, VI, VII, VIII,” acrylic and oil pastel on canvas, 2018. Image courtesy the artist.

        A more modern activism occurs in the work of Los Angeles-based Carolina Cayceros, who brings attention to the environmental and community impact of global capitalism in “Huila’s Bleeding,” a comprehensive documentary on the construction of a hydroelectric dam in Colombia. The film demonstrates the links between capitalism and the environmental degradation and community displacement which in turn contribute to global migration. And Cayceros’ serpentine installation of her “Serpent River Book” deals with how humans engage with rivers, and also subtly suggesting rivers’ natural capacity to function as borders.

        Carolina Caycedo, Serpent River Book
        Installation view of Carolina Caycedo’s “Serpent River Book.” 72-page accordion fold, offset, printed canvas hardcover, elastic band, 2017. Photo by Sarah Palma for Mexic-Arte Museum.

        That idea is expanded upon by Yareth Fernandez, who painted a mural-sized abstraction of the Gulf of Mexico and Rio Grande on the gallery wall to highlight the environmental impact of a U.S-Mexico border wall construction and the militarization along the border, where she grew up.

        “I’m trying to tell the other story of the border,” says the Austin-based artist. “It’s not just about the issues that are there, because we do have a lot of issues. But I’m hoping by focusing on the other story we start to change that perspective by giving it attention.”

        Telling that other story was something that as a curator, Rosa decided was paramount.

        “I feel like as Latinos we have always been represented so negatively in visual culture,” Rosa says. “So, I wanted to emphasize not only the struggles and the more direct responses to immigration, but I think what is happening is that our lives are being threatened as Latinos. It’s not about being able to move, it’s about being able to live.”

        Whether it’s Latin American immigrants or Latinx communities along the border, Rosa says that Latinos deserve the right not only to survive, but to live well, on their own terms.

        Tatiane Santa Rosa, curator
        Tatiane Santa Rosa, curator of “Buen Vivir/Vivir Buen,” stands next to Carolina Caycedo’s “Serpent River Book.” In back is Joiri Minaya’s pixelated mural of tropical foliage. Photo by Sarah Palma for Mexic-Arte Museum

        In addition to indigenous groups, Rosa wanted to bring Afro-diasporic communities into the conversation. The noted Brazilian artist Dalton Paula illustrates the invisibility and hyper-visibility of the black body with videos symbolic of the destruction of colonial labor systems. Dominican-United States artist Joiri Minaya deconstructs the commodification of “the tropical” which has also exoticized — and likewise objectified — the black female body. She creates a pixelated mural of tropical foliage to represent the lens through which Western culture views her home and people.

        Whether addressing indigenous or black rights, environmentalism, feminism, labor relations, or migration, each of the artists poignantly critiques a current limitation to “living well” — limitations that are ultimately the present-day legacy of colonization.

        As Rosa says, “You cannot ignore the history and the violence, but you can show how it happened and transform it into something new.”

        “Buen Vivir/Vivir Bien” is on view through Aug. 25 at Mexic-Arte Museum.


        For composer Russell Podgorsek, music is potent — and playful

          Composer Russell Podgorsek in his office at UT's Butler School of Music.
          Composer Russell Podgorsek in his office at UT's Butler School of Music. His chamber piece "Flavour Symmetries" was played by Tetractys at SXSW 2017. Photo by Noah Henson

          Russell Podgorek’s office at the University of Texas’ Butler School of Music might be the key to understanding his compositional style. The working space accommodates an electric guitar and its amplifier which stand opposite an upright piano, two seemingly disparate instruments that have both found a place in the composer’s artistic vision.

          New Music Mixer with Russell Podgorek, 5 to 7 p.m. July 16. Program begins at 6 p.m. Friends & Allies Brewing, 979 Springdale Road. Free.

          Podgorsek pulls from several musical styles, and although his current artistic practice is in the contemporary classical mode, the Austin-based composer didn’t start his musical journey classically-trained.

          “When I was about 10 or 11, I discovered heavy metal,” he explains, gesturing to the maroon electric guitar resting on its stand.

          “I wanted to learn how to play guitar and my father was an amateur guitarist so there was always a guitar in the house.”

          Podgorsek studied music formally in his Connecticut high school, enrolling in a music theory course in and picking up another, more classical instrument.

          “When I was 16, I decided I wanted to play the violin,” he says. “And as I started into the classical world, it seemed natural to make my own music. I had no doubt in my mind that I was on the composition track.”

          That led Podgorsek on a sweep of music history as he sampled Baroque, Classical and Romantic music. His musical palette diversified even further in college at the Hartt School of Music where he performed in tango, mariachi, and metal groups. He was also introduced to more modern music, acquiring his first taste of atonality and unorthodox harmonies.

          Podgorsek’s university studies, which he continued at the University of Dayton and at UT’s Butler School, also taught him valuable lessons about working within the musical community.

          “I wrote this bastardly difficult piano piece,” he recalls. “I didn’t get the part to the pianist in time for her to learn all the intricacies and I remember listening to the performance which I thought was not good. In retrospect, my head was in the wrong place. When your performers give you a reasonable effort in bringing [your piece] to life, it’s a great gift.”

          The symbiotic relationship between composer and performer continues to shape Podgorsek’s musical style.

          “For the music community, I want to write music that people enjoy playing, and find challenging. familiar, but also interesting,” he explains, stressing that “caring for the performers” is one of a composer’s primary concerns.

          “It’s a very complex interaction, a careful balancing act of what the composer wants to accomplish and what the performer can execute. The appeal of the composer-performer relationship is what the player adds to the schematic I hand over in bringing the piece to life.”

          Russell Podgorsek. In 2015 he received a NewMusicUSA Project Grant for “Sehr Flash,” a collaboration with literary journal NANOFiction and the Cordova Quartet.

          Podgorsek also considers the artist’s responsibility to reflect current civic and social issues.

          “A lot of artists in the last few years have more conspicuously added an element of social action to their music or in some cases just made it more explicit,” he says. “We have to be on the forefront of making statements where we can that aren’t clouded by the nonsense we see on cable TV.” 

          Podgorsek’s “What Every Woman Ought to Know,” a piece for mezzo-soprano, chamber orchestra, and martial artists is set to a text written by Margaret Garrud, an English jiu jitsu instructor who trained British suffragettes in self defense as they struggled to win their right to vote. When it premiered in 2017 at the Butler School of Music’s Bates Recital Hall, the unconventional piece was accompanied by a live martial arts demonstration, and the audience watched as Podgorsek, who was conducting, was repeatedly thrown to the ground. Though visually and auditorily intriguing, Podgorsek says the purpose of staging this piece in such a way is to “serve as a reminder that we have to be vigilant against misogyny.”

          We forget, he says, that historically, racial and gender equality in the U.S. are somewhat novel; women have had the right to vote for less than a hundred years, and racial segregation has only been outlawed for fifty five.

          “In this day and age it’s important to amplify the voices of that have historically not been acknowledged.” Podgorsek says, highlighting the potency of music to illuminate social consciousness.

          While using music to express social change is not his only artistic aim, it is a responsibility that Podgorsek embraces.

          “Music, with the way we manage harmony and rhythm, has this sense of feeling rather than thinking, and that can be vital in getting a point across.” Podgorsek says. “I will be the first to admit that in a lot of ways my life has been very easy and I have to keep that in mind. At what point do I need to serve as an amplifier rather than push my own idea?”

          One of Podgorsek’s more recent projects, “The Two of Swords,” a chamber opera based on a short story by Tennessee-based author Kelly Luce, also deviates from the conventional concert experience by including an interactive element. “‘The Two of Swords’ is a magical realist story about a woman who is presented with a mystery through a tarot card, and ultimately exits an abusive relationship,” Podgorsek explains.

          The performance calls for an actor use tarot cards to read the fortunes of the audience. And the fortune-telling determines the order of the chamber opera’s movements, each of which corresponds to a card in the tarot deck. The 50-minute “The Two of Swords” will be performed Oct. 12 at UT with mezzo soprano Page Stephens, the Invoke quartet and tarot card artist Rachel Holt.

          While writing music with complex social messages, and crafting innovative pieces, Podgorsek nevertheless has not lost sight of the simple and profound impact music can have on a listener.

          “People outside of the music community have a different view of what we do,” Podgorsek says. “They see players execute this stuff that’s just a gig to them, but for non-musicians, it can be life-changing.”

          “We can’t lose sight of the fact that there’s just something magical in music.”


          The Weekly Line-up: 7.7.19

          The exhibition
          The exhibition "Likeness" at Northern-Southern Gallery. Sculpture by Laura Lit in the foreground.

          A very short and selected list of what’s good and what’s new the week of July 7, 2019.

          “LIKEsNESS” Artist Talk and Closing Reception
          Former SixSquare curator Keyheira Keys willy moderate a discussion of identity, race, desire, introspection, depicting the face and figure with artists Adrian Armstrong, Dawn Okoro, and Laura Lit. Artist Ryan Sandison Montgomery is on a residency in Michigan. He’ll do a remote artist talk via Instagram video.
          6-8:30 p.m., artist talk at 7 p.m., Northern-Southern Gallery, northern-southern.com

          Screening: “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”
          A new documentary on the 88-year-old storyteller examines Morrison’s life, her literary works and the powerful themes she has confronted throughout her career. The heart of the film is a wide-ranging and candid conversation with Morrison on race, history, America and the human condition.
          Screens through July 11. Austin Film Society Cinema,  austinfilm.org

          Austin Chamber Music Festival Pride Concert
          Panoramic Voices collaborates with Austin Chamber Music Festival on its 11th annual Pride Concert.
          7:30 p.m. July 9, Carver Museum, austinchambermusic.org

          “Swimming While Drowning”
          Emilio Rodríguez’s timely play tracks homeless teens Angelo and Mila when they become roommates at a shelter for LGBTQ teens.
          July 11-21, Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, teatrovivo.org

          Green Screen Film Series: “The Fifth Element”
          Tuck into the amphitheater at Laguna Gloria for “The Fifth Element” is a cyberpunk sci-fi pop adventure starring Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Chris Tucker and Gary Oldman, with costumes by Jean-Paul Gautier.
          Gates open at 7:30 p.m. Film at 8:45 p.m. July 12. Tickets may be purchased online or at the door, pending availability. Picnics welcome or \purchase one on-site from épicerie at The Contemporary. Contemporary Austin-Laguna Gloria, thecontemporaryaustin.org

          Invoke Quartet plays “Fantastic Planet”
          The always adventurous quartet plays an original live score to “Fantastic Planet,” the 1973 French animated science fiction film by René Laloux. A concert of the Austin Chamber Music Festival
          7:30 p.m. July 13, Austin Film Society Cinema, austinchambermusic.org

          Reading: Frances de Pontes Peebles
          Sightlines contributor Dalia Azim holds a discussion with Frances de Pontes Peebles about “The Air Your Breathe,” Pontes Peebles’  sweeping new novel of a decades-long friendship that spans from Brazil’s inland sugar plantations to the Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood.
          5 p.m. July 13, BookPeople, bookpeople.com

          “Jeffrey Gibson: This Is the Day”
          The Blanton Museum hosts the traveling exhibition, “Jeffrey Gibson: This Is the Day” a vibrant celebration in which the artist brings together his Choctaw and Cherokee heritage and a range of diverse cultural influences to explore race, sexuality, religion, and gender. More than 50 works include intricately beaded wall hangings and punching bags, paintings, ceramics, garments, helmets, and a new video commissioned for the exhibition, “I Was Here (2018),” about Macy, a trans-Choctaw woman living on a reservation in rural Mississippi.
          July 14-Sept. 26, Blanton Museum of Art, blantonmuseum.org


          Singing Pride: The work of LGBTQ composers celebrated in a free concert

            Photo by Thomas M Regan

            For 11 years, the Austin Chamber Music Festival has presented a free concert that celebrates the creative contributions of LGBTQ composers.

            Composer Russell Reed curated and presented the annual and increasingly popular event for its first 10 years. But with Reed’s relocation from Austin to Mexico City, the concert is this led by composer and arranger Brent Baldwin, artistic director and conductor of classical/alt-classical choral group Panoramic Voices.

            And as the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising is celebrated this year, vocal music occupies center stage. The Pride Concert takes place at 7:30 p.m. July 9 at the George Washington Carver Museum & Cultural Center, 1165 Angeline St. Admission is free.

            Baldwin created “Absolutely Cuckoo: A Magnetic Fields Medley,” an arrangement of songs by Stephin Merritt, singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and frontman of indie pop The Magnetic Fields.

            “It’s heartbreaking and hilarious from moment to moment, and Merritt is one of the most brilliant songwriters on the planet — a modern day Cole Porter,” says Baldwin.

            Baldwin will also conduct John Cage’s “Four²,” a late work of the composer’s written in 1990, just two years prior to his death. “Four²” uses a cappella chorus to produce overlapping tones with independent durations.

            He’ll also lead musical visionary Pauline Oliveros’  “From Unknown Silences,” a Cage-inspired work from 1996. “Oliveros quotes Cage in her piece and creates a quiet and hauntingly meditative texture, with her concept of Deep Listening at its core,” says Baldwin.

            And the Panoramic Voices singers celebrate some classic Americana, with Aaron Copland’s “At the River.”

            Also on the Pride Concert program: much celebrated mezzo-soprano Liz Cass teams up with pianist Jim James for songs by Russell Reed and Austin-based composer Graham Yates.

            Soprano Katrina Saporsantos will perform the Texas premiere of Robin Estrada’s “Duayya,” a work for solo soprano and for percussion which Saporsantos will play.

            See austinchambermusic.org for more information.


            Abraham Cruzvillegas stages the social

              Performance view (featuring Diego Espinosa Cruz González), Abraham Cruzvillegas: Hi, how are you, Gonzo?, The Contemporary Austin – Jones Center on Congress Avenue, Austin, Texas, March 30, 2019. Artwork © Abraham Cruzvillegas. Courtesy the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City and New York. Image courtesy The Contemporary Austin. Photograph by Brian Fitzsimmons.


              Since it opened at the end of March at the Contemporary Austin, some of numerous happenings staged within the exhibition “Abraham Cruzvillegas: Hi, how are you, Gonzo?” include performances by Bowie High School’s Percussion Ensemble, the Texas Roller Derby, the Chulita Vinyl Club, and Body Shift Dance Company. A University of Texas performance art class staged a karoke show and numerous experimental music ensembles have played.

              There’s also been a book drive for Texas prisoners, author readings and writing workshops. A distillery hosted a sotol tasting, a spirit made from the Chihuahuan desert plant of the same name. A mother-daughter pair presented a mole poblano recipe demonstration. One recent Saturday, there was family-friendly celebration of carne asada, grilled beef.

              Cruzvillegas practices what is known in art theoretical terms as relational aesthetics. With exhibitions like “Hi, how are you Gonzo” Cruzvillegas’ intention is to create a stage for social experiences to happen, acting less as a maker of art objects than as the presenter of events that are experienced — or “activated” — by others. And while relational aesthetics may have been codified in the 1990s, the practice remains popular in our internet-fueled experience economy, even though any social experiences offered by an art museum are ultimately circumscribed and institutional.

              People nevertheless crave events.

              Performance view (featuring the Bowie High School Percussion Ensemble)
              Performance view (featuring the Bowie High School Percussion Ensemble), Abraham Cruzvillegas: Hi, how are you, Gonzo?, The Contemporary Austin – Jones Center on Congress Avenue, Austin, Texas, April 16, 2019. Artwork © Abraham
              Cruzvillegas. Courtesy the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City and New York. Image courtesy The Contemporary
              Austin. Photograph by Brian Fitzsimmons.

              “Hi, how are you, Gonzo?” is co-organized by the Contemporary Austin and the Aspen Museum of Art where, in a slightly different iteration, the exhibition will go on view in October. Cruzvillegas derived the show’s title from rapscallion characters from each location: the outsider Austin musician and visual artist Daniel Johnston — creator of the “Hi, how are you?” mural that’s now a selfie spot — and the late Aspen-based gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson.

              The Contemporary’s Heather Pesanti and the Aspen Museum’s Heidi Zuckerman share curatorial credit for the show. And for its Austin presentation, Andrea Mellard, the Contemporary’s director of public programs, took on the Herculean task of wrangling a plethora of collaborators for the ever-changing schedule of events (or “activations” as they’re referred to) that happen every Tuesday and every Saturday, audiences coming and going. (Tuesdays admission is free; other times admission to the Jones Center is $10.)

              Providing the stage for all the activations is an assemblage of semi-functional sculptural objects made of scrap materials. The sculptures fill both floors at the Contemporary’s Jones Center. Audiences for the activations have varied in size. At the activations I attended,  there was little if any socializing among those there to watch and most left as soon as the action was over.

              Performance view (featuring Marcela Calderón Bony)
              Performance view (featuring Marcela Calderón Bony), Abraham Cruzvillegas: Hi, how are you, Gonzo?, The Contemporary Austin – Jones Center on Congress Avenue, Austin, Texas, March 29, 2019. Artwork © Abraham Cruzvillegas. Courtesy the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City and New York. Image courtesy The Contemporary Austin. Photograph by Brian Fitzsimmons.

              Born in 1968 in Mexico City, Cruzvillegas bases his artistic practice in what he terms autoconstrucción — an idea of “self-construction,” that for the artist also embodies a sense of transformation and playful exchange. In Cruzvillegas’ childhood neighborhood of Colonia Ajusco, houses were built on a rough landscape of volcanic rock and constructed by hand. Additions were made in a very ad hoc fashion, built as a family’s needs dictated and only as economics allowed — a not uncommon approach to house-building in any world community with limited resources.

              Cruzvillegas is the first Mexican and first Latin American artist to be spotlighted in a solo exhibition at the Contemporary since the Contemporary formed as an institution in 2011, the result of a merger between the Austin Museum of Art and Arthouse. Mexican artist Sofía Táboas was among the 14 included in the Contemporary’s 2015 group exhibition “Strange Pilgrims,” Táboas’ single installation displayed at the UT Visual Arts Center, one of the exhibition’s three sites.

              Installation view, Abraham Cruzvillegas: Hi, how are you, Gonzo?,
              Installation view, Abraham Cruzvillegas: Hi, how are you, Gonzo?, The Contemporary Austin – Jones Center on Congress Avenue, Austin, Texas, 2019. Artwork © Abraham Cruzvillegas. Courtesy the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City and New York. Image courtesy The Contemporary Austin. Photograph by Colin Doyle.

              As is his practice, the globe-trotting Cruzvillegas, who currently lives in Paris, sent schematics to museum staff with instructions for constructing sculptural objects. The staff then scavenged materials from the Contemporary — and some from the Aspen Museum of Art — including plywood, two-by-fours and other building materials; also beer kegs, plastic milk crates and even signage. The result is a series of various platforms, a quarter pipe ramp, a small set of risers as well as some chairs and stools. Potted plants and some vegetables — potatoes, cloves of garlic, onions — serve as a kind of quirky decoration. And everything — plants and vegetables included — is moved around the galleries, upstairs and down, repositioned according to the needs of each event.

              Cruzvillegas also directed the museum staff to invite groups, artists, and communities that were particularly unique to Austin and that would stage activations that he wanted to invoke “warmth, ease, and necessity.” He personally invited artist colleagues from Mexico to come to Austin to create activations for the days following the opening, and at several times through the course of the exhibit.

              During the exhibition’s installation, Cruzvillegas drew a number of images that are part of his ongoing series “Nuestra imagen actual,” or “Our current image”  — sweeping line drawings, some quite large, of cartoon-like primates. On the wall of a first floor restroom, Cruzvillegas drew a nude male figure, its face in a funny simian scowl. Out in the gallery, Cruzvillegas also scrawled his ode to Austin,  “Keep it weird” — the title a reference to the now-cliché slogan for the city.

              Installation view, Abraham Cruzvillegas: Hi, how are you, Gonzo?
              Installation view, Abraham Cruzvillegas: Hi, how are you, Gonzo?, The Contemporary Austin – Jones Center on Congress Avenue, Austin, Texas, 2019. Artwork © Abraham Cruzvillegas. Courtesy the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City and New York. Image courtesy The Contemporary Austin. Photograph by Colin Doyle.

              One of the few installations that stays in place is a reading table of sorts over which hangs a constellation of books, the volumes dangled by their spines from the ceiling at various heights. Hanging awkwardly as they do, the books are impossible to hold open and read for any significant length of time. They seem more a roster of carefully curated titles intended to impress: “Professionals of Hope: The Selected Writings of Subcomandante Marcos,” “The Book of Chuang Tzu,” and “Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings” edited by Susan Sontag, among others.

              And in any case the chairs — while funky and fun constructions — are too uncomfortable for prolonged sitting.

              Like everything Cruzvillegas presents in “Hi, how are you Gonzo?” there’s nothing authentic about the reading table. It’s not a functional site for the public to sit and to read, nor does it even feel like a sincere gesture to share information. Instead it’s a simulacrum, a superficial version of the thing itself.

              You pass by the table and perhaps you flip through the books. Or maybe you try out one of the chairs to feel what it’s like to sit in — for a moment. And then you leave.

              “Abraham Cruzvillegas: Hi, how are you, Gonzo?” continues at the Contemporary Austin-Jones Center through July 14.