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Welcome to Sightlines!

Hello, and welcome to Sightlines.

I started this online magazine of arts, culture and ideas after having the same conversation with myriad people over the last year. The recurring conversation was about the need for more public conversation about the culture of our time — the type of ongoing dialogue and exchange about culture that good writing and journalism helps spark. And I had that conversation not only with people already involved in the arts community, but people widespread across the community.

We live in clamorous times. And I believe that’s justification for more discussion about the ideas, issues, practices, people and institutions driving culture, not less. Likewise that discussion must be inclusive, nimble and bring a wide array of voices to the fold.

I hope you enjoy reading Sightlines. I will always welcome your thoughts and feedback.

And keep us in your sights. We’re just at the start of this big conversation!

Cheers,

 

 

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Founder and Editor-in-Chief

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Bette Gordon’s re-control of the cinematic narrative

Sandy McLeod as Christine in Bette Gordon's "Variety" (1983)

“I like to dig under things and subvert, be naughty and playful.” — Bette Gordon

That is exactly what filmmaker Bette Gordon accomplished with “Variety” (1983), her first feature film. By exploring the sexual curiosity and desires of a young woman working in a porn theater, she cleverly repudiated the anti-porn campaign of feminist activists Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin.

Austin Film Society presents “No Cover: Films by Bette Gordon” Feb. 23-26, with the filmmaker in attendance. See austinfilm.org for the schedule and tickets. 
Gordon took an idea for an erotic story to the fearless feminist author Kathy Acker who wrote a script. And Gordon turned that script into a visual tour-de-force drenched in the seedy neon lights of the 1980s pre-Disney Times Square.

Early in  “Variety” we see aspiring writer Christine (Sandy McLeod) and her friend Nan (played by photographer Nan Goldin) in a women’s locker room. Goode shoots the scene with the locker room mirrors positioned so that we are not sure which figures are real and which are reflected multiples underscoring Christine’s uncertainty about her future in New York City. Nan suggests that she apply at the Photoplay Theater, where Christine’s midwestern good-girl looks land her the ticker seller job.

Christine’s job places her in a street-side ticket booth, metaphorically caged and almost as much on display as the women on the screen inside the theater. But Christine’s imagination is free to roam as she begins learning about male sexual fantasies she realizes her own hidden desires.

On a coffee break in the theater’s lobby, Christine meets Louie a nicely-dressed older gentleman who soon invites her out. However, Christine’s boyfriend, an investigative reporter, convinces her Louis is a mob operative. That only fuels Christine’s fascination with Louie and she follows him to mysterious appointments involving handshakes and secretive black bags.

Unlike the women in the porn films she sells tickets to, Christine becomes the voyeur gaining a new sense of strength and fearlessness. One night Christine puts on some provocative clothing and phones Louie, inviting him to a meet-up on a street corner. In a favorite Gordon ploy, the film’s final shot shows an empty street corner, leaving the audience to complete the narrative.

Variety” caused quite an uproar when it was released. Writing in 2011, noted film critic Amy Taubin explained: “Gordon realized that the problem of the objectification of women in film has less to do with the display of the body than with who has control of the narrative — of the desire that motors it and of how that desire is resolved or left as an opening into the unknown.”

Gordon involved a cadre of creative people in “Variety” who would become part of the American cultural landscape: Acker and Goldin, and also playwright Spalding Gray, actors Luis Guzmán and Will Patton, and musician John Lurie who wrote the soundtrack. Renee Shafransky, Gray’s girlfriend, was the film’s producer largely because of her experience running the seminal avant-garde microcinema, the Collective for Living Cinema.

“We kind of learned as we went along,” Gordon reflected in a 2009 interview. “I mean, we knew a lot about the image, and you can see it in the film. It’s really a film that cares very much about color, light, texture. Framing, of course, is hugely important. That is, I guess, where I came from, that’s what I learned, but never the sort of technique of putting together a crew and how you work and how you budget your day and all of that.”

Gordon received a Golden Camera nomination for “Variety” at Cannes in 1984, a decade after she had first started making movies back in her native Midwest along with James Benning, at the time also an emerging experimental filmmaker.

Together in 1974 the couple made a six-minute short, “Michigan Avenue,” which begins as a slow-motion exploration of the longest street in Chicago and its traffic and ends with a nude woman rolling off a bed in slow-motion. What might have been erotic for the male gaze becomes farcical and yet intriguing in slow motion as perhaps an homage to pre-cinema pioneer Eadweard Muybridge.

Following an even shorter short, “I-94,” the couple took a road trip across the country and made “The United States of America” (1975). The 27-minute dialogue-less film consists entirely of silhouetted shots of Gordon and Benning in the front seat of a car with a view of whatever landscape shows up on the “screen” of the front windshield.

With the fixed-camera/fixed-focal length view from the backseat, America unfolds as a varied landscape interrupted by snow, rain and bright sunlight. The radio offers snippets of pop, rock, country and conjunto music interspersed with evangelical shouts, weather reports, and news about Vietnam during the “Fall of Saigon” (30 April 1975). Unusual for structuralist films of the time, “The United States of America” is well grounded in a specific historical time and cultural context.

Still from James Benning and Bette Gordon’s “The United States of America,” (1975)

After this final collaborative work, Benning left Goode and their young daughter to pursue his own individual film work. Undeterred, Gordon continued her filmmaking.

“An Erotic Film” — incorrectly credited to Benning on IMDB — is initially an ironic film with its field of flowers blasted from our view by the side view of a rapidly passing freight train. Yet it’s tempting read the lush field of gentle yellow flowers as “woman” and the blaring metal train as “man.” In a highly structuralist work, “Exchanges,” a woman discusses the precise measurements of garage doors until interrupted by the step-printed image of a woman walking toward the camera but never getting very close. Finally, “Still Life” features positive and negative images of cows in a field.

And then in 1979 Gordon was through with the flowers, trains, cows and men of the Midwest. She moved to New York City, settling with her young daughter in Tribeca, then a half-deserted neighborhood of vintage warehouses.

There, the 29-year-old single mother found exactly the right crowd nearby at the Collective for Living Cinema, a film organization started by SUNY Binghamton graduates mentored by experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs. With her hands-on experience in filming, printing, editing and sound-mixing, Gordon was an asset to the group and soon had a job.

Surrounded by an inspiring community, Gordon was soon ready to make her next film, “Empty Suitcases” (1980). In a 1982 Bomb magazine interview with Karyn Kay, Gordon described her 49-minute short:

While there is a kind of story in my film — a woman travels back and forth between New York and Chicago and can’t make up her mind about where she wants to live — the film goes away from the particular story and deals with the issues of storytelling (first and third person), with issues of sexual difference and violence, indecision and variability of women’s position in culture and language. I think the film deals with the dislocation of sense of self inside and behavior outside and of narrative, but in a fragmented way. I do not attempt to reproduce emotions in the viewer, but to raise questions about the position of women in relation to institutions, to language, to sexuality.

Compared to her purely structuralist works made in the Midwest, Gordon was obviously becoming interested in making women the subject of her new film work. As a preliminary sketch for “Variety,” the director made “Anybody’s Woman” in 1981. Certain elements would find their way into “Variety,” such as a woman making her male companion very uncomfortable by reciting an erotic tale in public.

Finally, in 1983 Gordon was ready to work with a crew to make her first feature film, one whose critical success should have led to a lot of film offers. But “Variety” proved only that arthouse audiences now had some powerful women directors to praise and enjoy while Hollywood’s patriarchy was apparently scared of them. Offers were not forthcoming.

It was not until 1998 — fifteen years after “Variety”’s debut at the Toronto International Film Festival — that Gordon was contacted to make her second feature film. Fiona Films, based in London, felt that she could direct a film based on Scott Bradfield’s disturbing Oedipal novel “The History of Luminous Motion.” Gordon secured chilling performances from Eric Lloyd as Phillip, an amoral 10-year-old psychopath, and Deborah Kara Unger as the boy’s laissez-faire mother, an alcoholic and larcenous prostitute. Together mother and son roam back and forth across America, motel to motel, coast to coast, with a dramatically different narrative than that of Benning/Gordon’s “The United States of America.”  Aside from a director’s nomination at the Locarno International Film Festival, “Luminous Motion” was apparently ignored.

luminous_motion.jpg
Bette Gordon’s “The History of Luminous Motio.”

Gordon began teaching at Columbia University’s School of the Arts in 1991, becoming vice chair of the film division in 2000. “I think teaching has been good for me,” she said in a 2017 interview. “Engagement with other people’s projects is really inspiring, and I like being able to use my creative and visual problem-solving skills to help other people with their work. It sharpens you.”

Just as she had been doing before “Luminous Motion,” she directed occasional TV episodes, but no feature film offer came up until “Handsome Harry” (2009). Cinematographer Nick Proferes’ screenplay was acquired by start-up production company The Film Community, who then hired Gordon. Just as she had done with “Variety,” Gordon led the title character toward the discovery of his sexual desires, in this instance a complicated lust for the very man whom he had beaten mercilessly years before when they were in the Navy.

Finally, Gordon’s most recent feature, the excellent suspense film “The Drowning” (2016), echoes the imagery and sounds of some of her experimental shorts.

Despite her talent and intelligence, Gordon is criminally under-appreciated. Though she has said that she is content with making a feature film only occasionally, she has wondered if audiences are turned off by her morally ambiguous characters.

“I’m not interested in making a ‘feel good everybody ends up happily ever after’ kind of movie,” Gordon said in 2017 interview. “I always will probably gravitate to stuff that’s more difficult. I’m not interested in characters that are easy or conventionally likable. In fact, that’s something that drives me crazy about so much art now — the tyranny of likability. This idea that you must like every character or that you have to relate to them somehow. Who cares about that? I don’t think you have to like the characters, but you should at least find them interesting.”

Editor’s note: Chale Nafus curates of Austin Film Society’s annual Middle Eastern film series.

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The 2018 Fusebox Festival line-up is up

Selena Thompson

The schedule for the 14th iteration of Fusebox Festival is live!

Start perusing the line-up at schedule.fuseboxfestival.com. The festival is free but you’ll need to reserve your spot to get in to most performances.

Just a few of our picks:

  • Charles O. Anderson’s “(Re)current Unrest,” an evening-length immersive dance performance installation built on the sonic foundation of music by minimalist composer Steve Reich.
  • “All the Sex I’ve Ever Had.” Since 2006, this performance project by Canadian theater artist — invites local seniors to share stories about their lifetimes of sexual experiences, romances and self-discoveries.
  • Selena Thompson’s “Race Cards.” The UK-based performance artist has 1,000 questions about race transcribed onto note cards. You’re invited to answer one of them.
  • “Grackle Call.” Steve Parker’s performative audiovisual tour about Austin favorite/least favorite bird.  Participants will be provided with binoculars, mp3 players, and a printed program guide that will lead them to performances, installations, radio stories and soundscapes. [See our profile at “What is Steve Parker actually doing?”]
  • Unforgettable Dutch troupe Wunderbaum returns to Fusebox for a third time.“The History of my Stiffness” is a performance about the Dutch inability to move supplely and investigation into how cultural background determines may or may not determine how you move.
    Charles O. Anderson’s “Re(current) Unrest”
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With “American Postcards” Invoke quartet explores snapshots of history

    From left, Nick Montopoli, Zach Matteson, Geoff Manyin and Karl Mitze of Invoke.

    Austin’s Invoke isn’t your average string quartet. Not content to limit themselves to the typical pair of violins with a viola and cello, they’ve explored the sounds of banjos and mandolins and even their own voices.

    But their expanded instrumentation has created a new challenge for the group: there is a lack of repertoire for string quartet with banjo, mandolin, and voice.

    Adding new instruments to their group was originally an inspiration for writing their own music. Instead the foursome decided that they wanted to increase the music available to their ensemble by commissioning new works from other composers. With support from the Rainwater Fund for American Music at the University of Texas’ Butler School of Music, where Invoke is Young Professional String Quartet in Residence, the musician set about searching for composers that they wanted to work with.

    Invoke will perform “American Postcards” at the Golden Hornet/KMFA 89.5 “ATX Composers Showcase” at SXSW on March 14. 

    After narrowing down a list of potential collaborators to four people, everyone jumped on a conference call to discuss ideas about how all the commissions might fit together. The goal that emerged, as Invoke violinist Zachariah Matteson put it, was to explore uniquely American experiences of days gone by that could be shared by everyone at a time when our country felt divided. Each composer chose a place that was important to them and crafted a piece that reflected on a moment in time there.

    David K. Garner began with a recording from the Southern Mosaic archive of an African-American choir singing a communion hymn and overlaid the sounds of the quartet, exploring the influences of folk and gospel music on modern American music.

    Takuma Itoh, who lives in Hawaii, wanted to tell the story of Japanese “picture brides” who came to the United States in the early 20th century in search of a better life, taking a leap of faith based only on a photograph of a potential husband. For this piece, Invoke added the ukulele to the list of instruments they play.

    Steven Snowden’s “Tent Revival” explores the charismatic performances (sometimes charming, sometimes more sinister) of evangelical preachers from Austin in the 1950s.

    Finally, Ian Dicke’s piece follows a cross-country journey that comments on American consumerism and its pitfalls, and finds its conclusion on Los Angeles’ famous Sunset Boulevard.

    Since they premiered “American Postcards” on The Southern Exposure Series in Columbia, South Carolina in October 2017, the quartet has been performing it as much they can. But they’ve also decided that these four commissions are only the beginning of a project that has resonated so strongly with their audiences.

    And the next step for the series?

    “Maybe postcards from all 50 states,” Zach said.

    Editor’s note: A version of this story was published on the blog KMFA, 89.5, Austin’s classical radio station, and a media partner of Sightlines.

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    Mona Hatoum’s “Terra Infirma” at the Menil Collection

      Installation view of "Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma" on view at The Menil Collection. The motorized sculpture “+and-“ is in the foreground. Image courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen.

      Goliath, contradictory forces are at work in the world today. We’re inundated with news, both positive and negative, of the political and cultural movements that are consuming our American (if not global) society.

      And in that tumult of looming entities that seem to be manipulating, changing or evolving our world, it feels apt that Mona Hatoum’s “Terra Infirma,” an exhibition that articulates the gargantuan, while celebrating minutiae, should be on display.

      The artist’s first major solo exhibition in the United States in 20 years “Terra Infirma” at the Menil Collection in Houston where it continues until Feb. 25.

      Terra Infirma” is housed at the Menil’s main museum building, and Michelle White, the exhibition’s senior curator, centers the show both in its own gallery spaces, while also interspersing pieces throughout the museum’s other galleries, including the surrealist room, contemporary collection, and Art of Africa collection. The exhibition spans Hatoum’s career and captures her at every medium: illustration, sculpture, photography, and installation.

      Mona Hatoum, Jardin public, 1993. Painted wrought iron, wax, and pubic hair, 32 1/2 x 15 1/2 x 19 1/4 inches (82.5 x 39.5 x 49 cm). Courtesy of the artist. © Mona Hatoum. Photo: Edward Woodman

      (Audiences should seek out the inclusions of Hatoum’s work within the Menil’s permanent collection, as White has done an exceptional job of pairing Hatoum with other work that either touch on the same themes or serves as a counterpoint to the pieces of “Terra Infirma.” Personal favorites include “Van Gough’s Back” and “Jardin Public,” both of which are housed in the surrealist space.)

      In “Impenetrable,” a suspended cube composed of 400 vertically oriented barbed wire strings, Hatoum studies both imprisonment and the aspiration of freedom. The barbed wire lines punctuate the space and create a dizzying effect that disorients but does not obscure the audience’s view.Walking around the piece, pockets of aligned barbed wires emerge and clear paths within the cube become apparent. “Impenetrable” exploits the aggression of the medium while creating a layered visual experience that shifts focus from capture to potential escape.

      Similarly in “Silence,” an infant’s crib made of fused glass tubes, both maternal ease and visceral danger exudes from such a precious, volatile construction. The sculpture, which includes only the crib’s bottomed-out frame sans mattress, feels suspended in a moment right before destruction.

      Mona Hatoum, Silence, 1994. Laboratory glass tubes, 50 x 36 1/2 x 23 1/4 inches (127 x 92.7 x 59 cm). The Rachofsky Collection, Dallas. © Mona Hatoum. Image courtesy of Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek. Photo: Poul Buchard

       

      We see this same forceful rendition of discomfort in the show’s “Dormiente” and “Grater Divide.” The two industrial-sized constructions of cheese graters, imagined instead as a bed and room divider, easily inspire a kind of inflicted gore that could turn a stomach.

      Mona Hatoum, Grater Divide, 2002. Mild steel, 80 inches x variable width and depth (204 cm x variable width and depth). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. © Mona Hatoum. Image courtesy of White Cube. Photo: Iain Dickens

      One of Hatoum’s notable strengths (and a well-explored theme in the exhibition) is the ability to frame ideas of comfort with sinister, or in the very least subverted, perspective. The motorized sculpture “+and-“ articulates this philosophy expertly. A toothed metal bar skims a circular bed of sand, at once smoothing and mark-making. It’s hypnotic and soothing, a rare element to be found in an exhibition that can, at times, feel like a tradeshow of torture devices. The construction of many of these sculptures feel both industrial and commercial. Their cold façades elevate their menacing and alien characteristics. But just as deftly, Hatoum is able to take what is incredibly fragile and make it powerful, especially in her work with hair.

      Hair Mesh” requires such attention to detail it’s almost impossible to conceive the execution of such a delicate, perilous piece. Hatoum weaves variations of light and dark hair into squares that together make a quilt which is suspended from the gallery wall. Occasionally, the foot traffic in the gallery causes enough movement for “Hair Mesh” to wave slightly.

      Hair pops up several times in “Terra Infirma” capturing a sense of the artist’s identity that otherwise feels overlooked. Unlike their looming sculptural counterparts, the hair works bring a natural softness to the collection that largely navigates around manufactured motifs. It’s in this duality that Hatoum’s work is so impactful — she masters the experience of charging forward with intention and manipulating expectations.

      And while “Terra Infirma” hopes to capture this oscillating artistic vision and the personal backstop of Hatoum only one of these narratives is fully realized. Hatoum’s work is an exploration of home, displacement, and violence, drawn from her personal background as a refugee and immigrant. As a Christian Palestinian born in Lebanon, Hatoum was stranded in London in the 1970s when civil war broke out in her home country. Her work speaks to fragmented cultural identities and often manifests in coarse mediums that act as stark reminders of the violence and hostility imposed on marginalized citizens.

      But that lived experience feels lost in “Terra Infirma” as a whole.

      The exhibit’s design fluctuates so rapidly in its curation that it’s hard to get a grip on what Hatoum is communicating. Even the compelling “Homebound,” an installation depicting an abandoned room with various household items that, bound together by copper wire, become electric booby traps, comes across as distracting in an exhibition that feels somewhat rudderless in its execution.

      Mona Hatoum, Homebound, 2000. Kitchen utensils, furniture, electric wire, light bulbs, dimmer unit, amplifier, and two speakers, dimensions variable. Installed at Tate Modern, London. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. © Mona Hatoum. Image courtesy of Tate Modern, London, 2016. Photo: Andrew Dunkley and Seraphina Neville

      Hatoum is a prolific artist and her work navigates topics of intimacy, gender and the human condition masterfully. To see these themes of her work explored without any exposition or breathing room erodes the exhibition’s focus and places the onus on the audience to fill in the pieces. If you have no previous experience with Hatoum’s work, you may miss her subtleties in a show that feels anchored by work that physically commands your attention.

      Terra Infirma” is a strong exhibition, one that feels extremely timely both for a city that’s still recovering from a storm that left so many displaced and for a country confronting its racism and xenophobia. But at a curatorial level, “Terra Infirma” is incomplete in creating a holistic portrait of Hatoum’s aesthetic and identity.  For a show that takes on such an impressive array of Hatoum’s work, the artist herself is non-existent.

      “Terra Infirma” continues at the Menil through Feb. 26.The exhibition will travel to the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, where it will be on view beginning April 2018.

       

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      How Ellsworth Kelly’s final masterpiece came to Austin and the Blanton Museum

        Ellsworth Kelly's Austin at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. All photo @Ellsworth Kelly Foundation and courtesy Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

        It seems facile to call Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin an instant icon, but an icon it is.

        Clad in pale limestone, it is a monumental work of art, the only free-standing building designed by a towering figure of 20th century art. It is the last major project Kelly worked on in the year before his death in December 2015 at the age of 92. And “Austin” offers a rare immersive experience into Kelly’s modern aesthetic, combining all of his explorations in line, form and color.

        “Austin” opens to the public Feb. 18 at the Blanton Museum of Art, the result of a remarkable and accelerated organizational and fundraising effort on behalf of the museum’s leaders and supporters. The 2,715-square-foot building — a double barrel, vaulted structure — is now a crowning piece of the museum’s permanent collection.

        Just three years have elapsed since the Blanton announced in Jan. 2015 that Kelly had donated the design concepts for the chapel-like building. A groundbreaking happened later that year, and in December 2017 the museum announced the completion of its $23 million fundraising campaign.

        Sited so that it sits on an axis with the Texas State Capital several blocks to the south, Austin now caps the plaza between the Blanton’s two buildings on the southern edge on the  main campus University of Texas.

        “It creates and defines a meaningful public place both on the campus and within the city,” says Blanton director Simone Wicha. “And it is itself a meaningful space for people to experience. It’s a joyful place and a contemplative place.”

        A curious and roundabout path brought “Austin” to Austin.

        For a slide show of “Austin” see “A sneak peek of Ellsworth Kelly’s monumental “Austin 

        In 1986, television producer Douglas Cramer (“The Brady Bunch,” “Dynasty”), a major collector of Kelly’s work, asked the artist design a chapel as a signature structure for Cramer’s Santa Barbara vineyard.

        Kelly created two models along with many detailed technical drawings while architects drew up blueprints. But as the project grew, Kelly expressed misgivings that his building would be on private land. The project was put aside. And yet Kelly kept a model of the building in his studio.

        Ellsworth Kelly
        Model for Chapel, 1986
        mixed media
        14 ½ x 36 ¼ x 40 inches
        © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation
        Photo courtesy Ellsworth Kelly Studio

        Nearly three decades later, Houston art dealer Hiram Butler began to campaign for interest in the building, eventually attracting the attention of Jeanne and Michael L. Klein, major collectors and long-time Blanton patrons, who in turn brought it to Wicha.

        At the time the Blanton had no real relationship with Kelly save one major painting in its collection, “High Yellow,” which came with a cache of American paintings donated by novelist James A. Michener, and an untitled Kelly print donated by artist Robert Rauschenberg.

        But Kelly chose the Blanton. When his gift of the building’s design concept was announced so was its name as “Austin,” a gesture in keeping with the artist’s tradition of naming his works after the places to which they are installed.

        Kelly never came to Texas’ capital city after deciding to place his final work there. Ill health kept him from traveling. But it didn’t stop him from working on every detail.

        “Ellsworth was very precise but also very practical,” said Wicha who had weekly phone calls with Kelly to review every detail. “He knew he didn’t have a lot of time left and he poured himself into every aspect of the design. In some ways, because he worked out all the design details very closely and in the early part of the construction process, there’s no part of the structure he didn’t consider. It perfectly matches his vision of it.”

        When samples of the mouth-blown colored glass for the building’s stained glass windows arrived from Germany, Wicha traveled to Kelly’s upstate New York home and studio.

        “When he saw for the first time the colors cast onto the concrete floor of his studio, his face lit up with a smile,” Wicha recalls. “He found so much joy in this project.”

        Though Kelly’s own development as an artist straddled the eras during which both Abstract Expressionism and Pop emerged, his work characterized neither.

        Indeed the aesthetic origins of “Austin” lie in Kelly’s travels through Europe, particularly the seminal period he spent in France (1948-54). Kelly had served in France during World War II and used his G.I. Bill money to study at the École des Beaux-Arts. He rarely attended any classes though and, lacking the ability to speak French very well, he spent long periods alone. (“I liked the silence,” he once said).

        He was particularly attracted to Romanesque and Cistercian medieval architecture, finding compelling beauty in the linear simplicity and clear geometries of the 11th and 12th century religious buildings. In France Kelly made studies of Byzantine frescoes and Romanesque churches aspects of which resonate throughout “Austin.”

        Carter Foster, now the Blanton’s deputy director and curator of prints and drawings, penned the first art historical essay on Kelly’s building in 2010, tracing out its inspirations before it became “Austin.”

        “Ellsworth wasn’t a religious man and he never intended for (“Austin”) to be a religious space,” said Foster “Rather, he had a deep appreciation of the historical trajectories of art and architectural history. And at the same time he always was very tuned to art’s spiritual properties.”

        Foster organized “Form Into Spirit,” a companion exhibit that is a sweeping overview of the artistic development of “Austin.” The building’s first models and designs are joined by rarely seen early Kelly paintings and drawings. Foster also included sections that illuminate how “Austin” embodies Kelly’s motifs.

        Ellsworth Kelly Study for Stations of the Cross, 1987 ink and graphite on paper 12 ½ x 19 inches © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation Photo Ron Amstutz,courtesy Ellsworth Kelly Studio

        “Ellsworth was more perceptual than he was theoretical,” said Foster. “He wasn’t theorizing color or shape or form, he observed from nature.”

        Austin has three stained glass windows that exemplify Kelly’s explorations in form and color: a geometrical starburst, a color grid and a circle of tumbling squares.

        The artist’s equally focused consideration of black and white can be seen in 14 marble panels that hang on the walls, variations of simple abstractions and also Kelly’s very modernist interpretations of the Stations of the Cross panels he saw in French medieval churches.

        At the rear of the single-room building is an 18-foot elongated column made of redwood, one of Kelly’s signature totems, a motif Kelly began using in the early 1970s.

        “Ellsworth was always keenly interested in architectural space,” said Foster, a friend of Kelly’s in the last decades of his life. (Foster also claims the only tattoo Kelly ever created, a design of four tumbling squares that Kelly designated part of his official catalog.)

        Early in Kelly’s career, Foster said, architect Le Corbusier once observed the artist’s work and telling him: “There’s no architecture for this type of work yet.”

        “I think Kelly made an architecture for his work with “Austin,”” said Foster. “It’s the realization of so many of his ideas.”

        “And it’s exciting because we don’t know all the facets of this work yet. For all its sense of permanence as a building it’s a completely time-based work. The colors and the shapes the windows create on the walls will constantly change with the sun and the time of year and the weather. This building will slowly reveal itself to us what a masterpiece it is.”

        Reprinted with permission from Arts + Culture Texas, through a special partnership with Sightlines.

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        The Toys That Played Us

        "The Toys That Made Us," Netflix.

        Netflix recently released the first four episodes of a new documentary series called The Toys That Made Us, which tells the stories behind some of the most popular toy lines of the 1950s through 1980s, including Barbie, G.I. Joe, He-Man, and Star Wars. As a child of the 80s, and thus living exactly in the sweet spot of so much of what popular culture is aimed at these days, I was eager to check the show out.

        I was disappointed. Though that may not have been the show’s fault, but rather because of its title.

        Here’s the Netflix description for “The Toys That Made Us”: “The minds behind history’s most iconic toy franchises discuss the rise — and sometimes fall — of their billion-dollar creations.”

        This is what the show does very well. It gets access to the most important players behind-the-scenes of these massive toy lines (with the notable exception of George Lucas) and weaves an irreverent tale about the creation, marketing, and reception of their wares.

        What it doesn’t do, however, is something I had hoped for based on the title — take a look at how the toy lines of yesteryear have impacted the adults of today.

        One person who has done this, curiously enough, is Chuck Lorre, creator and producer of hit sitcoms like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men.” Lorre ends each of his shows with a personally written “vanity card,” which can range in tone from comedic to sentimental to serious. Vanity card #568, which appeared at the end of an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” that aired in early January, discusses the issue of 1980s toys and animation on those adults coming into power today:

        “In the 1980’s, Ronald Reagan deregulated children’s TV programming. This allowed large toy companies to finance the production of thousands of hours of shows that were designed to sell toys. Rather than be educated and/or simply entertained, this very vulnerable audience could now be exploited for financial gain. Bad for kids, but good for me. Reagan’s mostly unheralded policy shift created an enormous demand for scripts, which allowed me to get my first job in television. In a matter of months, I went from struggling musician to gainfully employed scriptwriter. My life dramatically changed for the better, (comedically changed for the better?), because a Republican president decided the pursuit of profit need not be hindered by the common good. I’ve always felt a bit ambivalent about this. For many years I’ve wondered if my success came at a price. Were children growing up in the 1980’s somehow harmed by the cynical, thirty-minute commercials that suddenly engulfed the after-school hours and all of Saturday morning? Well, wonder no longer. If 32-year-old, White House advisor Stephen Miller is any indication, the damage done to some of those kids was deep and irreparable.”

        Though I think Lorre brings up some interesting points here—and makes me wish that his sitcoms were as regularly nuanced as his vanity cards—I do think that he might be simplifying both the scripts he wrote and their impact. Although he may describe them as “cynical, thirty-minute commercials,” I wonder if he saw himself as simply writing commercials at the time, or if he was earnestly working to craft entertaining stories for children that, yes, also were trying to sell toys.

        Art and commerce have always gone hand-in-hand. Shakespeare may not have stopped “Macbeth” in the middle of the play to advertise “New Crunchless Meat Pies—For Women!”, but he was no stranger to adding some jokes about impotence in order to play to a crowd.

        This has always especially been the case in television, which at its heart is a medium for advertising. The product sold by television networks is us, the viewers, and the content they air is simply a method to obtain more viewers that they can sell to their advertisers.

        But that didn’t prevent “I Love Lucy” from getting made. Or “Hill Street Blues.” Or “All in the Family.” Although TV executives may be all about the bottom line, there is an important dividing line between the moneymen and women and the creative teams who actually craft the shows we watch and love.

        Of course, sometimes these creative teams are just chasing after the all-mighty buck, themselves (I’m looking at you, “Young Sheldon), and thus it can be quite difficult to determine the line between earnest and cynical. So for every 32-year-old Stephen Miller, there’s also 32-year-old Bruno Mars, who certainly did a lot more with the weird stew of 80s and 90s U.S. pop culture that he grew up with.

        And what Mars does with music, likewise writers of science fiction, fantasy, comedy, comic books, and, yes, animated TV shows do with the massive array of toys and cartoons that inspired them growing up. One has to wonder if, without the shows written by people like Lorre to sell toys, we’d get such wonderful creations as “Adventure Time” or “Gravity Falls” that tell moving, human stories that appeal to kids and grown-ups alike — and also happen to be good at selling toys.

        Because kids are a lot less passive than we think they are. They take the mix of TV shows and storybooks and action figures that they’re exposed to and they create their own worlds. My own personal love of crossovers between different media franchises began with creating stories in my head so that my “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle” toys could all meet up. Before I was writing plays or short stories, I was creating paper dolls of the obscure comic book characters that would never actually get their own action figures. I used the pop culture that was trying to sell me toys to create something new and unique that gave me comfort and company.

        Children are the ultimate post-modernists, and the explosion of programming, advertising, and toy lines geared towards kids in the 1980s surely spurred on future artists as much as it may have also dulled senses.

        There’s a fantastic documentary to be made examining this issue. Unfortunately, as fun as it may be, “The Toys That Made Us” is not that documentary.

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        Eva Claycomb: “Last Time” at Recspec Gallery

          Eva Claycomb, "four o'oclock." Gouache, Flashe, India Ink. All images courtesy the artist and Recspec Gallery.

          I write this review too late.

          It is the last day of Eva Claycomb’s first solo exhibition, “Last Time” at Recspec Gallery. It might be the only show for which it is appropriate to publish a too-late review.

          Time has been a nemesis of late for the Austin art scene, and though it is doubtful that the work made for this exhibition was created with the continual dissolution of Austin based artist-run and commercial art spaces in mind, it is hard not to see it through that lens. After all, the Flatbed Press Building that houses a dozen galleries and studies — including Recspec Gallery — is closing next February, and that’s just the latest in a string of uncertain futures announce by a staggering portion of the city’s creative spaces.

          Eva Claycomb, “nine o clock.” Gouache, Flashe, acrylic, India ink

          No, Claycomb’s “Last Time” is much more than that, much better than that, more broad in its approach to cycles, and ends of cycles. Her works are, no doubt, meant to be enjoyed and studied by both those within and outside of a crumbling ecology. The real wonder of Claycomb’s art is her combination of such deep darknesses with the humor and peace provided by distant perspective. There is a sense that we, all humanity, is just along for the ride, and that’s okay. 

          In this way Claycomb’s 13 prints, paintings, and sculptures (each named in sequence from “one o clock” to “thirteen o clock”) are calming. They provide a lithium-like serenity that in our current day of shaky markets and political upheaval is refreshing — needed even.

          Images that reference time are rendered in flat fields of color delineated by a loose but consistent hand that somehow cannot be mistaken for naive imprecision. The images are flowing in the extreme, but certainly not accidental. The scale of time from piece to piece shifts; matches burn down to the fingertips in seconds alongside bursting volcanoes marking geological pressure built up over eons. A clock ticks with infinity’s symbolic sideways numeral eight the only numeral. Still others seem to represent cosmological time with less decipherable heavenly bodies churning.

          Eva Claycomb, “six o clock.” Gouache, Flashe, acrylic.

          The artist’s work reminds me of a once local favorite, Kevin McNamee-Tweed, but in a strange reversal. Tweed rendered the banal and the common as something to behold, to pay attention to and untangle. Conversely, Claycomb, in a not-so-different visual style, renders the cataclysmic and the profound in the framework of just-another-day, just life. Claycomb allows us to watch an earth-killing asteroid with the same pleasure as watching a sunset.

          Which brings us to an auxiliary work of the show, but at least to this writer, the most important. Before leaving Recspec I was enticed by an artist-made lapel pin, a burning meteor, more flaming tail than projectile, but with a smiling face on its core. The same symbol can be found through the window of “twelve o clock,” an interior scene rendered in red ink on a field of peach paper. Here a hand in mudra raises a clock-shaped tea bag from a cup, a vase holds both wilting and upright stems, and through a window our smiling space-rock burns downward.

          And so I’m reminded to watch with distant awe instead of pointless panic. The current cycle of arts organizations, our hard work and our progress, may well be mostly undone. But this is Claycomb’s first solo exhibition, and certainly not her last. Maybe it is true that mass extinction is necessary for evolution to move forward. After the long silence — and I am afraid it may well be a long silence — I can only hope that mammals like Claycomb can outdo the complexity that came before them.

          I wear Claycomb’s comet as a reminder.

           

          Eva Claycomb, “Last Time” pin. Cloisonné pin with metal backing.

           

          Eva Claycomb’s “Last Time” was on exhibition Jan. 12 – Feb. 10 at Recspec Gallery in the Flatbed Press building. If you’d like your own comet, an original artwork or just want to see other images of the show visit the exhibition page at recspec-gallery.com.

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          After 20 years, Flatbed Press loses its lease — and so do a dozen galleries & studios

          The Flatbed Press building on E. MLK, Jr. Blvd opened as a gallery and studio hub in 1999.

          After nearly 20 years, Flatbed Press is losing the lease to its 18,400-square-foot building in East Austin. The current lease expires at the end of February 2019.

          The sprawling former shoe warehouse on East Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd. is also home to several well-known galleries, artists studios and arts-related businesses.

          Flatbed is just the latest arts venue pushed out and effectively closed by rapid development and escalating real estate prices in East Austin.

          “This early need to relocate will force a difficult change for Flatbed given the real estate climate in Austin,” said Katherine Brimberry, Flatbed co-founder and director. “Originally the lease was to be extended through 2021, but Flatbed was given notice late last month that the extension would no longer be available.”

          The building is owned by Dallas-based Rosenfield Brothers Real Estate Group. The property has a Travis County tax roll value of $3,416,546 for 2017, the last year assessed. That’s about 120 percent more than what the property was assessed at just four years ago when the county appraisal board set the 2013 tax value at $1,551,118.

          Flatbed originally leased the raw warehouse space in 1999 and smartly transformed it into a place to that could house multiple galleries and studios. Once dubbed “Flatbed World Headquarters” it was essentially the first gallery hub to emerge in East Austin.

          Over the years it’s been to home many galleries that were instrumental in bolstering Austin’s visual arts scene during the aughts like the Creative Research Laboratory, an off-campus initiative of UT.

          The building is currently home to 12 tenants including Camiba Art, Recspec Gallery and Gallery Shoal Creek, Austin’s oldest established art gallery. The place is also currently home to the Austin Book Art Center and the Smith and Hawley Press, a letterpress and design studio. Other tenants include studio artists, film makers and architects.

          Flatbed Press employs a staff of seven. It’s currently showing a solo show of prints by James Surls.

          Launched in 1989 in long-gone building on the west edge of downtown Austin, Flatbed built into a nationally-recognized fine arts press. The  roster of artists who have worked on its presses include Robert Rauschenberg, John Alexander, Liliana Porter, Terry Allen, Michael Ray Charles, Luis Jimenez, Julie Speed and Trenton Doyle Hancock.

          UT Press published a richly illustrated retrospective “Flatbed Press at 25” in 2016.

          Julie Speed, “The Economists.” Chine collé multiple plate polymer gravure with gouache handcoloring. Edition of 40. 2015

          Said Brimberry in a release: “We want to continue our work and truly desire to find a space that can house not only our studio and gallery but other studios and art businesses who focus on art on paper. We want to continue being a place where the public can enjoy seeing and purchasing contemporary prints. A relocation may give us an opportunity to expand and create a center for works on paper. We are looking for partners to help us realize this vision.”

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          Up next: OUTsider transmedia festival celebrates creative nonconformity

          Yuliya Lanina's "Within, Above, Beyond." Photo by Scott David Gordon

          In a city that seems stricken with a severe case of festival-itis, it’s nice to see a fest that sincerely has some freshness and relevance to it.

          A queer transmedia festival and informal conference, OUTsider is in its fourth iteration this year. It runs Feb. 14-18 with all happenings happening at the Vortex in East Austin.

          Live performances, screenings, readings, music and art installations along with workshops and panel discussion fill the fest. Artistic director Curran Nault says: “This year’s line-up of queer happenings complicates, confuses, and contemporizes history.” All info at outsiderfest.org

          The fest’s opening show is “Within, Above and Beyond,”  a mesmerizing 20-minute transmedia performance by Austin-based Yuliya Lanina. With a practice based in painting, sculpture and drawing, Lanina constructed a vivid dream-like animated film with which she performs in an impeccably synchronized movement narrative with a live music soundtrack.

          Read our profile  “Studio Visit: Yuliya Lanina”

           

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          A sneak peek of Ellsworth Kelly’s monumental “Austin”

            Ellsworth Kelly's "Austin" at the Blanton Museum of Art. All photo courtesy Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin

            Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin” opens at the Blanton Museum of Art on Feb. 18, and we’ve got a slideshow of images below.

            The late artist’s only free-standing building, the limestone building is named “Austin,” in keeping with Kelly’s tradition of naming some works after they places to which they are connected.

            Kelly gifted the design concept of the building to the Blanton Museum of Art in early 2015. It was his last project before his death in December 2015. The Blanton raised $23 million to construct “Austin” which is now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

            The 2,715-square-foot chapel-like structure is clad in limestone panels, sourced from  Spain. The entry door is made of native Texas live oak, made from a tree that was once at the site of UT’s new Dell Medical School.

            Three of the structure’s façades have stained glass windows in patterns and forms Kelly developed and used throughout his oeuvre: “color grid,” “starburst,” and “tumbling squares.” Inside, there are 14 black and white marble panels and a curving sculpture of salvaged redwood.

            Located adjacent to the Blanton’s two buildings on the University of Texas campus and the structure is sited so that it is on axis with the Texas State Capital.

            For information on visiting “Austin” click here.

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            Southeast view of Ellsworth Kelly's "Austin" at the Blanton Museum of Art ©Ellsworth Kelly Foundation
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