This spring, two coworkers were taking their lunch break when they incidentally conceived of what came to be Shed Shows, Austin’s newest pop-up art venue. While on the job installing an exhibition at The Contemporary Austin, artists Mai Snow and Greg Valentine struck up a casual conversation about an unused shed adjacent to Snow’s rental property, musing about ways to tap into its gritty potential.
While the quotidian conversations between people at work often yield little but the joint pleasure of passing time, the mutual accountability forged between Snow and Valentine soon evolved to a slow-going shed renovation schedule. A couple nights a week, the two would clock out, drive over to Snow’s, and clear debris out of the shed for a few hours. Over a couple months, they sourced supplies, installed walls, and rigged up spot lighting, transforming the site from an overgrown, disordered carport to an intimate, white-walled gallery.
Built entirely from recycled materials, the whole project cost Snow and Valentine roughly a hundred bucks each, plus time and labor. Yet the space is far from cheap; it reflects the skill and precision of trained art handlers (Valentine is a former preparator at the Blanton Museum of Art and is currently at The Contemporary Austin).
Though humble — the gallery is a shed, and that is central to its ethos — its construction commands respect, just as it offers an elevated, albeit unconventional, venue for the art it displays.
Its inaugural show, held last month, included some of Snow’s paintings, alongside other works by Patrick Diaz, Lindsey Culpepper, and Alissa Marie Neal. The turnout for the exhibition dwarfed the actual space itself; the gallery only comfortably fits for two or three at a time, so the sprawling crowd would take turns observing the artworks, and then would meander back into the packed driveway. En route, folks would often detour to peek into Snow’s painting studio, another repurposed structure attached to the gallery, as an added bonus to their art viewing experience.
Shed Shows’ second exhibition, ‘Distant Sirens,’ opens July 22. The show will include sculptural pieces by Greg Valentine, as well as works by Alexander Boeschenstein, Alexandre Pépin, and Jacqueline Overby.
A preliminary view of ‘Distant Sirens,’ recalls the sensation of falling asleep while watching television, where images and sounds appear and recede into consciousness but fail to form into logical meaning. The show’s amalgam of textures, colors, and material treatments together construe a dreamy, yet perplexing psychosis, like the experience of piecing together bits of conversation heard in a crowded room. In such a small space, this sensory combination seems like it would be dense, but the disparate artworks form an illogical, yet pleasurable cohesion that deepens reads of the individual works themselves.
A series of six medium-sized drawings by Boeschenstein hang together at the exhibition’s entrance. Made primarily during the pandemic, the works on paper feature remarkable delicacy and draftsmanship, which underpin their surreal contents. Planar environments are populated by fragmented images of disorienting rituals: a beetle wraps a piece of string around a nail and pulls it taught; a crab looms behind a grave; men in suits raise their arms in front of them, as if in an unsettling political demonstration. Subtitles are sometimes drawn into the scenes. Penned into an urban landscape, Boeschenstein adds a sonic cue, “(distant siren wails, horns honking),” from which the exhibition takes its title.
Paintings by Pépin add necessary softness to the show. His paintings require a slowness of inspection for them to fully reveal their substance. Figures initially indiscernible come to fruition by yielding tension in the eyes, relaxing the body. In contrast, Overby’s sculptures, which hang beside Pépin’s pieces, feature bold, fuzz-covered bodily forms, all rendered in an extremely tart color palette that sharply diverges from Pepin’s dimmer, richer hues.
Grounding the exhibition are two works by Shed Show cofounder, Valentine. In one, two planks of wood hang from the ceiling horizontally, tied together on each end, holding between them a cinder block which suspends midair simply by the friction between the two planks. Another, at the back of the gallery, shows a similar gesture: a two-by-four is clinched by three ratchet straps, which pull the plank into a gentle bend. Both works enshrine the demented stasis that comes before a climax, trapped in pre-release. This balance — between tension and relaxation, anticipation and presence — astutely sums up the exhibition as a whole.
Shed Shows is one of many nascent project spaces emerging in Austin, which both recall a bygone era of Austin’s scrappy art scene and forge a new pattern in the city’s art infrastructure. It reflects the productivity that emerges from pastimes not considered productive: making friends, taking breaks, daydreaming, talking through ideas without the prospect of reaching a conclusion.
Designed to be truly democratic, Shed Shows represents a synergy of freedom, openness, and communal participation. Its possibilities continue to be charted.
‘Distant Sirens’ opens 7 to 10 p.m. July 22 at Shed Show, 100 E. 30th St. instagram.com/shedshows