“Are you doing your part/In your life?“
These are the words that greet you from a small photo on the wall, one of a pair taken in an abandoned institutional space somewhere on the outskirts of Austin. The words are written on a black board and strung up around the room on banners, left there perhaps by the last teacher to hold class. Now memorialized in evocative documentary images, the words frame the objects and images that surround them.
The artist is Amy Bench and the space is Icosa Collective’s new gallery in the Canopy complex on Springdale Road. The exhibition, named for Bench’s photo, features the work of the collective’s 11 new members: Leon Alesi, Amy Bench, Darcie Book, Rachelle Diaz, Sarah Hirneisen, Mark Johnson, Dameon Lester, Tammie Rubin, Lana Waldrep-Appl, and collaborative duo Carlos Carillo/Yevgenia Davidoff.
On the hot night in July when the exhibit opens, Bench herself stands in the middle of the room laughing with friends and colleagues at the ridiculous level of effort required to do her part, in her life.
In his notes, exhibit curator Sean Redmond asks “what it means to enshrine something and strip it of its practical value, devoid of functionality yet imbued with creative power.” He also writes of the “personal and communal responsibility in the context of artistic pursuit.”
And that provokes questions about the roles we as citizens or artists are called to play. Must our work directly address the chaos of these times? Must we bear witness? Or may we mesmerize and delight?
Tammie Rubin’s lush and whimsical sculptures “Salaam” and “A Joyous Ripening” hold the center of the room. Her small, porcelain, many-colored globes and oblong spheres are stacked on top of each other at tilty angles and covered with ever smaller, pointier color detail. One stack — covered in tiny, hand-built patches of what might best be described as googly eyes — also sports a pair of ears.
Nearby are four household objects, familiar yet not: a hand mixer with drill bits where beaters should be, a drill with beaters where drill bits go; a fiber glass, child-sized seat on an elevated platform covered in old Butterick dress patterns; and a sort-of lawnmower whose parts are oddly dissembled and then reassembled at a familiar lawnmower slant and height, in an unlawnmower-like frame, topped with a lead seat.
These are Sarah Hirneisen’s reworked references to suburban domestic efficiency, roughly crafted of paper, cardboard, tissue paper and other every day materials.
Meanwhile, a handful of filmmakers who have come to the exhibit opening stand talking about the balancing act of earning and creating, and the difficulty of its solution: fundraising. One talks of working to beat the pregnancy clock while launching a crowdfunding campaign and hosting a work-in-progress screening, a requirement of a grant award. Another notes that a grant she recently applied for demanded such a time commitment that she would have to quit her job in order to fulfill it.
On the wall behind them are Darcie Book’s thickly layered and brightly colored acrylic-on-canvas painting/sculptures, abstract to begin with and scrunched up in a wad, paint as thick as cake icing stuck together at the folds. Delicious.
Nearby are two small and one large format oil paintings by Lana Waldrep-Appl. Her close-ups of plain, industrial exterior walls are rich in the thousand, generally unloved but beautiful shades of neutral they are painted in.
At the opening, an architect and a woodworker commiserate about difficult clients and the tensions of doing creative work in building business. The two men stand next to a shoulder-high wooden sculpture by Leon Alessi entitled “Ancestor 1, circa 1939,” a cedar support used in pier-and-beam construction and unearthed in 2018. Its knot holes are hooded eyes and rusted nails poke out at odd angles.
Behind them on the wall are Dameon Lester’s three-piece set called “Calving Sequence Deconstructed (c1, c3, c5).” The deceptively simple black pastel lines on white cold pressed watercolor paper make irregular geometrical shapes, evoking the one-dimensional beginnings of a 3D schematic — a welcome relief from the nuances and dark complexities of the mind or the body politic that a more complicated piece might provoke. Yet they point to those complexities just outside their own borders.
In the corner shine Carlos Carrillo’s and Yevgenia Davidoff’s potted light bulb cacti (“Adios Austin”), smallish incandescent light bulbs and other electrical elements sprouting up from beds of artificial moss in terracotta pots. These small, humble pots fill several wall-mounted shelves like books in a student apartment, evoking the subtle magic of ordinary materials combined in extraordinary ways.
Next to them on the wall hang Mark Johnson’s mixed media pieces. “LOOSENOOSE” is a traditional picture frame spray-painted gold AND silver. It frames layers of glass and paint and tape and something else hazy and indistinct far in the background and just out of focus. “BACKSTROKEOUTTOSEA my family” frames itself with rope in the shape of a house that contain 3D letters that spell out the title, and the word “trophy” floating in the top right corner. The letter “X” dangles at the end of a wire protruding from the canvas, and almost all of it is sprayed gold.
The conversational noise at that opening is abuzz and a filmmaker and a feminist archivist stand near the back of Icosa’s gallery discussing the sustainability of their crafts. The archivist, also a musician, announces that once she finishes organizing the memorabilia of her late band-mate — an act of historical and cultural preservation (and possibly revolution, depending on how you read the gender politics of Austin’s guitar-guy music scene) — she may be leaving town. She is doing her part, in her life.
Near the gallery’s back entry are Alesi’s photos of his South Austin neighborhood in transition: a 1930’s wooden bungalow just loaded onto the trailer that will haul it away to make way for something bigger and better (“Bouldin Creek Bungalow, circa 1939, Austin, Texas”), and the massive concrete foundation of a building-to-be, (“Monolith”) – almost as tall as the two story house it dwarfs on the next lot – its stair steps leading nowhere.
If you happen by Icosa Gallery at night, you might see Rachelle Diaz’s “Scream for 2018,” a generative, single channel video glowing in the front window. The split screen loop is torn down the middle by a jagged video artifact in a permanent freeze frame. On the left is a 1960s housewife in cat-eye glasses, surprised by the camera and caught for posterity in a forever scream as she stand at her kitchen counter. On the right, multi-colored layers of a makeup model ‘s perfect face float next to the words “Making an asset of your shortcomings.”
A tiny digital print to the left, “Tide” captures a 1950s mom standing next to a washing machine, just at the moment that a white swirl of Tide detergent begins to erase her right out of existence.
Whether you believe artists have a responsibility to a community or the community to the artist, you might agree that these artists are doing their parts.