Steef Crombach’s exhibition “One Bad Monkey” at Women & Their Work toys with the idea of collective memory by reenvisioning elements of Austin’s visual culture.
For many of the pieces in the exhibition, Crombach drew inspiration from two kitsch sculptures displayed by Austin businesses: the Big Star Bingo Gorilla and the Wheatsville Raptor. After coming to Texas from the Netherlands, these objects stuck out to her as an unexpected part of American culture. Now, she repositions them, changes their scale, and invites viewers to consider them in a new context.
Crombach’s sculptures are created through a process of fabric mold making and flocking which makes them look like cuddly plushes. The fabric folds and impressions of seams remain visible on her raptor and monkey characters.
As cute as the kitsch becomes through her technique, Crombach’s work acknowledges these sculptures’ original commercial functions. The monkeys and raptors in “Dollar Store Wholesale” and “30 Day Notice” seem as if they’ve ensnared themselves while playing with some of the trappings of storefronts, such as a grocery cart and a set of cones for cordoning off sections of a parking lot.
This focus on the commercial emphasizes that neither the Big Star Bingo Gorilla nor the Wheatsville Raptor would be in Austin without their respective businesses. It also situates the sculptures as vulnerable objects as Austin changes and local businesses that “Keep Austin Weird” are priced out of operation.
In one sense, Crombach’s sculptures archive these pieces of Americana that date from the 1960s. But unlike the versions of the Big Star Bingo Gorilla and the Wheatsville Raptor visible around town, Crombach’s versions of these commercial characters are white. It’s as if Crombach has fast-forwarded time and treated the kitsch figures like Ancient Greek sculptures with faded pigments. Only their forms survive, like the plaster casts of classical statuary in museum collections.
The aesthetic blankness of the sculptures in the main gallery is revised by the piece “One Bad Monkey” in a walled-off section. This piece incorporates projections to animate the Big Star Bingo Gorilla with the many paint jobs sculptures made from the mold have had in iterations of the gorilla that stand at nine different businesses around the country. The projections animate the gorilla’s face, the color palette altering the look of his features, his eyes changing in size. The gorilla looks inquisitive, threatening and pitiable in turns.
The show also includes three foam relief tapestries. “Fledge Allegiance” depicts an American flag surrounded by birdlike shapes, a critique of the oversized American flags used as attention-getters by car dealerships and other businesses.
The second tapestry, titled “We Buy Gold,” is surreal. It depicts a pair of Wacky Waving Inflatable Tube Men standing in front of a row of parked cars while skulls fill the air.
“We Buy Gold” and the third tapestry, “Doohickey’s Landscape” have animated projection components created by Claire Schlaikjer. In the case of “We Buy Gold” the images form a loose, fantastic narrative. The projections visible through the tapestry include a genie and oil lamps, a man with an idea, swirling bananas, a golfer, putt-putt course style windmills, and a devil. At times, the images seem to sync up with the exhibition’s score, by flutist Kenzie Slottow, which fills the space with a sense of adventure and discovery.
Unfortunately, as the museum is only open during daylight hours, the bright summer sun makes the projections in the main gallery appear faint. Still, the changing animations add movement and a layer of color to the tapestries and include evocative images that enhance the works.
The final series in the show are monochrome pieces that demonstrate another application of Crombach’s creative mold making. The trio of blocky wall sculptures also allude to elements of Austin’s visual culture, but trade local marketing statuary for patterns that result from the way people and infrastructure interact in Austin. “ERCOT Whiteout,” for example, features footprints in white foam, recalling the recent winter storm and the ERCOT failure, which prompted many Austinites to venture out on foot in search of supplies, leaving footprints in the snow.
Crombach communicates a strong sense of place through every artwork in her exhibition. And simultaneously her interventions let local viewers see elements of Austin’s collective milieu in new ways.
“One Bad Monkey” continues through Aug. 4 at Women & Their Work, 1311 E. Cesar Chavez St. womenandtheirwork.org