by Tobin Levy
Photographs by Matt Conant
Artists who embrace irony or balk at conformity to make their point bravely reject the polite applause of more predictable crowd-pleasers. Marcel Duchamp’s creative vision required a bicycle wheel and a porcelain urinal; Meret Oppenheim needed fur and a cup. The Italian artist (and my personal favorite) Piero Manzoni used his own bodily waste to create his most famous body of work. (It was the subject of this writer’s inevitably expletive-ridden college thesis.)
The following profiles highlight six Austin artists who are also working with unexpected mediums, fortunately none of which are scatological in nature. These materials reveal aspects of the artists’ personalities and preoccupations through their individual preferences—for a pommel horse, tire treads, discarded books and plastic bags. One artist’s studio reflects a fascination with synthetic hair and its tangled symbolism, while another’s reveals the unique symbiosis between art, science and cardboard boxes. Together these artists are a testimony to Austin’s burgeoning art scene and to the endless creative potential of quotidian objects and material.
Even when sitting Bale Allen is in constant motion, prone to impish grins and quick conversational shifts. It is easy to imagine the 48-year old as a hyperactive child. “I think I gravitated to being an artist because I couldn’t sit still in school,” he says. “I had lightning bolts of energy from kindergarten on.”
Allen’s art is similarly dynamic. His covetable cast bronze West Texas tumbleweeds (they start at $10,000) appear precarious in space, as if, at any moment, they will be propelled forwards or backwards by an unpredictable wind. Allen’s cast bronze paper airplanes appear mid-flight, his taxidermy snakes mid-strike, and his ceramic bullhorns on the verge of marvelously brutal defense.
Unlike kinetic art, an art form that relies on actual movement for its effect (Allen’s fourteen-year-old son, Calder, was named after one of the artists most associated with this movement), Allen’s pieces vibrate with potential energy and the promise of forward momentum. They share a restlessness with the artist that is exemplified in the series he refers to as his tire treads, featuring photographs and casts of the rubber tire debris from 18-wheelers.
As a child Allen obsessed over roadside detritus from the backseat of a station wagon while on family cross-country trips from Fresno to Lubbock and back again. It was a caravan of creatives, a mobile think tank. (His father, music legend Terry Allen, is also a prolific artist and writer, as is his mother, Jo Harvey, who adds acting to the mix. “I love highway garbage, things everyone sees but no one pays attention to,” says Allen. His fondness for the road is as much about the physical excursion as it is the creative one.
As with his tumbleweeds, finding perfectly imperfect tire treads is a process, involving spotting “the beauties,” pulling over, putting on your hazards, backing up and making sure you don’t get hit while crossing I-10. “Then you take the tread, and, by photographing or casting it, you’re revitalizing and transforming the object. It’s a journey from a functional piece of tire to its own little conceptual world.” It goes from pavement to pedestal and occasionally dons a very sturdy neck. (Allen turned a handful of treads into weighty, gold-plated rapper necklaces with turn buckles and motorcycle chains.)
Allen is not the first artist to have an affinity for tires. Robert Rauschenberg, too, used a number of them in his work. However, it wasn’t until Allen started casting his treads in glass that he became aware that Rauschenberg once cast whole tires. While some artists might be dismayed by the coincidence, Allen remains uplifted by it. “It means my brain and his were in a similar place and I like that. There’s not a band alive that doesn’t play some version of Bo Diddley-dee, and if there is they’re probably not very good.”
Allen is confident, an adroit self-promoter, and, with this year’s opening of his eponymous gallery, an active promoter of other artists’ work as well. This additional art dealer hat — which sits atop that of artist, drummer, writer, father, husband, teacher, bon vivant — is by no means stymieing. Instead, Allen is moving on from tire treads, hitting the road once again.
Walking into the Women & Their Work exhibit “Plastic Planet” on its recent opening night was a little like walking into Snow White’s forest, if it were technicolor, didactic, free of dwarfs and full of 3-D animals at a standstill. On one wall an opossum hangs upside down by its tail, a sleek, light pink appendage curled around a branch. His charming little hands, an even lighter shade of pink, seem meant for holding; his head is tilted upwards, like a beloved pet’s, anticipating and deserving of affection. The opossum, like the other animals in the show, is the epitome of friendliness and freedom, while his maker, artist Calder Kamin, is trapped in the corner. She is surrounded by an array of artists, environmentalists, children, and potential patrons, all wanting to know how she did it – use something as ubiquitous as plastic bags to create this world.
Kamin is an Austin native, so family and friends are also in attendance, but they know her not-so-secret secrets. Plastic bags are the thirty-one-year-old’s preferred medium and these are her suppliers. “Plastic bags are banned in Austin, so I have to ask my extended community in other parts of the country to collect and mail them to me,” she says. “In exchange I send them a flower crocheted from bags. There are lots of little old ladies on Youtube that will teach you how to do it.” For her animal creations, Kamin rips and twists and coils the plastic until they resemble fur or grass, then she attaches them to a taxidermy mount with a hot glue gun. The effect is similar to that of artist Donald Moffett’s tendrilled oil paintings. Like glorious shag carpet or sea anemones, they practically beg to be touched.
Like her namesake, the mobile sculptor Alexander Calder, Kamin is committed to a playfulness in her work. “I believe we share an incredibly jovial spirit,” she says. “Alexander Calder made toys, he made things that made people laugh.” Even Kamin’s palette is inherently funny. She relies solely on the color of the plastic, which means she possesses an uncanny knowledge of where to find a brilliant royal blue (The New York Times sleeves). When it comes to the shades of brown necessary to replicate tree bark, Dillard’s bags are the way to go.
It is the works’ visual light-heartedness and fictional sensibility that makes it an ideal educational tool for the grim reality that is climate change and, more specifically, its effects on animals. “My work is very research based,” explains Calder, whose calm delivery of startling facts somehow makes the situation more palpable and less overwhelming, while conveying the urgent need for change. One reason she uses plastic is because it doesn’t biodegrade, it photodegrades: UV lights break it down into tiny particles that mimic estrogen and are ingested by the animals we eat, becoming part of our bodies. “I use taxidermy as a kind of fake nature to talk about the synthetic materials in the ‘natural’ world.”
Ninety percent of Calder’s materials are recyclable and, to date, she has diverted thousands of bags from oceans and landfills. She incorporates educational programming into her exhibitions, which feature what she calls “neocortex classrooms.” “The neocortex is the most highly evolved part of your brain, it’s where logical thinking takes place.” These classrooms are reserved for people interested in making decals to prevent birds from hitting windows or in watching mealworms eating styrofoam cups. (A unique talent.) Calder is inspired by artists such as Andrea Zittel, who use art to inform and inspire change. “I enjoy art that acts more like a verb rather than a noun, [works that] are socially driven, engage the viewer, and encourage action.”
Where does one find two ice hockey teams up for playing in an 18’ x 12’ rink? Or a professional skating duo excited by the prospect of botching a performance on film? And what about a pommel horse champion willing to perform under water? “I start with Facebook stalking,” says artist R. Eric McMaster, who might very well be the only person to have ever asked these questions, much less find their answers. Stalking might be an overstatement, but each of his video pieces requires subjects with atypical skill sets, most often relating to sports. So McMaster’s creative process often entails Internet sleuthing or finding someone “who knows someone who knows someone…” He’s not opposed to making cold calls to coaches or, as he did with the ice skaters, working from a ranking list, reaching out to one through ten, then moving down to the next batch until someone axel jumps at the opportunity.
For the past ten years much of McMaster’s work has been a production, requiring casting calls, crews, and a combination of materials, some man-made—such as the underwater pommel horse in “A Change in Atmosphere” —and others natural, such as the water itself.
McMaster, who teaches digital fabrication in the Art Department at the University of Texas, received an undergraduate and graduate degree in sculpture. That he is at home in academia is evident in his ability and willingness to analyze, contextualize and reflect upon his art. He offers an accessible but pointedly intellectual discourse about the origin and intent of his videos and athletic subjects. The short-ish version: a decade ago, when in grad school at Arizona State University, McMasters decided to join a co-ed field hockey team. He was new to the sport and quickly demoralized by a referee and a cloying whistle. “My demeanor changed from aggressive and sporty to suppressed and inefficient. It spawned work that had to do with how athletes are manipulated by authority figures or coaches,” he says. “It was me trying to symbolically represent autobiographical information.” His later work is “more about the [athletic] act than the symbolism. It is about a person’s full potential and the obstructions that prevent him or her from achieving it.”
There is wonderful, almost comedic absurdity to the obstacles and obstructions McMaster creates. Champion gymnast Cameron Deer performing his actual pommel horse routine under water is a prime example. On land, it takes forty seconds. In the University of Texas swimming pool, it takes eight minutes. The video, shot from the other side of a viewing window, is one take, no cutting or splicing, with the gymnast’s regular and requisite surfacing included. It conveys the artist’s aptitude for managing technically and logistically difficult situations. A ten-year-old photo of the artist entombed in heated shrink-wrap is a favorite reminder that this was not always the case. “It was the first time I needed a crew, lighting, assistants, a production team, and people to manipulate the material,” says McMaster. (There was also a breathing tube and the very real possibility of heat stroke.) “I had no idea what I was doing.”
Three different shades of synthetic hair extensions lie atop one table in Christina Coleman’s studio. They look like Cousin Itts sans sunglasses and are a natural segue into Coleman’s decision to incorporate hair, hair accessories and products into much of her work. They have become powerful materials in the thirty-two-year-old’s oeuvre, which centers largely around the theme of black culture. “I have been using hair care products in my work in 2011. I was thinking a lot about the relationship between identity and hairstyle,” she explains. It was not only hair as a character statement or signifier of race, but also as something attached to poignant memories, with the potential to reflect power, loss, strength and fragility.
“I tend to use materials that I have used in the past or have personal significance,” says Coleman, a Los Angeles native who moved to Austin in 2009 to attend graduate school at the University of Texas.
The synthetic hair in Coleman’s studio is integral to her current body of work: sculptures she refers to as antennae. They were inspired by the cluster of broadcast towers just west of Highway 360. “I am fascinated by their shapes, by the way they occupy space, and by the idea of communication,” she says. The pieces are minimalist in composition, wire and steal armature onto which the fake hair has been tightly, painstakingly wound. Coleman’s “antennae” are strangely beautiful — at once lithe, on the verge of animation, and fiercely, rigidly industrial. It is a series largely informed by a previous one, for which hair gel played center stage. To experience the latter is to further appreciate the playfulness and complexity of the former, though, they, too, speak for themselves in a (figurative) intoxicating voice.
“I was thinking a lot about the relationship between identity and hairstyle.”
Coleman’s hair gel pieces largely remain untitled. The products are Ampro and African Essence. “I used brown and black gels because I want them to represent brown and bodies in natural (albeit abstract) settings,” she says, remembering girls from middle school who overdid it on the gel, and ended up with a layer of flaking dried pigment on their foreheads by the end of the day. “It was like this temporary, second layer of skin.” The pieces also experience cracks and color changes over time, adding to the corporeal quality of the work, the production of which has a Dada, or chance, element. Because of the material there is no such thing as a final result. And because of the process, which necessitates a long drying process affected by light and temperature, even the first iteration isn’t known to the artist for days or weeks. (The drying time varies based on application.)
With her subsequent antennae series, Coleman is using hair as a way to heighten an African-American presence, while calling attention to the lonely nature of broadcast towers: isolated structures that are paradoxically built to communicate. When asked if she’d ever considered using real hair, she says that she already has. A friend who’d cut off her dreads donated them to Coleman’s creative cause. “She knew I was making artwork with hair and she insisted, so I used it in one of these sculptures. But not too long ago, she asked for them back.” Not an enviable position to be in, but Coleman was understanding. “Maybe she wants to use them now?” she says. Her friend is an artist, too.
These days, Karen Hawkins spends most of her time sitting in her studio surrounded by piles of discarded books. For ten years Hawkins, an Austin native, has used books, primarily old reference texts, to create elegant and existential three-dimensional works. They are intensely contemplative; however, for her, the content is inconsequential. “I know I’m totally weird, but when I’m sourcing my material the first thing I do is touch it, see how it feels in my fingers and determine the quality of the paper. Each iteration of these processes requires a different feel. For instance, with my totems, the paper quality has to be such that it’s going to be supple and be able to take a crease without cracking or breaking.”
Hawkins offers up “weird” as a self-descriptor on more than one occasion, though it never feels apt. Instead she comes across as articulate, conceptual and passionate about her work. Social introvert would be a more accurate depiction as would, of course, book junkie, though, lately, with a full exhibition and commission schedule she spends more time holding and folding than reading them. She is also unnecessarily humble, given her recent selection as a participant in the 2017 Florence Biennale.
The myriad ways she’s transformed tomes into visuals is remarkable, suggestive of preternatural patience given, for example, the hundreds of folded pages necessary for each of the geometric forms in her Totems series. Each is unique in shape, size, and text. The books words have been reduced to ink in function: aesthetic flourishes among flutterery pages. Some of her work entails frames and dynamic, filigree-like patterns, while her “Jelly Roll” series includes tightly rolled pages, colorfully dyed at the edge, affixed to walls in various formations.
“This medium made perfect sense to me,” she says. “I don’t even think I chose it…I think it sort of picked me.” It happened during a lecture at UT, where she attended school. “I have this fondness for tiny, three-inch books.” (Her vast collection of tiny books is on display throughout her house.) “I am a little bit of an anxious person and find holding these little books very comforting. During the lecture, I pulled one of out of my backpack and folded one of the pages, creasing it with my fingers, and it felt so calming that I turned the page and folded another and kept doing it.” The resulting form was beautiful and transfixing and became the impetus behind a graduate school project. In it, every surface of a room filled with book forms were also covered with pages, “very much like a padded room,” she admits. At that moment she fully realized the truly sensory nature of the material. It absorbs sound and emits an aromatic history. It also tells personal histories – through inscriptions, all of which she tears out and keeps. It is a collection of treasures, the search for which would send most down a bottomless rabbit hole. “I am very fortunate to have a studio manager [who] helps me focus.”
Hawkins’ work with books has also been a meditation on an object that is ubiquitous and, with the advent of “the cloud,” no longer necessary as a source of information. She has given them a new and lasting function as a versatile medium. “The possibilities are endless,” says Hawkins, referring not only to her Jelly Roll pieces but also to what she can do with the material, which she doesn’t plan on abandoning any time soon.
Akirash Akindiya’s voice is refreshingly uplifting, buoyed by his Nigerian accent and a rare optimism that’s evident in his work. He is preternaturally spirited and clearheaded given that he has just returned from seven weeks in Australia and has only a few days to prepare for his exhibition at Big Medium. For years Akindiya maintained a peripatetic lifestyle that is not exactly over, completing residencies and exhibiting work in Namibia, the US, Brazil, Tanzania, Myanmar, Amsterdam, France and the United Kingdom, among others. He is practiced in the art of jetlag.
Akindiya, born Olaniyi Rasheed Akindiya in Lagos, was in Australia completing the prestigious Art at the Heart residency program. An integral part of the fellowship was a community project, working with aboriginal artists on a light-theme show. The resulting multimedia experience was a jubilant immersion into a global vision. “I want to see more of what people are doing, and I want to not only be an artist from Africa or from the US, but…an artist of the world. I think that’s one of the things that drives me.”
Unequivocally, Akindiya defies classifications. If there is one constant in his work as an artist it is the ongoing presence of experimental elements—colors amplified in mysterious ways, materials augmented with homemade compounds and tools. Akindiya’s compulsion to experiment and problem-solve is a joyful one, a byproduct of his degree in bio-chemistry and first career as a pharmacist. When he went back to study art it was an invaluable skillset. “I’d never realized how difficult and expensive it is to be an artist. I saved money by creating my own colors and my own brushes.” He still does. When artists come up to him and ask how he achieved a particularly unique patina, he remains comically tight-lipped. “I say it is my secret.”
“I want to see more of what people are doing, and I want to be not only be an artist from Africa or from the US, but…an artist of the world.”
A signature example of Akindiya’s prowess as an inventor are his expansive, net-like installations, which are actually woven together pieces of cardboard. Though cardboard seems antithetical to weaving, a skill he mastered at a textile job in West Africa. However, using an abstruse process, he manages to transform it into a pliable fabric-like swaths of color that, in the right light, seem to glow in the dark.Another driving force behind Akindiya’s art and travel is the Artwithakirash Foundation, which he started as a way to help people in the communities where he lives, no matter how short the stay. “The idea was that I was born in an area where there is little opportunity, and it’s very hard for people to get education and to become who they want to become.” Akindiya contributes 45 percent of his annual income to the cause, including a portion of the $55,000 he received as a part of the Art at the Heart fellowship. The money is used to take impoverished youth off the street, put them in school and help them plan a better future.
For now, Akindiya’s home base is in Pflugerville, where he lives with his wife and daughter. However, for Akindiya, now 45, home will always be more of a concept than a definitive place. “Wherever I am at that moment, I have to make it home, even if it’s just for a month or a week,” he says. “I have to make it peaceful.” For Akindiya, home is the opportunity to learn about the world while making art.
Read more from the Arts Issue | November 2016