How to “Keep Austin Weird:” A Review of The Blanton Museum
The city of Austin is informed by a slogan of strangeness, a policy of peculiarity, a motto which proclaims that people should “Keep Austin Weird!” This motto has shaped the air and allure of the city from its lively start-up culture to the wildness of sixth street; even its art museums have adopted this weirdness. In contrast with the typical notion of art museums as stuffy and dusty and crammed with relics, Austin’s Blanton Museum is a strange realm teeming with unconventional works of art.
The strangeness of the Blanton begins not in a gallery but in the museum’s main foyer. Here you are plunged into the world of fantastic art by the installation Stacked Waters by Teresita Fernández. This work, made of stacked tempera panels lining the walls in swirling shades of white and various blues, transforms the entire space, making it feel like you are rising from the ocean depths as you walk up the stairs to the main galleries.
The Blanton of course takes you through the history of Western Art starting with traditional Greek vessels through Medieval acrylic paintings and into the master paintings of the High Renaissance. One thing I noticed when going through the classical art section is the strangeness of the pieces. Classical art is classically thought of as portraits of people in stuffy clothes and still lives of flowers, fish, and who-knows-what-else and glowing scenes of religious ecstasy. However, the pieces in the Blanton counter this idea; people are portrayed in wonderfully strange and expressive poses. One such person is St. Agatha, the patron saint of breast cancer, rape victims, and wet nurses, who is painted with a curious gaze while holding a pair of scissors before a plate of disembodied breasts.
Even classical Greek myth is portrayed as lively an exciting. Fillipo Lauri paints the myth of Chelone in Chelone’s Transformation into a Turtle and animates the characters making it seem like the scene is but a moment in a larger story. You can almost feel the smirk on Hera’s face as she watches Chelone suffer at her feet.
All of the Blanton’s traditional pieces exhibit this vitality of expression and the characters become so human, so relatable that they function well as meme material in modern culture.
The Blanton’s art collection continues into modern and contemporary art, which is arguably the strangest art our culture has. Abstractionist such as Ellsworth Kelly and Norman Lewis break from the traditional idea of painting by morphing familiar objects until they are no longer recognizable and in some cases by leaving out forms all together. Other artists like Byron Kim and Sonya Clark deal with matters of social inequality in ways that get us to rethink the relationship between the individual and society through the weirdness of their work. Sonya Clark’s work Madam C.J. Walker is hanging installation in which the portrait of the Walker is created by combs with broken and unbroken teeth.
The artwork Aurora, Per III: Daily Color Progression by Alfred Jensen epitomizes the culture which created and is displayed in modern art. This work pulls from a wealth of sources, “drawing directly upon… various knowledge systems, spanning Mayan calendars, Chinese philosophy, astronomy, Pythagorean geometry and the art of Central America” according to the museum. This work represents the wide range of factors, from the dawn of the electronic age to civil rights movements to advances in the art making process, which have come together to create modern culture and its art.
In addition to its permanent collection of contemporary and modern art, the Blanton also has several exhibitions in which art takes on exciting new forms. One of the most fascinating exhibits to me was Susan Phillipz’s: Part File Score. Phillipz’s exhibition is worth seeing because it is so different from most other types of art; it is not only something to look at, but also something to listen to. The visible pieces were the handwritten music scores of Hanns Eiseler blown up to human-size and printed over with the redacted files from Eiseler’s FBI investigation. Meanwhile, parts of this music played softly in the background expressing Eisler’s creativity in a way that visuals alone cannot. In addition to exploring the fascinating history of Hanns Eisler, the exhibition showed that art is not confined to page and gave visitors a way to experience and interpret art in ways they probably haven’t before.
Yet, the most unorthodox work in the museum is probably the art made by Nina Katchadourian. She currently has a solo exhibition: Curiouser. Her work includes a family tree of commercial icons, pairing up beloved characters like Mr. Clean and the Land of Lakes butter girl, to maps that have been cut-up and rearranged to a talking popcorn machine, which records the sounds of popcorn popping as though there were a voice speaking words into a microphone. Her work is all about engaging the viewer and exploring the spaces we inhabit, both literal and figurative, in fun ways. One of the pieces that I found most amusing were her video works titled Lavatory Videos. This series is split in to part with the first consisting of two videos and the second of three. The curious part about these videos is that they feature the artist lip-syncing to AC/DC and the BeeJee’s while dressed in the style of traditional Flemish portraits in the lavatory of an airplane. Stranger still, her costume is made almost entirely of items she found in the airplane’s bathroom and the videos are shot on her iPhone. The sheer absurdity of a woman dressed in a white headdress made from a toilet seat cover singing “she’s got balls” in the bathroom of a plane is enough to attract and titillate visitors; however, for me, as an artist, this work really challenged my view of the artistic process. Katchadourian created this work as part of her on going quest to find creativity where ever she was, even if that was in the cramped confines of an airplane bathroom. She shows that a person doesn’t need a studio with the newest tech and equipment to make art but that all one needs to be creative is an idea and a little bit of imagination.
So next time you’re looking for something to “keep Austin weird” or even a way to spend a Saturday afternoon give the Blanton a try, if not for the thought-provoking art then at least for the chance of getting some good memes. And if you go on Thursdays when they fire up Katchadourian’s popcorn machine, you may be able to get free popcorn. What more could you want?
Photos by Aiden Steinle