by sculptures of pixelated birds, Shawn Smith, wearing jeans
and a T-shirt, doesn't necessarily scream `city kid.' But shortly
into his gallery talk, the artist admits he doesn't have much
experience with nature.
`I've never been camping,
never seen a real campfire, never spent the night outside,'
Smith tells an audience at the gallery. It's a startling revelation
from a man who clearly cares about nature and takes great pains
to examine issues in the natural world.
Smith shares a new exhibit of his work with Joseph Phillips
- co-founder of the East Austin Studio Tour (and avid camper)
- at the d berman gallery until Oct. 9.
The bright room at the
gallery is sliced in half by a diagonal wall, and walking in
you choose between Smith's craggy, pixelated sculptures on one
side and Phillips' smooth and placid gouache drawings on the
As artists working in
Austin, Smith and Phillips occupy similar environments, and
yet in their latest exhibit they're considering their surroundings
and running in opposite directions.
So it's compelling to see two artists with aligning interests
and concerns express their ideas in completely different ways.
For Smith, the animals
he depicts are all endangered in some way, so it's curious that
their creator is so removed from their real, physical existence.
This, of course, is the
point. Smith - who recently completed a metallic fountain sculpture
at the Austonian building - is interested in the interaction
between physical `things' and digital `non-things' in our increasing
abandonment of the physical world for the virtual.
His work is disarming. At first you wonder how it is that these
objects have come to be, and then you appreciate the beauty
of hundreds of pieces of balsa wood individually stained and
inserted at specific depths within the sculpture to create a
texture and shadow that are a shockingly accurate 3-D creation
of pixelated images.
`I like to take non-things,
like digital images, and translate them back into things,' Smith
says. He is building a physical version of things that don't
otherwise exist, and doing so in a very labor-intensive way.
`Skulk,' a pixeled fox
posing on the wall, has a striking shape that is interesting
from all three sides. Examining a small cluster of balsa chunks
reveals that each strip is dyed a different shade of orange,
red, light green or yellow, to imitate the choppy, distorted
swaths of pixels.
Smith usually starts with
a sketch on graph paper to map out scale. "I like to build
objects pixel by pixel so I can understand the way the whole
object is put together," he says. A lot of them come from
distorted, low-quality images he finds on the Internet.
Smith's most poignant
work, perhaps, is the autobiographical `Quiet Breath,' a black
lung in pixels. `I got to thinking about my father, and my father
smoked for 27 years and it killed him,' Smith says.
He was inspired by watching
doctors remove a cadaver's black lung. `They filled the lungs
with resin, and they cut the body away so it's just the lungs.
It was absolutely beautiful,' Smith says. Indeed, the cubed
wooden bronchials, painted black, have a dismal attraction.
Joseph Phillips is tall
with short blond hair. Wearing gray pants and clunky black boots,
he's built like a rugby player. It is surprising, then, to hear
him speak so sensitively about, or really, around, his art.
`I don't want it to be
didactic - guy with the megaphone: "We're screwing with
the Earth." I want it to be this open mirror,' Phillips
Phillips uses pencil,
ink and gouache on white paper to paint small slices of a fantastical
landscape in exquisitely detailed layers: from the rocks, mud
and underground reservoirs, up to small buildings in tropical
Most are small, isolated
plots of land, being created (or demolished) in surreal surroundings,
like a movie set built by a daydreaming architect. Some plots
are surrounded by orange traffic cones, and others are boxed
in by white walls. Some have unexplained beams of energy or
clouds made up of unconnected dots.
In `Elevated VIP Lawn,'
sod is being rolled out on a thin, wooden foundation. Planted
on the grass is an odd-couple mix of evergreen and palm trees.
It hints at the shaky
relationship between the American lawn and our desire for status
and consumption, but, by design, the meaning is not firmly defined.
`It's not one thing for
everyone,' Phillips says. `I want to occupy that area in between
extremes, where everything's possible.'
Although the artificial,
unnatural details show a concern for the environment and our
interactions with it, the stark beauty of Phillips' work hints
that no issue has just one side.
`I've had people come up to me and say, "Your work is so
depressing, like everything looks the same, and it's so bland
and ordinary,"' Phillips says. `But then other people will
come up and say, "I love your work; it's so bright and
optimistic; everything is perfect." So that's what I want
to go for - create something that's in the middle so people
can bring in their own outlook.'
The pieces are addictively
pleasant, and lacking any jarring shifts or edges, embodying
the dull edge of steady progress. They are incongruous to nature,
but also purposely non-confrontational.
`String Theory [Earth]'
divides Phillips' stylized landscape into thick, cylindrical
strings that resemble rubbery cigarettes.
`So this is kind of a
joke, but it's kind of serious,' Phillips says. `It's me, coming
to terms with my own inability to understand everything. And
I've sort of grown more and more OK with that.'
His work is gentle, but
not delicate - the lines are soft, and the colors invite you
in. Indeed, they almost fade into the background.
This is by design - perhaps
to be approachable and beautiful, but also to hint at the soft
contours of faded memory, Phillips says. It's related to our
inability to capture a fleeting idea, or to explain it.
This metaphorical mood
follows to drawings of `energy, beams of light or things that
aren't actually anything physical,' Phillips says. `A more emotional
connection, I guess.'
Phillips has a better vantage than most to consider issues like
gentrification, land use and how a city's growth affects its
coveted rural escapes.
`My family, we've been
in Austin so long, we've been in the middle of watching it change,'
Phillips says. `My grandparents used to own a little property
in South Austin, south of 290. When I was a kid in the eighties,
I remember they were trying to sell it, and it was a big fight
with S.O.S. (Save Our Springs). For me, it was just my grandparents'
ranch, the place where I went swimming, my dad grew up,' he
says. That property is now `a Target parking lot where my dad
used to ride his horse.'
Yet, Phillips' mind is
open on issues like new development: `I try to see all sides,
because I'll get to looking at something from one perspective,
and have a hard time wrapping my head around the other side
`It's not just about land
use or commodification,' Phillips says. `It's also about reality
and our connection with where we live and how we live, and how
it affects not just our outlook, but how we interact with each
other as well.'
New Work: Joseph
Phillips and Shawn Smith
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturday through Oct.
Where: d berman gallery, 1701 Guadalupe St.
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