'I'm nervous I'm not in the studio right now."
It seems like a strange statement for Sydney Yeager to make as she sits on a bench in D. Berman Gallery surrounded by her paintings. After all, the night before, the well-known Austin artist celebrated the opening of an exhibit of her work -- eight large oil paintings representing a year's worth of labor -- at a festive, crowded opening (she shares the show with Austin artist Robert Dale Anderson). A native Texan, Yeager has, over the years, exhibited extensively across the state. She is the recipient of an NEA Fellowship, and next year the Galveston Arts Museum will mount a career retrospective that is slated to travel to other institutions.
It seems like a time to relax and celebrate.
But the truth is, Yeager would rather be working in her studio in a 19th-century building in downtown Elgin than having a conversation in the spacious D. Berman Gallery.
"I have an empty studio right now," she says. "It's a difficult period when you finish a body of work. You don't want to let go of the momentum you developed, and you're also not quite sure where you're heading next."
Yeager does seem more relaxed a few days later in her light-filled, high-ceilinged studio as the music of Austin tango ensemble Tosca plays on a boom box. She's had this studio for about 18 months, subletting from artist Margo Sawyer, who lives and works upstairs in a space that was formerly the Elgin Opera House. "Lily Langtry once performed up there," says Yeager, who is dressed casually in black jeans and a sweater. Yeager makes the trip out to Elgin from her home in Central Austin three or four days a week. The other days, she teaches painting and drawing at Austin Community College.
Though she may think it's empty, Yeager's studio is not bereft of the evidence of work. There's a long, tall work table along one wall, a third of which is neatly stacked with books, magazines and papers, two-thirds of it covered with hefty silver paint tubes and jars of brushes. A wheeled metal table is crowded with paintcovered cans -- empty cat food cans from Sawyer, empty tuna cans from Yeager's self-described "tunafish jags." A layer of paint-splattered cardboard covers the studio's entire floor. Low-lying shelves fashioned out of wood planks balanced on old housepaint cans hold three canvases that lean against the white walls. One canvas is nearly finished, the other two Yeager started on just days before.
Yeager's latest body of work represents a turning point in her career. Since finishing her master of fine arts in painting at the University of Texas in 1987 (when she was in the midst of raising two now twentysomething daughters with her lawyer husband), Yeager has created what are fundamentally abstract oil paintings. She's always worked large: Her paintings are usually 5 1/2 feet square -- "I'm about 5 foot 5," she explains -- or about half that size. They've always been composed of multiple layers of paint -- a field of chaotic color as dense as the East Texas Big Thicket near which she grew up. "There's a sense always of the threat of the disorder of nature," she says. Over this tangle of paint, Yeager arranges orderly patterns of simplified shapes. Pattern is a reoccurring motif -- something Yaeger sees evident in every strata of life from molecular structure to language to a person's daily routine.
Yet in her most recent work, the rift between order and chaos is compressed. Pure, abstract color patterning takes over and the physicality of the sheer amount of paint is palpable, as in "Lattice Plane." Yes, there's certainly a lattice-like design evident in the brilliant field of yellow, white and black worked in with lots of red. But it's subtle and fuses with the combination of hues expressed in the thick paint. The result is a canvas alight with a frenzied sense of movement on the verge of exuberant chaos. "The challenge for me right now is to go forward without reiterating myself," says Yeager. "I have to hurry up and get back to work."
Contact Jeanne Claire van Ryzin at 445-3699 or
11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday
d berman Gallery, 1701
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