Amy Hauft is a sculptor and the Leslie Waggener Professor in Sculpture and Studio Art Graduate Adviser in the Department of Art and Art History at The University of Texas at Austin.
She answered our questions about milkVOICE, the 2016 MFA Studio Art exhibition at the Visual Arts Center (VAC) over email.
Thao Votang: What does milkVOICE mean?
Amy Hauft: Well, Bryan Martello, one of the show’s artists, came up with that title. It was explained to me that it’s that coated, thick voice you get when talking after a thick glass of milk.
TV: The three students in the Vaulted Gallery (the most western gallery space at the VAC) presented an exhibition together back in 2014, Your Pleasure. It’s interesting to see their work together again—to see that conversation continued as their work evolved. Bryan Martello included two works from that exhibition in a different scale. Annie Miller’s paintings are a similar palette and A.C. Rogers’ sculptures retain their ‘handled’ feeling. Yet, their works are different from what they showed previously. Could tell us why the three artists wanted to exhibit their works together again?
AH: Actually, it was my suggestion to show the three artists together. The thesis show is a funny animal. The only reason those 10 artists are in a show together is because they are all graduating from the same program at the same time; there is no thematic reason for the work to hang together. It seemed to me that most of the individual bodies of work weren’t going to necessarily help one another when viewed side by side (and for that among other reasons, the rest of the works are presented bounded by walls and wholly in their own worlds). But Miller, Martello and Rogers had shown me that their work conversed well together in that 2014 show you mentioned. (Maybe that was cheating on my part.)
As I look at the work I don’t know that I would have recognized they were going to look so great together but they really do. Ultimately it is Rogers’s work that glues the room together, since her objects stand in front of all the wall works. Roger’s naturalist palette melds well with the neutral tones of Miller’s paintings. Roger’s sculptures often display something found within their overall construction. That real thing (like the bound hank of horsehair in First Position) jumps out not unlike the way Martello’s impoverished objects jump out of his photographs, so dressed up and stunning despite their humble origins (like Low Tide). Also we “hinged” the corner of the room with two facing images: Martello’s amputated torso image (Waisting) catty-corner to Miller’s leg-splayed figure (Chafe city). Happily, there are numerous rhyming moments between the works throughout the gallery.
TV: Even though Martello decided to include two works he’s shown before again, they’re quite different—they were smaller in the 2014 exhibition. In milkVOICE, the way Martello’s photographs are adhered to the wall creates a sense of intimacy—there’s no frame, no glass to separate the viewer from the large images. Martello uses everyday objects to create an image that he will manipulate digitally to create tricks for the eye to discover. In the same way he works the photograph, Miller and Rogers are pressing and pushing their media. Miller’s paintings are scratched, smoothed, and dripping—all actions that reflect their subject of sex. Rogers’ sculptures have changed since Your Pleasure. I like the bulbous round objects in contrast with the gangly sculptures she has included.
There’s a humor I sense in Rogers’ sculptures, especially the three-legged topless table, and can see it in Martello’s photographs too. Is this intentional? Is it in Miller’s paintings as well (and something I’m simply missing)?
AH: Actually, I think Roger’s work has developed significantly since Your Pleasure. That might be because I know that the gangly works are the more recent ones and seem to indicate her future direction. Previously (and in a couple of the earlier pieces in this show, I still love you and Mass on Table on Dolly) she made hollow forms that suggested they were solid. The objects used the trope of imitation to suggest weight and mass.
In the most recent works, the material is exactly what it claims to be, a materiality that she then exploits. I agree that the thing that marries Roger’s work to Miller’s is the sense of touch you recognized. For instance, in the three legged table piece you mention (Triangle), the metal has been worked to the point that it begins to look like modeled clay. I think this tactility speaks beautifully to Miller’s paintings, for example Scissor, where close up you can see the physicality of her painting methods, the scratching, smoothing and dripping you observed. I also love that close up to Miller’s paintings you discover a riot of surface difference: liquidity and texture—and no sense of representation. She also accomplishes this by painting the figure in the same hue as the background. By making the two different color tones so close to one another, as she says, the image hides in plain site. The images and narrative begin to reveal themselves from a distance but seem to retreat into the paintings when inspected closely.
As for Martello’s images, he often works from a product photography strategy. This, coupled with the photographs directly adhered to the walls, causes them to announce themselves more as signs or advertisements. This reading is furthered by their increased size. But closer inspection reveals that they are signs with ambiguous ambitions. I see Martello’s work disguised as funny, but in fact, full of longing and a little bit worried. Longing and little worried: I might say that about the subject matter of all three of these artists in the Vaulted Gallery.
TV: Annie May Johnston’s room-within-a-room-within-a-room paintings are fabulous. There’s something extremely compelling to me about the layered canvas, stretched and unstretched, and the wallpaper that she created for this installation. Johnston plays with perspective, a rule that is so common it is overlooked, in a refreshing way. She’s mostly painting here but comes from a printmaking background. How does the synthesis of those two mediums inform her work?
AH: I see that revealed in a number of ways. The most obvious example is the fact that she screen printed a repeat pattern of open and closed doors onto Tyvec which she then mounted to the gallery wall as wallpaper (The Apartment). Over this she hung the painting, Cornered 1. Additionally, you see her use of repetition throughout the paintings, repeated patterns and images. In this case, she has hand painted those repeated patterns, except when she deploys stencils, a way to automatically make repeat patterns (a printmakers trick!) And I think you see the print artist’s head in the most complex works displayed, in which she has layered a series of images painted on unstretched canvas, atop one another, each image’s edges blending into the next. This layering is reminiscent of the printmaker inking out one color at a time, anticipating the fact that each layer will blend together to make a final, unified image. In this case, Annie May is layering opaque images towards a different goal, but the structure, in which the several layers sit atop one another to create yet another image, is certainly the strategy of a printmaker.
TV: Roni Chelben’s videos are really well-installed. Two screens are mounted back to back on a pole. The videos show an over-the-shoulder view of a pretty awkward conversation between two people and the viewer has to walk around the screens to see the “other side” of the conversation. A projector in the corner plays a video in which the artist adopts the character of a petulant child. I’m curious how Chelben’s work has evolved over the course of her M.F.A. I’m probably least familiar with her work of all the artists in this exhibition.
AH: Roni came into the program with a degree in film. Her natural tendency is to manage people into an event that results in a recordable document. Most of the work Roni has done while here has had political intentions. In her first year, she did an ambitious performance piece at the Blanton in which she collaborated with and directed dance students into physical actions imitated from films she had made of Palestinian protesters (Roni is Israeli). In her second year she engaged in theatrical improvisation with members of the Austin homeless community culminating in a live performance in their downtown community center.
The piece on display at the Visual Arts Center is the first work she has undertaken in which the politics she explores are in her own back yard, in her own head. In the conversations you see taking place on either side of the poles, you hear Roni interviewing her studio mates and fellow students as to why they aren’t better friends, what she might be able to do to change that (Peers). The conversations are edited to accentuate the awkwardness of the encounters. And then, if you squat down in the gallery corner, you can view a projection of Roni’s alter ego seemingly acting out similar demands of her teddy bear. It reads to me like a demonstration of the conscious and subconscious simultaneously. Writ large I understand it as an inquiry into the nature of organized society.
TV: In one of the bay windows, Elizabeth McClellan has transformed the space into a waiting room and room for a doctor’s consultation. She’s experimenting with futuristic skin diseases and how humans will deal with that in the future. How does that work relate to her past work (predominately work on paper), or was it simply something new that began to interest McClellan?
AH: Before and during Elizabeth’s time at UT Austin she was working on film and theatrical productions, making sets and props, art directing. Meanwhile, in her studio, Elizabeth’s drawings were becoming larger and larger, until the were literally the size of the building she was portraying. I think she segwayed at that point into thinking about ways to braid together her more singular art practice with her collaborative projects in film and theater. Around that same time, Elizabeth began interviewing genetic scientists who were experimenting with CRISPR science—a gene-editing protocol that is reputedly almost as easy to do as editing this sentence.
For Elizabeth, this added up to the creation of a spa-like waiting room in which all the doctor swag and advertising talks about harnessing one’s debilitating skin diseases into decorative patterns over which you (the diseased) take control (the ornamented). The installation is a fictional play room in which she stages performance events individualized for each participant, Welcome to EchindaLabs®! You are right, Thao, this represents a big move in her practice.
TV: Rachel Stuckey plays with the internet in a way that is really refreshing. She’s rooted in performance and video and latches onto themes or internet phenomenons. Stuckey uses the gaudiness of the internet and the familiarity of things like screensaver themes (pipes, Flurry, Arabesque) to push the viewer into discomfort with their own use of technology. I especially liked the exposed, unorganized plugs and the drive that plugged into and played a “clock” that tells you when you should be networking or doing business, etc. Is Stuckey warning against the internet of our world or poking fun at how it shapes our lives?
AH: Rachel’s projects amount to an intensive investigation into the ethos and subcultures nurtured by the internet. The results have included everything from a digital artist residency Welcome to my Home Page, to the avatar, Estrin Tide, a misguided follower of anything everybody’s talking about. Estrin Tide is Fresh, Everyone Else is Tired is an installation/bunker under-the-gallery-stairway (literally in the closet), featuring Estrin Tide, complete with aroma therapy. Estrin is tweaking Silicon Valley’s famous polyphasic sleeping regimes to achieve more awake time each day, but instead of 3 hours on, twenty minutes off, her “hyper-polyphasic sleep” means 3 minutes on and 15 seconds asleep, over and over again throughout the day. As the videos progress, Estrin becomes at times confused and erratic—but eternally peppy in sharing her DIY body hacking solutions with her viewers. There is a biting sarcasm in Rachel’s projects, but there is just as deep an empathy. We all benefit as Rachel tries to understand her own relationship to the tantalizing energies of the internet.
TV: Gracelee Lawrence’s sculptures are in the courtyard and in a tucked away room in the gallery. Her bright, fleshy fountains are present, in addition to some new works. Arms that remind me of Rosie the Riveter and two legs that stretch a piece of fabric between them. The limbs all hold some sort of fabric or rose stretched between—the act in itself draws me to them instantly. I keep expecting the fabric to fall off the sculpture. Lawrence’s sculptures are humorous and bright—she seems to be reacting to her past show at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum. How have her works moved forward since that exhibition?
AH: As you note, Gracelee won one of the Umlauf Prizes this year and as a result, created an exhibition for the Umlauf Sculpture Garden. She used Charles Umlauf’s bronze figurative sculptures as a place from which to push off. She reinterpreted Umlauf’s classic figurative poses using fruit as a stand in. She continued this investigation here at the VAC in which she has replicated a reclining female nude as a giant double-ended pineapple, slothfully supine on her divan in the middle of the VAC outdoor courtyard (Reclining Nude). Seeping out from under the pineapple is a gurgle of water, sloshing off the divan and into the basin of the fountain. The pineapple seems to be wetting itself, an example of how Gracelee can turn the traditions of figurative statuary on end. In another instance of fruit as female, the fountain Summerhead is a delicate stack of fleshy pears over which water glides down, subliminally reminiscent of water flowing over the female body. She makes us remember that being a fountain is one of the longest standing jobs of sculpture.
TV: Adam Crosson brought his flourescent lights, filling out the frame of a signboard mounted above our heads and the only light source in the space. His most current series involves defunct sign carcasses—he creates a camera in the exact dimensions of the sign, then takes an image (or many on each sheet of light sensitive paper) of the sign’s “view.” One includes 240 pinhole images in a grid—each about 2 inches in diameter. Across the room, there is a landscape photo exposed 4 times on a sheet 4½ by sixteen feet of Lake Pontchartrain. The photographs are not that of a photographer, but a trained sculptor. The edges show where tape held the sheet in place and you can see where the chemicals ran over the sheet in some instances. Crosson has departed from sculpture in a way and has given us an interesting view of photography. Do you think it’s the norm now to have artists that move from medium to medium?
AH: I think this is a time when many artists feel free to move from medium to medium, whichever best suits the circumstance or inquiry. In Adam’s case, the resulting photographs are very much from the mind and hand of a sculptor. He specifically crafts a camera to make each of these photographs—but when I say that you might imagine a camera body with a precision ground lens. In fact, he builds the camera out of sheets of pink styrofoam insulation, making the box light-tight with duct tape. He transforms the styrofoam box into a camera by piercing the styrofoam on one face and covering that piercing with a removable arm. He fills the body of the camera with a piece of light sensitive paper that, when he lifts the arm from over the hole, is exposed to the pinhole of light that creates the image. This is how he can build cameras 16 feet long by 4 ½ feet high. This is how he can craft a camera specific to the size of a derelict sign carcass. And this is why he leaves the processed paper undulating from its exposure to chemicals. He is as interested facture, and in the physical fact of the photograph as he is in its image. The result is a photograph that only a sculptor could make.
TV: In a back room, Adam Boley presents us with a projection that fills an entire wall. The viewer witnesses a duck hunt. At times it’s serene and at others it’s flinchingly cruel. Near the space, Boley includes a photograph of the sky, a monochromatic gray. The duck hunts he goes on with his father and brother have compelled him for awhile now. I was surprised to only see a couple of works from Boley.
For a thesis exhibition, how difficult is it to choose to show only one or two works versus more? It’s the introduction of these artists, but, for some, it’s also a goodbye as they leave Austin.
AH: You are right, Thao, it’s a bold move to show only two works. But in Adam’s case, I think it was the right choice. Adam grew up north of here, near Georgetown. His family’s farm is registered in the Texas Family Land Heritage Program. The program tracks ranchland and farms kept in the same family for at least a century. He has spent his three years in graduate school considering the landscape that made him. He came in as a photographer and in this video work (December 19th, 2015) he creates a 17-minute-long photograph. At times it reads as though it is a still—with nary a ripple to be seen across a pond dotted with decoy ducks. Garbled muttering and the whine of a dog can be heard in the background.
Then, when a flock flies in range, gunshots cause 3 of the birds to fall from the sky and into the pond, which in turn, launches the dog, porpoising into the water to retrieve them. The scene continues and eventually, at a lighter time of day, we see an older man in camo-gear gingerly finding his way across the uneven pond floor as he retrieves the decoys. This turns out to be Adam’s dad, his regular hunting partner. As Adam’s dad exits stage left, the wired decoys seem to follow him like a mama duck. Adam understands his camera to be looking at these rituals like an ethnographer, recording masculinity, landscape, aging, familial and animal relationships and even death. The photograph, Sometimes I miss, hung around the corner from the video, could easily be misread as a monochromatic painting. But it is, in fact, a large photograph of the sky, with literally no detail. Hung as it is at the end of an alcove, it could also be a window, out of the gallery and back into the world. It’s a lovely way to end the show, I think.