Some Things Borrowed, Some Things New: Three Artists Offer a Respite From Minimalism

At the McKinney Avenue Contemporary last night I was thinking about repetition. I had to: the three artists on display—Jacqueline Bishop, Ginger Geyer, and Kenneth Hale—either work in series of multiples, or else pay homage to earlier artists, repeating both themselves and their precursors with always interesting effect. Karl Marx, not thinking of art of course, famously said that everything in history happens twice, first as tragedy, then as farce. In the history of art, repetition happens differently. We have a work and then we have copies, homages, pastiches, or second thoughts, by either the original artists or their progeny. And in most cases, like those at the MAC (here until May 15), the new work is infused with wit, irony, and humor as well as respectful admiration directed back to its sources.

Jacqueline Bishop, "Little Bromelia," 2004, oil on leather (Image courtesy of The McKinney Avenue Contemporary)

Bishop’s “Losing Ground: Imaginary Landscapes” is the smallest of the exhibits, a series of shoes tucked into the side gallery at the MAC. It’s all baby shoes, in different styles and media, some vintage, some new, all painted or embellished with materials like hair, twine, straw, beeswax, twigs, or feathers. The 25 pairs all sit primly on pedestals at the eye level (36 inches from the floor) of a child. The room exudes austerity, sometimes weirdly challenging, sometimes beautiful in its eeriness, as you move from one pair of shoes to the next, as though trying them on in your own imaginary landscape.

More flamboyant are the sculptures of Ginger Geyer, which fill the gallery’s largest space. The pieces are porcelain, first shaped, then painted or glazed before being fired in the kiln. They may hang on a wall; more often they sit on, or even extend along a table top and make their statements about the entire course of western art history, about canonical masterpieces by Michelangelo, Poussin, Goya, Rembrandt, Monet and practically everyone else. They ask serious questions about the relation of the past to the present. They are rich in their texture and coloration, and often zany in their inventiveness. They mingle the everyday, the religious or spiritual, and the history of art with a dizzying inventiveness. Take the lush, table-top filling “Binding Abundance,” a homage to a picture by Poussin: the pomegranates seem balanced precariously, falling in rich profusion and opening up in their dazzling redness. Or “There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch,” a glazed lunchbox in porcelain made to look like metal, fire engine-red, on which is copied an adaptation of Matthias Grunewald’s Crucifixion from his masterpiece, the Isenheim Altarpiece. No free lunch, but of course there’s Christ’s sacrifice from which believers have derived sustenance and hope for two millennia, his gift (like the miracle of the loaves and the fishes) to the faithful. In an age of minimalism, what a wonderful treat it is to come upon such abundance and richness, in material as well as historical referentiality. Joie de vivre and playful purposefulness go together in these pieces that are solid and fragile simultaneously.

Kenneth J. Hale, "Carmel #14," 2008, print, collage (Image courtesy of The McKinney Avenue Contemporary)

The very title of Austin artist Kenneth J. Hale’s show, “Art Into Landscape,” turns on its head a seminal work of mid-century art criticism by another Kenneth (Clark), Landscape into Art. Like Bishop and Geyer, Hale is as interesting for his medium as for his content. He was trained as a lithographer. The new work, now in the age of digital reproduction, slyly combines homage, imitation, quotation, and pastiche to make something uniquely its maker’s own. A wonderful series of pictures with the title “Altered Histories” uses famous landscape paintings borrowed from art books as a base. Hale reproduced them digitally, printed them but also altered them. Thus, we have a Rubens landscape with the Golden Gate Bridge shimmering in the hazy distance. Vermeer, Thomas Cole, and Rubens make similar appearances with similarly unexpected transformations. Images beget images. We are at sea, or in a fun house of mechanical reproduction. The show has several such series, “Hybrid,” “Carmel,” all of which are landscapes that inject art into art to make new art. Everything is old and new, borrowed and re-imagined. The gallery at the MAC constitutes Hale’s landscape.

And Hale is obsessed with trees: you’ll never see so many beautiful prints with arboreal centerpieces that look like nothing in nature you have ever seen before. Unlike Geyer’s proliferating abundance, and her imagination in a permanent state of overdrive, Hale’s inventiveness is more even-tempered, his repetitions (of the work of others, and within his own multiple series) unfolding their calm harmonies, their calls-and-responses, more subtly.

Main Image: Ginger Henry Geyer, “All In One,” glazed porcelain (Image courtesy of The McKinney Avenue Contemporary)

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