Austin's unique "BE"

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Austin: A Temple for You

Public art in a city can reflect and steward its unique meaning.

And so it does in Austin, where we have a number of iconic artworks which convey "be yourself" to visitors and inhabitants. Murals like Hi, How Are You? (Daniel Johnston), Greetings from Austin (Todd Sanders), i love you so much (Jo's Coffee SoCo) convey the care with which we treat each other and our journeys. The HOPE Outdoor Gallery is a collaborative art space where all are welcome to contribute. Three Austin heroes have statues around town. Angelia Eberly (Pat Eliphant, CAST) saved Austin as the capital of Texas by sounding the alarm. Stevie Ray Vaughan (Ralph Helmick) and Willie Nelson (Clete Shields, CAST) embody our live music and the spirit of expressing yourself. And perhaps soon, Leslie Cochran, who was so inimitably themselves, will take their place in the Austin pantheon. Even Eeyore, whose birthday Austin has celebrated since 1963, has a statue.

In the fall "Austin" by Ellsworth Kelly will open on the lawn of the Blanton Museum. The project was introduced in late 2015 and has been in construction. Just as AKHOB reflects Vegas as the City of Illusion, "Austin" evokes Austin's "be yourself" ethos. As if to describe the city of experiences that Austin is, Simone Wicha, Blanton Museum director described it as, "... a space you walk into and experience." Which Austin is she describing - the art piece or the city itself?! Kelly envisioned it as a place of contemplation, a spiritual place. On each of the walls of its three axes are circular panes of multi-colored glass, arranged in different configurations and projecting light into the space. To the ATXequation, these represent Austin's scenes and the communities and experiences for the individual to explore. Along eye level are black and white yin-yang squares, each comprising different shapes. From the spectrum of possibility, a set of choices to be made about who we are and how we express various aspects of ourselves. They remind us that there is no one right way to be yourself and each one of us must find our unique expression in the world. In the chancel is the only object in the structure, a solitary obelisk. It's a literal "I" standing in for the individual for whom this temple exists. It is both a space to reflect on and a metaphor of our (I)ndividuation; the never-ending journey of becoming ourselves.

This fact of our uniqueness was solved by Kelly in a most curious way. As art historian Yve-Alain Bois explains (texthe spent a lifetime eliminating the "artist's hand" trying to achieve impersonality and non-agency. Responding to Picasso, whose hand was so ever-present in everything he did, Kelly went the other way, trying to take individuality out of the frame. In these efforts he arrived at 5 methods: transfer, chance, grid, monochrome panel and silhouette. Through all of these efforts, practiced over many decades, the exact opposite happened. Kelly "proved' that the individuality cannot, in fact, be removed. As Bois points out, "nothing is more recognizable than a work by him and nothing is more idiosyncratic than what it picks doing so, he teaches us there are many more ways to see...his art is an injunction to explore in our OWN terms an expanded field of vision.

Chapels by other artists focus on what's "out there." Christianity as with Matisse, the void with Rothko. Turrell's AKHOB embodies Vegas by discombobulating the viewer and transporting them directly into the illusion. Austin does the exact opposite, gently embracing and holding space for us, providing illumination to and reflection for our unfolding journey.