Watching Art Grow
By Rebecca S. Cohen
SEPTEMBER 22, 1997: Once is not enough -- at least where the new exhibition "Art in Process" is concerned. The current show at the Austin Museum of Art's Laguna Gloria site is one which will grow and change during its eight-week run, and one way or another, you should visit often. "Process" is the operative word. Audiences are encouraged to explore the making of a painting as well as view the artist's end product. At the museum and online, you can ask featured artist Sydney Yeager direct questions and observe how her paintings evolve. Thanks to the artist and the museum staff, "Art in Process" is a stellar concept with execution to match. The show is the brainchild of educational curator Kathryn Davidson, who has been peering down the long road to the 35th Street site's future and considering some of the uses that might best suit the little villa on the lake. "Wouldn't it be nice," she found herself thinking, "if the upstairs gallery could be a studio?" Then museum visitors could learn about the artist's process -- how they do it. As she prepared a two-year grant request to fund a pilot program, Davidson knew that for her first process-oriented exhibition, she would have to find a local artist (to minimize costs) who could communicate very well with the public (perhaps a teacher) and someone whose work was strong enough to command a museum exhibition.
Sydney Yeager fit the profile perfectly. While assembling the Austin Museum of Art (AMOA) family exhibition "Patterns," Davidson had visited Yeager's studio and selected one of her lushly painted large canvases for the show. There was no question about the quality of the artist's work. Yeager teaches classes at both Austin Community College and the Laguna Gloria Art School, so she has ongoing experience answering questions about making art. For her part, Yeager was willing to accept the stipend offered by AMOA and the challenge offered by this experimental program. The museum made plans to accommodate her ongoing presence. "It's a learning process for Sydney and the staff," says Davidson.
Yeager's studio was transported -- paint, tables, turpentine, brushes, blank canvases, and work in progress -- to the upstairs gallery on the second floor of the museum and reassembled. Now, visitors may catch a glimpse of the artist wielding her brushes, squeezing tubes of paint, dancing forward and back in front of one of three or four canvases on which she's working. Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10am-noon, and Saturdays, 11am-1pm, the studio is open so folks can drop by to ask Yeager questions, take note of the artist's raw materials, and watch new paintings evolve. Yeager says she doesn't actually apply paint to canvas with strangers at her elbow but is more than willing to answer their questions. She seems to thrive on the exchange. "There is more time involved in regaining focus and coming down from the adrenaline rush after the open studio hours than I anticipated," she says. The rest of the time, Yeager uses the museum studio as if it were her space in East Austin; she closes the door to keep out unwelcome distractions and paints. Of the eight-week arrangement she says, "I am realizing that I [did] not have very clear definitions of my own need for privacy. This experience is very interesting for me in that respect."
If you don't have time to come to the museum each week to check out the artist's progress, you can visit on her website (http://www.amoa.org). The site, which includes text and images from the exhibit and works in progress, was designed by Jill Oleson, a longtime Austin art person (she organized "Bucking the Texas Myth" at Laguna Gloria) who works for Tandem Computers, Inc., one of the primary sponsors of the exhibition. Each week, she documents the progress of Yeager's paintings with a digital camera and updates the website. In addition, you can e-mail questions for the artist (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Yeager will post the answers on her chatline Mondays between 11am and noon. Check in any time for answers to your questions and to read other questions and answers. It is a fascinating dialogue. Chuck Farr asks, "How much life is gained or lost over the viewing of a painting [on the Internet] versus being there and seeing it face to face?" Yeager responds:
As with any reproduction, the images in the virtual gallery serve better as an invitation to view the actual art or as reminders of the art you have already seen. There is no substitute for the actual experience of a work of art. However, for viewers who do not have the opportunity to view art in person, the ability to see the work on the Internet is an exciting new avenue.
I couldn't have said it better myself. After moving painstakingly from one hypertext link to the next, muttering the usual epithets at my old computer and trying to print the grainy color images I see on my monitor with an even less precise black-and-white printer, I turn off the machines and head to my neighborhood museum for one more first-hand look at the paintings. There is no substitute for being there. I know Kathryn Davidson would agree. The museum has even provided a bench in the middle of the first gallery to encourage thoughtful consideration of the artist's dense canvases.
At the top of the stairs and along the hallway opposite the balustrade that overlooks the first floor gallery, several small paintings are lined up for inspection. They remind me of the way farsighted eyes respond to a page of text held too close. The images swim uncomfortably. I can't quite get at what they're about, maybe because I'm too close and there isn't enough room to back away to see. Too bad. All I can know about them is that their surface is shiny, almost viscous, and their colors warm to hot. For the time being, this is enough because I am on my way to visit the artist again, to see how the canvas she was working on last week has changed. I remember a thinly painted grid and now I see thicker brushstrokes, an undulating surface, a new, mysterious fleet of scruffy brown ovals cruising from left to right across the canvas. Two large pink medallion shapes have emerged, as uncertain of themselves as adolescents before the big school dance. Even though I've visited artists' studios all over Austin for more than a dozen years, I am ecstatic to be allowed to watch this painting progress, eager to return next week to see what new direction the artist has taken by then. Has she finished any paintings yet? Will she complete one or more during her residency at the museum?
"I haven't finished a painting, nor would I have done so at my own studio [in only two weeks]," she says, "especially on the heels of completing this major effort." Yeager is referring to the exhibition downstairs, a sampling from about one year's production. She adds, "I anticipate finishing the paintings that I had started in the studio, and perhaps the ones I've started here, but that depends on how much time I allow the many seductive attractions here to divert my attention." I know what she means. Without allowing myself another peek into the gallery, I return to my office to finish my own work in process.
"Sydney Yeager: Art in Process" is on view through October 19 at the
Austin Museum of Art, Laguna Gloria, 3809 W. 35th St. Call 495-9224 for info.
Rebecca S. Cohen is an arts writer and recovering art dealer.
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