Lately, there have been two sorts of meltdowns making the news on a daily basis. The tsunami stricken Fukushima nuclear plant provided a sad, gripping serial for the rest of the world to helplessly witness. On American shores, the citizenry got wrapped up in an altogether different meltdown: Charlie Sheen’s dip into a facade of all too publicized insanity. I never took a minute to familiarize myself with the endless quotes and posted links and clips all over the internet until now, when recent events in Austin’s art scene compelled me to write this long postponed article. If you haven’t been paying attention, here’s a timeline of the implosion on the scale of Sheen’s debacle happening in your backyard.
As you skim through the entries hopelessly plagued with out of date Charlie Sheen quotes below, just keep an eye on how fast the implosion has ramped up recently:
December 2008 – David Ohlerking Leaves Austin
Sheen quote: “The run I was on made Sinatra, Flynn, Jagger, Richards, all of them – look like droopy-eyed armless children.”
David Ohlerking, who co-founded the Austin Figurative Gallery with Chris Chappell as a rigorous painting group to study the human figure, came across a one time opportunity to move to the New Jersey/Philadelphia area to work, paint, and be closer to his mentor, Alex Kanevsky. When he left town, the AFG group of of painters – a misaligned motley crew of independent spirits, AVAA members, housewives, and students – kept in touch, continuing to paint and show, but the central focus was gone. The AFG was an all inclusive group of artists dedicated to producing work, and David’s overriding enthusiasm brought about a weekly show in the workspace until the day he left town. The shows were well attended and brought together a unique disparate crowd of gawkers and buyers. The AFG shows suffered from an uneven quality, but the enthusiasm and fact it existed (and for so long) is a lasting testament to the man who started it all. David is currently working his same magic of 15 minute live paintings and constant shows throughout Philadelphia.
Charlie Sheen Meltdown Factor: 2 out of 4 Sheens
A big loss of energy and focus that brought together artists, important time working, and an audience on a regular basis.
January 2009 – Gallery Lombardi Closes Its Doors
Sheen quote: “C’mon bro, I won Best Picture at 20. I wasn’t even trying. I wasn’t even warm.”
You never know what you lost until its gone. For over ten years, Gallery Lombardi was the go-to place for Austin art shows, serving an integral role for artists and audiences alike. Located in a dive by the railroad tracks, a giant condo now stands on those festive grounds. The one gallery that took on every artist, style and issue in a series of monthly shows through the ages, it was the place to meet folks, be seen, and get an accurate temperature of the young and growing Austin art scene. For better or worse, in the great Austin tradition, every opening was an event, often fueled by alcohol. It fostered careers, from Matt Rodriguez to Michael Seiben to Rory Skagen, helping get fresh work out in front of eyeballs and making a gallery show a very real experience for so many Austin artists. After relocating into a new space, it seemed like it was only a matter of time until its doors were shuttered. One of the few positives to come out of the closing was that the energetic, superstar curator Rachel Koper landed on her feet as Program Director of the Women and their Work Gallery, allowing her to keep her finger on the pulse of the Austin scene and remain one of the hubs of the scene.
Charlie Sheen Meltdown Factor: 3.5 out of 4 Sheens
Even the East Side never was able to create a space that was as vital, open and well attended on a regular basis as Gallery Lombardi was.
January 2010 – Art Palace Moves to Houston
Sheen quote: “There’s a new sheriff in town. And he has an army of assassins.”
Arturo Palacios, the former director of the city run Daugherty Arts Space, broke away and started his own upstart hipper than thou Art Palace on the East Side. A polarizing figure, he redoubled his efforts, used all of his well built connections, and corralled an intense group of artists that filled his gallery with big crowds, a high level of challenging work, and even managed to bring a few collectors out of Austin’s woodwork. His splash wasn’t limited to Austin, as he exposed his artists to Miami and New York, and tried his hardest to make things work in Austin. As it turned out, he moved east to Houston, to a market with a more established scene, better press, more collectors, and better criticism in a more solidified artistic community. Losing this gallery hurts Austin’s credibility outside its city limits immensely.
Charlie Sheen Meltdown Factor: 3.5 out of 4 Sheens
Gets the same rating as Gallery Lombardi because of the push Arturo brought to getting Austin connected to the outside world
January 2011 – D Berman Moves to Wimberley
Sheen quote: “Look what I’m dealing with, man, I’m dealing with fools and trolls.”
Most artists always looked at d Berman as Austin’s ‘real gallery’. Loaded with regular shows of distinguished work from mid career artists with some high grade local art thrown in as well, it was the closest Austin came to having a piece of Chelsea. The decision to ship out and move was understood by everyone, but the choice to head to Wimberley looks like a slap in the face to Austin. Sure, it’s a little hippie artistic town loaded with cash just a ways down the road, but it really has to sting every other Austin gallery owner, as well as working artist in Austin, when the bright lights lose out to the humble town.
Charlie Sheen Meltdown Factor: 2 out of 4 Sheens
More of an internal bruising and a matter of Austin’s art scene asking itself, ‘what’s happening here again?’
February 2011 – AMOA Plans to Leave Downtown
Sheen quote: “Can’t is the cancer of happening”
The Austin Museum of Art’s objective to build a new museum and its dalliance with every suitor in downtown over the past decade and more is as sad as Jennifer Aniston’s endless parade of fruitless relationships. Resigned to running a museum from a former bank lobby, they really tried hard to, um, expand their gift shop over the years. Picking out shows from a catalog, who can really forget the Dr. Seuss show from a few years ago? OK, AMOA is not all bad, as it has put together the tri-annual Austin art show, spotlighting early career artists in a museum setting. When Dana Friis-Hansen resigned, the music was about to end, and AMOA pulled the plug on its dream of a downtown space(which lasted through two booms and two busts), put on its yellowed wedding dress, and is planning on taking its non-permanent collection of art back to the grounds of Laguna Gloria. Overall, its disappointing and the museum was oddly one of the very active faces of the art scene, but the quality of shows and lack of a permanent collection really call into question the use of the word ‘museum’.
Charlie Sheen Meltdown Factor: 1.5 out of 4 Sheens
AMOA could use a rewrite of its mission and continue to provide art education to a city that sorely needs it, as well as continue to prop up the Austin scene the best it can.
February 2011 – The City of Austin vs. E.A.S.T.
Sheen quote: “I will not believe that if I do something then I have to follow a certain path because if was written for normal people. People who aren’t special. People who don’t have tiger blood and Adonis DNA.”
In February, Barry George and Gingko Studios were the first studios in the overloaded East Austin art scene that were served papers from the City’s Zoning Board about non-compliance with the city’s single family zoning codes. Lots of little firestorms were set off among the artists on the tour, the least of which reads as an embarrassing dialogue from a person you would never want to argue your point for you, as EAST’s studios were specifically mentioned by the city’s ticketing officer. With city regulation, zoning variances, and increased scrutiny put on the once off the map East Austin art scenes on the way, there are thousands of as yet unresolved questions surrounding the popular East Austin Studio Tour. Now in its ninth year and about to serve up its tenth anniversary tour that began with 35 studios and last year counted 300+ artists at 150 locations, nobody is sure how this will all play out. East Austin’s unspoken allure, besides cheap rent and a devil may care attitude, was always the rare mix of industrial and residential zones in close proximity. Once those ties are severed and rents continue to rise past what artists can afford, Austin’s art scene will lose one of its most vital breeding grounds for new art, art spaces and studios.
Charlie Sheen Meltdown Factor: 2.5 out of 4 Sheens
The energy of EAST’s artists and audiences seemed to get sapped the past few years from the very growth that it helped spawn.
April 2011 – Arthouse Fires its Curator, Screws Over Artists
Sheen quote: “I’m tired of pretending I’m not a total bitchin’ rock star from Mars.”
The latest brew-ha-ha in Austin that caught the attention of the press and the artists on the eve of the Arthouse’s annual blowout fundraiser, the 5×7 show. Fresh off the completed re-construction of the downtown gallery space, complete with a socialite’s dream rooftop party floor, and American Apparel inspired graphic design, the Arthouse seemed primed to pick up its mission to deliver challenging art shows from around the world to its home at 7th and Congress. I was a bit wary of its new party oriented schedule, complete with weekly rooftop parties, but thought it was just another necessary way to get people to rub elbows with art on a regular basis. Artfagcity.com does a great job of recapping the recent events, which included censoring one artist, blatantly modified an installation for a shameless $X$W cash grab, and firing their curator, instead relying on a rotating shows and curators as a ‘budget cut’. With its reputation hanging in the balance, Arthouse, which always was a strong supporter of Austin artists (with various programs including a health care option that has since disappeared), but has blown everything up (relationships to artists, curators and the international scene) to instead revel in its redecorated digs and throw down a cocktail or two like a possessed diva. Is it too late to trade the gorgeous alpha blonde back for the cute mousy brunette we used to have such great conversations with?
Charlie Sheen Meltdown Factor: 4 out of 4 Sheens
Just an amazing turn of events for an organization that always held the standard for artistic riches in a art-poor town.
April 2011 – Texas Biennial
Sheen quote: “Wow. What does that mean? I’m bi-WINNING.”
A very questionable and slightly unfair coda to this whole affair, but one I’m willing to argue has relevance. When the Biennial started in 2005, it was a shoestring operation brought to you by the same hard working Austin based folks who started EAST. They genuinely wanted to start a Texas-wide biennial art event. They gathered a few galleries around Austin, and put out the word the best they could and pulled it off. It happened again and again, and they heard the criticisms that from the rest of the state that it was too Austin-centric. For 2011, they have expanded the Biennial to include focused shows in Austin, San Antonio and Houston, as well as 60 other spaces throughout the state. Its a proud achievement, and still Austin hosts most of the events, but the writing is on the wall. In aninterview with the Austin Chronicle, Virginia Rutledge, 2011’s NYC guest curator, told organizers: “I’d like to do it, but only if you’re up for making a push to make it truly statewide in as many ways as possible.” Besides the operational gallery spaces like Big Medium, Pump Project, UT’s Visual Arts Center and the Women and their Work Gallery, the show sheepishly admits to using an abandoned house on Rosedale, and the 14th and 16th floors of a downtown office building. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the organizers should be given gold stars for being able to pull this off again, but the lack of proper show spaces in Austin goes to show the dearth of galleries for an organization that is turning the corner into a new era of respectability and statewide acceptance. This is all conjecture on my part, but it would be just another sad indictment against Austin’s willingness to support the arts. Despite all the talk of supporting the arts and how Austin is a nationally recognized hub of the ‘creative class’, it would be a real shame if the Texas Biennial disappeared from the scene like so many other Austin based galleries and institutions.
Charlie Sheen Meltdown Factor: 1 out of 4 Sheens
Knowing the organizers, I know Austin will always be a part of the Biennial, but its past time to start working on making sure Austin’s art scene will make it to 2013.
So that’s the scene’s meltdown in a nutshell. When I discussed this with a colleague earlier today, I told him that I was planning on adding a story of things that are going right for the scene. Without hesitation, he cringed, and asked, ‘like what?’ So, stay tuned, I’ll take up the challenge and I’ll list some of the positives of being an artist in Austin
special thanks to Chris Chappell – tiger blood.