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Clever, Funny and Disturbing

Austin exports 20 artists and installations for a show at DiverseWorks.

Ever since Richard Linklater's 1991 film Slacker defined Austin, Texas, as a mecca for eccentrics and people more interested in "living life" than advancing up the career ladder, the city has experienced an identity crisis. Eager to wear the weird costume while cultivating a professional reputation in the entertainment and technology industries, the city's "too cool for school" vibe has gone from feeling charmingly genuine to alienating and forced.

But the tide appears to have shifted. Over the years, Austin's exposure in popular media seems to have blunted its once-sharp edge, and the music and entertainment industry's presence (even Linklater himself) casts a mainstream shadow on Austin's alternative heyday. It's a good thing, because the influx in population and interest has caused a reactionary reaching-out, a desire to export talent past its supportive local base, and that can only be good for the city's art community — especially the visual arts.

DiverseWorks Artspace is hosting the third edition of the Austin Museum of Art's triennial series "New Art in Austin: 20 to Watch," and the results are definitely encouraging. For a Hill Country region known more for fine craft than fine art, it's especially surprising to see so many concept-oriented installation works rather than single-media pieces. But then, it makes sense, given the narrative nature of installation and Austin's wealth of creative output in the storytelling forms of rock music, theater and film.

The exhibition focuses on emerging and lesser-known artists living within a 50-mile radius of the Capitol and was designed to introduce their work to the general public. Several artists from past incarnations of the series have been featured in national museum shows, including the Whitney Biennial.

Upon entering the exhibit, one gets a taste of the Slacker-era, subvert-authority version of Austin with Jen Hirt and Scott Webel's nose-thumbing work that distorts the meaning of historical objects. Calling themselves The Museum of Natural & Artificial Ephemera, Hirt and Webel mount antique bric-a-brac, like medicine bottles and old stereograms, in museum fixtures to, it seems, confuse the viewer into assigning a cultural significance to them. Their approach, though, is too halfhearted to really resonate. I love old stereograms (two-dimensional photos which, when viewed through a stereoscope — or by crossing your eyes — take on a 3-D effect), and Hirt and Webel display some nice hand-colored ones, but I can see those while standing in line at Goode Company Barbecue.

Buster Graybill's Come Along Johnny, an upended "Jon boat" that juts out from the gallery wall, displays perhaps the most regionally influenced commentary in the show. A twisted, mangled mess of inflated inner tubes bulges from the boat, suspended by a yellow strap. Inspired by trips from New Braunfels to Austin, the work cleverly reimagines materials to create a wholly different and bizarre function from its compositional elements.

Alyson Fox alters meaning and conveys dark narratives through her decorated book covers mined from thrift stores. One, The Death and Rebirth of Psychology (the book's actual title), is a bare, text-only cover upon which Fox has drawn three women doing pushups underneath the names Freud, Adler, Jung and Rank while a figure dressed in a band or soldier's uniform watches. Fox achieves a mysterious tension between nostalgia, critique and humor.

Jill Pangallo's video and installation Note to Self is a funny and disturbing portrait of obsession and mental illness. Playing an alter-ego version of herself, Pangallo encounters a note on a magazine ad for the 23-inch-tall "My Twin" doll that reads, "Jill, thought you might appreciate this." Did she write the note herself? From what follows, it's quite possible that the woman is crazy and deluded enough to trick herself into ordering a childlike doll custom-made to look exactly like herself. The "My Twin" doll seems to bring Jill the joy she seeks until we witness her on a coin-operated supermarket ride with little Jill, dressed in an identical outfit. Big Jill wears a creepily blank expression, as if the reality of her psychosis has taken hold, metaphorically taking her for a ride. Footage of Big Jill smothering the doll's face with her mouth follows, and Note to Self veers into Andrea Yates territory. Pangallo's video explores identity — we're never sure about Jill's motivations or whether the doll represents a child, a sister or Jill. Also on display is the actual doll along with its wardrobe, photographs and toys — all in all, a wonderful actualization of the world onscreen.

Photographer Sarah Sudhoff, who recently made an excellent solo debut with "Repository" at the Art League, displays large-scale photos depicting antique medical jars containing specimens of female reproductive organs. As in "Repository," the photos resulted from Sudhoff's exploration of medical environments following her experience as a survivor of cervical cancer. She includes a tension-filled split-screen video in which she undergoes a Pap smear procedure.

There's more wonderful work here by Raymond Uhlir, Yoon Cho and Shawn Smith, among others, but the standout piece goes to Kurt Mueller, who delivers the most emotionally stirring installation of the lot.

For American Dream, Mueller sets up a familiar assemblage of components: microphone, amplifier and television screen. Riffing on American Idol and karaoke culture, Mueller stripped Martin Luther King Jr.'s voice from the famous "I Have a Dream" speech, leaving only the cheers of the crowd audible. And instead of song lyrics flashing on the screen, we get the full text of the speech, highlighted bouncing-ball style across the words as we're meant to speak it. It's a fantastically simple and elegant work. For one thing, it's an educational tool. Recent generations know the speech only as sound bites and video clips, so it's a new experience to encounter it in full. For another, it's a profoundly moving call to arms. Mueller is prodding us into action. "How brave and how willing are you to step up to the mike?"

It's a fitting statement for the show as a whole, and a fine representation of Austin's contribution to the Texas visual art stage.

 
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