New York-based artist Paul Villinski has built a really impressive mobile art studio for "Paul Villinski — Emergency Response Studio." It's a 30-foot Gulf Stream Cavalier trailer that the artist essentially gutted and transformed into a solar-powered, off-the-grid workspace. It's outfitted with all the essentials: worktable, toolboxes, compressor, storage for art supplies, kitchen, fridge, bathroom, shower...lava lamp. The solar panels (an $80,000 in-kind donation to Villinski's project) provide more than enough energy to fuel the trailer's electric needs, and, if necessary, a mini wind turbine can make up the difference. It's the kind of thing you'd see on HGTV or perhaps another program touting off-the-wall "green" residencies. So why is it parked outside the Rice Gallery?
Villinski, 48, uses found materials in his artwork. Having grown up as an Air Force brat, much of his work addresses flight: butterflies made from beer cans, wing apparatuses built from discarded construction-site gloves. He visited New Orleans in 2006, about a year after Katrina, to create works for a show at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery. He made butterflies out of plastic yard signs that were still strewn about after the hurricane.
While in New Orleans, Villinski got the itch to produce artwork inspired by the recent disaster, but felt he needed to move his studio from New York to the Gulf Coast in order to work. (Funny, Banksy didn't bring his London studio when he bombed the Big Easy.) The result is "Emergency Response Studio," built from the same type of trailer FEMA deployed after the catastrophe.
As an example of a self-sustaining living-and-working space, "ERS" is quite remarkable, but it opens up a can of worms when it's presented as art, especially in the way Villinski envisioned the project. In the gallery brochure, Villinski writes, "I believe we ought to deploy artists as part of the mix of disaster workers, medical personnel, NGOs, architects and urban planners — those people charged with responding to, repairing and re-envisioning disaster sites like New Orleans."
Villinski imagines himself as a "combat artist" like the ones who went to war armed with paint and brushes to document battles. Thing is, as self-serving, opportunistic and condescending as that sounds (Villinski obviously knows where to scavenge for art supplies), there's no art here. And as a result, "ERS" comes off as a showboating display of narcissism and excess. Where is the art Villinski created while in New Orleans? How is this tricked-out FEMA trailer going to transform and rebuild New Orleans culturally? I needed to consult an actual New Orleanian.
Ashley Lu, Katrina survivor, Khon's bar/gallery owner and an artist herself, has mixed feelings about Villinski's motive. "You only need combat artists when all the artists are dead," she says. It's a good point. Why does Villinski feel he can comment on the situation any better than the artists who actually lived through it?
"The focus seems to be to allow an outsider privileged status," says Lu. "It's about deploying artists rather than 'we need to get this to the artists.' When [Villinski] says 'artists,' he's talking about himself. The lack of mention of the local art community is of concern. What meaningful contribution does he have to rebuilding New Orleans or Bolivar or Galveston — rebuilding it culturally?"
From November 1, 2008, to January 18, 2009, "Emergency Response Studio" was on view in the biennial exhibition "Prospect.1 New Orleans." Just over a month after Ike, one would think Villinski might want to give his project a real trial run, roll that baby into Bolivar and provide some "art relief." Plenty of art supplies strewn around, after all. But he didn't even deploy himself. Villinski's swanky pad remained parked in New Orleans, attracting onlookers and the press.
The Times-Picayune called "ERS" an "amazing place" and "one of the most ambitious of the many ambitious works in Prospect.1." The paper quoted Villinski saying he wanted to assist in the rebuilding process. He wanted to "get both feet in and really understand what was going on...to try to contribute creatively in some way." But where's the contribution? There isn't any artwork on display. Villinski's idea of artists responding to disaster feels tantamount to Scientologists showing up to give massages.
Lu imagines that the local response to "ERS" would've been much different just after the storm. "If he rolled that thing in, I can imagine 12 or so people, locals, who would say, 'Oh, this is an emergency housing art studio? I'm an artist. Where do I hang my hat?'" The endeavor's lack of art product raises suspicions as well. "If I could see the work he produced in this New Orleans residence, I might be transfixed," she says, "in awe. But without it...it's a little arbitrary and forced."
Villinski writes, "The presence of the 'Emergency Response Studio' in New Orleans called attention to the fact, that in many respects, the city remains in a state of emergency. It also suggested that the inventive, nontraditional thinking practiced by visual artists can be a valuable part of the mix as we attempt to heal what is damaged and confront challenges of all sorts." But how? Villinski never offers any examples.
He also backhandedly suggests that rescue workers, medical professionals and city planners don't think inventively to solve problems. It takes a visual artist's "nontraditional" mind to contribute in a valuable way to disaster relief. This type of clueless thinking makes "ERS" look like a pretentious, elitist, art-vacation pleasure cruiser.
Not that "ERS" wouldn't be valuable, though, if its purpose were re-envisioned. "Get it in the hands of a traumatized artist," suggests Lu. "Give them a studio and see what they create. I don't know what [Villinski's] created. He's created a space, I guess, an opportunity."
Like Musician's Village, a row of "Emergency Response Studios" would have a real cultural impact, owned and run by artists who were actually affected, who deserve and appreciate the relief. "Once basic needs are met," says Lu. "Musicians need to play music; artists need to make art."
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Houston.