So familiar and yet so otherworldly is the art of Andy Coolquitt that it might take you by surprise when you encounter “Attainable Excellence,” the Austin artist’s first museum solo show now at AMOA-Arthouse’s Jones Center downtown.
Assembled from materials Coolquitt scavenges on the street, the rangy sculptures lean against walls or hang from the ceiling or gather in assemblages.
Coolquitt does little to alter the patina of the objects he gathers, leaving the scars of their previous lives to show through. There’s brightly colored metal tubing, scrap lumber, cardboard packaging, plastic figurines, empty cans and cigarette packages and brightly striped pieces of fabric mined from thrift stores.
And then there are the lighters; lots and lots of colorful plastic lighters.
“Attainable Excellence” was organized by the University of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum, where it will go on view next spring. And accompanying the exhibit is a comprehensive monograph jointly published by the University of Texas Press and the Blaffer.
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Both the exhibit — less a retrospective than it is a summation of Coolquitt’s past few years of work — and the book mark a significant moment in the artist’s career. Though Coolquitt, 48, has been making art for more than 25 years, he has done so in ways that haven’t always brought him the traditional kinds of art world attention that result in gallery shows and reviews and collectors.
Rachel Hooper, the exhibit’s curator, said that it’s hard to find an equivalent for Coolquitt in the state’s art landscape. “He’s been very influential, but he hasn’t had the proper recognition in a larger sense. He’s pursued a path that’s very atypical.”
Born in Mesquite, the son of a firefighter, Coolquitt got an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas before heading the University of California-Los Angeles for a graduate degree in art in 1989. But a year later, he was back in Austin, degree unfinished, his relationship to art-making uncertain. (While in California, he had been creating art furniture from found materials, what he called “devices for living.”)
He took a job teaching life skills at the Texas State School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. “I began thinking about the interaction between (a work of) art and a person,” he said, “the actually physical relationship and how art could be not an ends but a means, a way to facilitate social life.”
He returned to UT in 1993 to give graduate school another try. And the next year he embarked on a project that would become the nexus of his art and life — and the topic for his MFA thesis. Coolquitt bought a small house on a large lot in East Austin. Using mostly reclaimed materials, he began to transform the place into something that was part living space for himself and a few others, part studio, part site for art happenings and performances whose occurrences were spread word-of-mouth.
At the same time, he consciously rejected showing his art in commercial galleries or museums, preferring to make art as an outsider to the codified economic system. “I’m hard-wired to think about economics, and I’ve always thought about ‘the system,’” he said. “But I wanted to free myself from expected constraints, push my work away from the marketplace.”
Beyond gathering material for his house project, Coolquitt was voraciously collecting gritty, worn objects that he’d find on the streets on his almost-daily walks and bike rides around his East Austin neighborhood or downtown.
He also began to seek out “crack sites” — the often hidden-in-plain-sight spots in the urban landscape where people gather to smoke crack cocaine. Coolquitt found these locales to hold an abundance of the discarded lighters he was so compulsively collecting.
But what he then began to notice were the impromptu ways people made such crack sites as well as other marginalized urban gathering spots into social spaces — the way a piece of cardboard becomes a protective surface to sit on or some poles leaned against a wall form a lean-to or hiding spot. Coolquitt wasn’t interested in issues of drug use or homelessness per se but the residue of human social activity.
“What was interesting was the way these places were pulling me into different parts of the city to see a kind of found urban architecture or fundamental design,” Coolquitt said. “These (places) have a residue of human activity, of social interaction.”
Much of the work in the current exhibit is born of Coolquitt’s now continuing artistic investigations into elemental social dynamics.
There’s a poignant elegance to many of the sculptures on view. Likewise, there’s a sense of domesticity — a sense that these humble, used things become new things that offer comfort or even safety.
Coolquitt has fashioned a kind of signature light out of lengths of pieced-together metal tubing and lightbulbs. A pipe light hangs over a bolster covered with found fabric to make a well-lit sitting spot. A giant piece of cardboard that resembles a bed is made cozy with a pipe light at its side. And arrangements of Coolquitt’s poles become ersatz shelters.
The past few years have seen Coolquitt’s career make an about-face. Some prolonged stays in New York gained him gallery representation at Lisa Cooley Gallery in Manhattan’s burgeoning Lower East Side scene. A 2008 solo show there garnered Coolquitt critical attention and attracted the interest of collectors.
Now, he is part-and-parcel of the very art world conventions he for a time eschewed.
“One way you get to be a participant in culture is to be a part of the system,” Coolquitt said. “I want people to see my work.”