Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Curator's 'The Sultans Played Creole' exhibit highlights work from a region overlooked by some

Luke Quinton

After six years of importing British art into Texas for Dallas' Goss-Michael Foundation, curator James Cope's new exhibit at Champion is an attempt to return the favor. For "The Sultans Played Creole," Cope shows his vision of Texas art as it appeals to his very global vantage point.

"People think that there isn't much culture and sophistication in the South?" Cope says, lilting his voice. "Ironically, they're so influenced by (it)."

Champion consistently shows powerful and provocative work. This show is equally provocative, though without the same euphoric feeling of a Richard Mosse photo or (most recently) the animals of Jules Buck Jones.

This is not to say "The Sultans Played Creole" isn't rewarding. Just that it took a pleasant and circuitous 30-minute conversation with Cope and some research to better understand what he is getting at.

The Dire Straits song "Sultans of Swing" touches on the British admiration and ignorance of American culture, especially the fascination with the American South that manifested itself in musicians like the Clash, the Rolling Stones and Van Morrison.

Cope, originally from Brighton, England, has tapped into an American version of that love/hate but in a manner that's beyond subtle. "I've been having conversations with these artists for years, and maybe it's an inner dialogue," he says.

Cope is trying to erase any divide between the art of New York and Texas, the ignorance that treats large swaths of America as art backwaters.

He's about to move to New York to direct a new gallery, so here he's chosen art that plays the game, that dips in the Southern vernacular without leaving much of a residue; work that could be shown anywhere.

This group is a slew of Texans, like Dallas' Marjorie Schwarz and Austin's Amy Revier, and nearly all have a New York presence.

Some of the pieces — like "Roman Victoria," Nick Mathis' bronze winged goddess reaching out from the wall — have an obvious beauty and mystique, but others offer a much shabbier aesthetic.

Kadar Brock's abstraction in black and white, recalls the pattern of acid-washed jeans but then there's a fat stripe down the middle like a paint roller. Indeed, one of his materials is house paint.

As usual, some of Champion's best work is on display in the wells of its exterior windows.

For "Sultans," it's Amy Revier's six images of Icelandic baby carriages, belching volcanic ash. "Amy's exploding prams," Cope calls them.

The carriages seem forgotten, just left outside doors of cafes and supermarkets. But interrupting any innocence are gnarled clouds of fire and ash, erupting from the carriages. Perhaps a reference to last year's Icelandic volcano eruption, Cope explains that Revier, visiting Iceland on a Fulbright Fellowship, saw the decay of the country's resources and independence.

Startled with the idea that a street could be trusted with a baby inside its carriage, Revier juxtaposes this innocence with ignorance. As their resources are pillaged, Revier seems to be sending a message to the Icelandic people: wake up.

Perhaps it was the bright windows and the white floors, but Revier's "Fin in a Waste of Waters," a cradle board (a method of baby carrying for Native Americans), didn't seem to pop to its potential.

But it's a jarring piece once you understand what's behind it. A long, beige plastic board lays on the floor, draped in a fabric of some antiqued color, suggestively between pink and red. The neon green straps are flailed open.

This is a long way from its namesake, cradle boards that were small, ergonomic and fashioned from leather and fibres. Instead, we are presented with a heavy, awkward abomination.

"Sultans" has an obscure curatorial vision, but eventually, it gives its secrets up.

'The Sultans Played Creole'

When: Through May 28

Where: Champion, 800 Brazos St.

Cost: Free

Information:www.championcontemporary.com