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'Tush hog' installation takes over Laguna Gloria grounds

Jeanne Claire Van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Buster Graybill straddles two worlds.

One is the 21st-century cosmos of contemporary art with its cerebral (some would say self-involved) machinations.

The other is the working-class rural East Texas environs of his youth, where hunting is as much a sport as a means to put food on the table.

Graybill smartly dovetails the two disparate worlds in his current exhibit "Progeny of Tush Hog" at Laguna Gloria.

Graybill's is the first show to take advantage of the renewed focus on the 12-acre Laguna Gloria site, now that Austin Museum of Art and Arthouse have merged. With its lakeside setting, historic 1916 Driscoll Villa and its West Austin address, the site's suburban parklike environs make a potent setting for Graybill's intelligent commentary of how urban development and nature collide.

Graybill imagines a new kind of a wild game feeder, one that's been crossbred, as it were, with the sleek minimalist sculpture by Donald Judd, whose oeuvre made the tiny West Texas town of Marfa an art world destination.

Only rather than the rarefied, pristine stainless boxes that Judd installed permanently in former artillery sheds on an abandoned army base that now serves as a permanent museum of the artist's work, Graybill crafted more rugged, geometrically shaped objects out of the tough diamond-plated steel aluminum used for commercial or agricultural purposes.

Using a colloquial term for feral hogs that he recalls from his East Texas upbringing, Graybill dubbed these rough-and-tumble orbs "tush hogs." And rather than just exist as discrete art objects to be revered and never touched, Graybill's hogs serve a purpose. Filled with feed corn that filters out of a few openings when rolled around, these are wild animal feeders. Some are big, some small. In groupings, they look like a herd.

"If a Donald Judd sculpture went feral, what would it look like?" Graybill, a fifth-generation Texan and son of a truck driver, says recently as he puts finishing touches on his exhibit shortly before its opening last month.

And for that matter, what would a deer blind look like if it were designed by Mondrian, the Dutch modernist painter who pioneered abstraction?

It might look like the one Graybill has built that towers over a herdlike grouping of the sculptural tush hogs on the lower Laguna Gloria grounds. If you take all the primary colors that Mondrian used and combined them, you'd get brown, Graybill points out. And shades of brown are what he used to paint the clean geometric patterning that forms the walls of his 15-foot tall steel deer blind. (And yes, you can climb atop the deer blind at your own risk.)

Hunting, fishing and trapping; garage freezers full of game; home recipes for venison or hog sausage — it's all part of Graybill's sensibility. "We've gotten so far away from thinking about where our food comes from," he says.

Testing and teasing the boundaries of contemporary art is also very much of Graybill's sensibility. The contemporary art world tiptoes around its own elitism, Graybill suggests, often preaching its concerns for the less-advantaged but rarely making any sincere and lasting gestures of inclusion. "I hope that my work can be an entry point for anyone who encounters it even if they're just out here (at Laguna Gloria) walking their dog," Graybill says.

After all, everyone is invited to push around the tush hogs, provided they can wrestle with them (the large ones weigh about 200 pounds, the small ones 60 pounds.)

He has been busy since he finished his master of fine arts degree at the University of Texas in 2008. Graybill is now based in San Antonio, and his work has been featured in many exhibits, including "20 to Watch: New Art In Austin" at AMOA's former downtown location and in the 2009 Texas Biennial.

In fact, the sculpture-cum-wild animal feeders have had a turn or two before their installation at Laguna Gloria.

Graybill began his project during a residency last spring at San Antonio's prestigious Artpace Foundation. He placed the feeders out on a ranch not far from San Antonio. With the kind of infrared and motion-activated cameras usually used to track game, Graybill captured the activity.

Deer, raccoon and yes, wild hogs turned up. And unexpectedly so did some wild rams, likely the offspring of non-native rams escaped from an exotic game ranch.

Graybill's photos and videos (which are on view in Laguna Gloria's Gatehouse Gallery) reveal the strange, unexpected and comical ways in which the wildlife interact with the sculpture.

But more pertinent to the gist of Graybill's project is the symbolic collision that the very physical collision of animals and artwork represents.

The feral hogs are a hybrid of various domestic hogs and European wild hogs introduced to the Americas originally by Spanish settlers, then later by wild-game sportsmen. With few predators and an uncanny ability to reproduce, feral hogs now number an estimated 2 million in Texas alone. And the suburban development constantly encroaching on the natural landscape pits wild animals against humans in an ever-expanding battle.

Look carefully at Graybill's photographs and videos and you'll see signs of that human encroachment within the rural landscape: power lines and cell phone towers coexist with the wild animals lingering in the landscape.

And West Austin is hardly virgin territory for urban wildlife: Video has already captured deer and raccoons that have found their way to Graybill's sculpture.

That doesn't surprise Andrea Mellard, curator of exhibitions and public programs at AMOA-Arthouse, who invited Graybill and his tush hogs to occupy Laguna Gloria. That both animals and humans can literally interact with sculpture is part of the goal of having the grounds serve as an exhibit space. "I'd like to get people to think beyond sculpture as simply static," she says.

After the tush hogs are gone, in spring Mellard will unveil "Art on the Green," an artist-created mini-golf course with nine holes dotting the grounds. Fully functional and playable, the mini-golf course will be up March 9 through May 20.

In the meantime, opening Thursday, New York cut-paper artist Lauren Fensterstock and Austin favorite found-object artist Steve Wiman will bring their idiosyncratic visions to the Laguna Gloria's Driscoll Villa, using the architecture of the restored 1916 Mediterranean-style house as a setting for their art installations.

While Fensterstock and Wiman will bring a kind of edgy nostalgia to the elegant interior of Laguna Gloria, Graybill's tush hogs will roam outside with their dual-edge profile that's both colloquial and cerebral.

That's straddling two worlds indeed.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699