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Laguna Gloria gets a contemporary punch

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360

In the past couple of decades, museums went on a building spree.

After Frank Gehry's spectacular Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao opened in 1997, seemingly every museum that could tried to follow suit, anxious to cash in (literally) on the cachet that a bigger, flashier building reportedly would bring.

Many museums grew to enormous proportions, as big became synonymous with better.

In Texas, Houston's Museum of Fine Arts ballooned up to a mall-sized 158,150 square feet when it opened the $85 million Audrey Jones Beck Building in 2000. And the museum isn't finished growing either. Current plans call for yet another building to be added to the Houston campus.

Austin had its own Bilbao dreams, of course. And while the two-building University of Texas' Blanton Museum of Art complex emerged in 2006 as something of an apex to the visual arts landscape, a downtown municipally centered Austin Museum of Art never happened, despite decades of attempts, promises and fundraising.

With the recent merger of AMOA and Arthouse, Austin now has quite a collection of art-viewing venues under the rubric of one institution.

With its sleek, high-ceilinged galleries, the downtown Jones Center provides a more expected setting for art.

But the historic 1916 Driscoll Villa at Laguna Gloria offers a decidedly different backdrop, one worth a considered look. Or perhaps a reconsideration. Laguna Gloria is AMOA's original home after all, and the Italianate villa has served as an exhibition space since 1961. Since a $3.6 million restoration was completed in 2003, the house has been host to small exhibits of mostly paintings, shows that have largely existed under the radar.

Now, however, the rather architecturally singular villa gets some decidedly contemporary punch with clever installations by artists Lauren Fensterstock and Steve Wiman. Curator Andrea Mellard asked each to use the elegant domestic setting as inspiration.

Riffing on Victorian paper filigree, Fensterstock makes intricate, painstakingly crafted installations of cut and curled black paper that resemble flora and fauna, then assembles the flowers in abundant mounds around black-backed glass. One installation stretches the length of the villa's ballroom. Another sprawls in the sunroom as if ready to surge out the graceful arched doors to the patio.

There's something undeniably refined to Fensterstock's installations. And yet they also suggest the charred remains of some magical garden, a slightly spooky moment that charmingly offsets the villa's elegance.

Austin artist Wiman, who owns the offbeat South Congress Avenue antique store Uncommon Objects, injects his own sense of the eccentric with his irresistible assemblages. Wiman gathers up the used and the vintage and the leftovers, harnessing ordinary objects and materials.

A shaggy stack of hundreds of yellowed pharmacy prescriptions impaled on metal rod leans in one corner the formal dining room. In a niche on the stairs, Wiman mimics the villa's rose window in his own way with a whimsical arrangement of rose-colored objects: buttons, little figurines, bits of old letters.

Upstairs in the solarium, Wiman has scattered a collection of string balls — some huge, some tiny — across the checkered tile floor. He's titled it "Having a Ball, Wish You Were Here." That could be a motto for Laguna Gloria.

In a way, the fresh re-envisioning of Laguna Gloria as an exhibit space dovetails with the on-going art world trend toward using nontraditional exhibit venues. Austin welcomes its share of pop-up galleries these days as artists alight on empty storefronts, unoccupied houses and other found spaces. And like elsewhere, enterprising young Austin curators have transformed their own apartments or houses into mini-galleries for short-term exhibits.

Sure, a traditional museum will always be a fine environment for many kinds of art viewing. But other kinds of places, unexpected or not, small or large, can work well in their own way.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

‘Two Takes on One Space: Lauren Fensterstock and Steve Wiman'