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Mark Schatz builds signs of life in a new exhibit

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Former Austinite Mark Schatz lived in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. His works look at our sense of place through time and loss.

How do you remember a favorite place like a childhood home or town? Is your memory clouded by idealized nostalgia? Or do you overlay your memory with residual bad emotions? Are you frustrated when you return and find that a remembered place has been forever changed by our ever-sprawling built environment?

Questions about place and memory infuse the work of artist Mark Schatz. Now on the faculty of Kent State University in Ohio, the formerly Austin-based artist returns to Central Texas for a solo exhibit of his recent work at Texas State University Gallery in San Marcos, beginning Tuesday.

Schatz, whose work has been included in Arthouse's "New American Talent" exhibit and the Austin Museum of Art's triennial "New Work in Austin," explores the impact that urban sprawl and our ever-expanding suburban landscape have on our memories — and misconceptions — of place.

Using cast-off cardboard and discarded wood along with ordinary crafting materials such as styrene foam and plastic foliage, Schatz constructs miniature suburban landscapes and urban tableaux that ask viewers to look again at how they construct their own memories of place.

And via e-mail, the artist responded to questions about his latest body of work.

Austin American-Statesman: Are your miniature representations of suburban and urban landscapes utopias or dystopias?

Mark Schatz: Both! These are familiar places where utopian and dystopian experiences can unfold simultaneously. I will grant that these are particularly unstable places. Whether you see that instability through a lens of wonder and potential or through a lens of inevitable decay and doom might depend on your mood that day. Change is built into the modern experience, but we constantly fight against it.

You represent your imagined landscapes in miniature, and things in miniature have an undeniable appeal. What's your thinking behind that?

I do enjoy scale shifts, though in my experience scale can be unstable as well. When I work large, there is a certain impact, but there's also the potential for intimacy, like a camera zooming in for a close-up. Suddenly, the materials and textures can play a bigger role in the experience because you're right up close. Working small can be the opposite. You can zoom out to get some real distance. I was working with houses and domestic architectural spaces and wanted to go bigger, using whole neighborhoods, and exploring landscapes. It is certainly possible to work on that scale, but you don't want to go broke working the idea out, so I took the architectural model route and began to make miniature studies in the studio. The studies began to take on a life of their own and offer new possibilities, and they've been evolving from there.

In 2005 you relocated from Austin to New Orleans, just shortly before Hurricane Katrina, and subsequently lost all your artwork and worldly possessions in the storm. How did that disaster affect your approach to making art and your approach to life?

Yeah, that was fun. I was very glad to have experienced New Orleans before that happened and to be able to witness something so radically transformative and to survive. I had been working with the idea of "home," but after the storm I really started working with remembered and misremembered places and using geological time and upheaval as a metaphor for how we accumulate a meaningful sense of a place over time and how that sense is shaped and even enhanced through life's disruption, disorientation and loss.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

'Mark Schatz: Signs of Life'

When:Tuesday through Nov. 21

Where:Mitte Building, Comanche Street and Sessom Drive, Texas State University, San Marcos

Gallery hours:8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Opening reception:5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday

Tickets:Free

Information: (512) 245-2611