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New exhibit explores two artists' views of nature

Luke Quinton
Joseph Phillips builds surreal landscapes in soft colors on flat surfaces.

Flanked by sculptures of pixelated birds, Shawn Smith, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, doesn't necessarily scream `city kid.' But shortly into his gallery talk, the artist admits he doesn't have much experience with nature.

`I've never been camping, never seen a real campfire, never spent the night outside,' Smith tells an audience at the gallery. It's a startling revelation from a man who clearly cares about nature and takes great pains to examine issues in the natural world.

Smith shares a new exhibit of his work with Joseph Phillips - co-founder of the East Austin Studio Tour (and avid camper) - at the D. Berman Gallery until Oct. 9.

The bright room at the gallery is sliced in half by a diagonal wall, and walking in you choose between Smith's craggy, pixelated sculptures on one side and Phillips' smooth and placid gouache drawings on the other.

As artists working in Austin, Smith and Phillips occupy similar environments, and yet in their latest exhibit they're considering their surroundings and running in opposite directions.

So it's compelling to see two artists with aligning interests and concerns express their ideas in completely different ways.

For Smith, the animals he depicts are all endangered in some way, so it's curious that their creator is so removed from their real, physical existence.

This of course, is the point. Smith - who recently completed a metallic fountain sculpture at the Austonian building - is interested in the interaction between physical `things' and digital `non-things,' in our increasing abandonment of the physical world for the virtual.

His work is disarming. At first you wonder how it is that these objects have come to be, and then you appreciate the beauty of hundreds of pieces of balsa wood individually stained and inserted at specific depths within the sculpture to create a texture and shadow that are a shockingly accurate 3-D creation of pixelated images.

`I like to take non-things, like digital images, and translate them back into things,' Smith says. He is building a physical version of things that don't otherwise exist, and doing so in a very labor-intensive way.

`Skulk,' a pixeled fox posing on the wall, has a striking shape that is interesting from all three sides. Examining a small cluster of balsa chunks reveals that each strip is dyed a different shade of orange, red, light green or yellow, to imitate the choppy, distorted swaths of pixels.

Smith usually starts with a sketch on graph paper to map out scale. "I like to build objects pixel by pixel so I can understand the way the whole object is put together," he says. A lot of them come from distorted, low-quality images he finds on the Internet.

Smith's most poignant work, perhaps, is the autobiographical `Quiet Breath,' a black lung in pixels. `I got to thinking about my father, and my father smoked for 27 years and it killed him,' Smith says.

He was inspired by watching doctors remove a cadaver's black lung. `They filled the lungs with resin, and they cut the body away so it's just the lungs. It was absolutely beautiful,' Smith says. Indeed, the cubed wooden bronchials, painted black, have a dismal attraction.

Landscapes in layers

Joseph Phillips is tall with short blond hair. Wearing gray pants and clunky black boots, he's built like a rugby player. It is surprising, then, to hear him speak so sensitively about, or really, around, his art.

`I don't want it to be didactic - guy with the megaphone: "We're screwing with the Earth." I want it to be this open mirror,' Phillips says.

Phillips uses pencil, ink and gouache on white paper to paint small slices of a fantastical landscape in exquisitely detailed layers: from the rocks, mud and underground reservoirs, up to small buildings in tropical pastels.

Most are small, isolated plots of land, being created (or demolished) in surreal surroundings, like a movie set built by a daydreaming architect. Some plots are surrounded by orange traffic cones, and others are boxed in by white walls. Some have unexplained beams of energy or clouds made up of unconnected dots.

In `Elevated VIP Lawn,' sod is being rolled out on a thin, wooden foundation. Planted on the grass is an odd-couple mix of evergreen and palm trees.

It hints at the shaky relationship between the American lawn and our desire for status and consumption, but, by design, the meaning is not firmly defined.

`It's not one thing for everyone,' Phillips says. `I want to occupy that area in between extremes, where everything's possible.'

Although the artificial, unnatural details show a concern for the environment and our interactions with it, the stark beauty of Phillips' work hints that no issue has just one side.

`I've had people come up to me and say, "Your work is so depressing, like everything looks the same, and it's so bland and ordinary,"' Phillips says. `But then other people will come up and say, "I love your work; it's so bright and optimistic; everything is perfect." So that's what I want to go for - create something that's in the middle so people can bring in their own outlook.'

The pieces are addictively pleasant, and lacking any jarring shifts or edges, embodying the dull edge of steady progress. They are incongruous to nature, but also purposely non-confrontational.

`String Theory [Earth]' divides Phillips' stylized landscape into thick, cylindrical strings that resemble rubbery cigarettes.

`So this is kind of a joke, but it's kind of serious,' Phillips says. `It's me, coming to terms with my own inability to understand everything. And I've sort of grown more and more OK with that.'

His work is gentle, but not delicate - the lines are soft, and the colors invite you in. Indeed, they almost fade into the background.

This is by design - perhaps to be approachable and beautiful, but also to hint at the soft contours of faded memory, Phillips says. It's related to our inability to capture a fleeting idea, or to explain it.

This metaphorical mood follows to drawings of `energy, beams of light or things that aren't actually anything physical,' Phillips says. `A more emotional connection, I guess.'

Phillips has a better vantage than most to consider issues like gentrification, land use and how a city's growth affects its coveted rural escapes.

`My family, we've been in Austin so long, we've been in the middle of watching it change,' Phillips says. `My grandparents used to own a little property in South Austin, south of 290. When I was a kid in the eighties, I remember they were trying to sell it, and it was a big fight with S.O.S. (Save Our Springs).

For me, it was just my grandparents' ranch, the place where I went swimming, my dad grew up,' he says. That property is now `a Target parking lot where my dad used to ride his horse.'

Yet, Phillips' mind is open on issues like new development: `I try to see all sides, because I'll get to looking at something from one perspective, and have a hard time wrapping my head around the other side of it.'

`It's not just about land use or commodification,' Phillips says. `It's also about reality and our connection with where we live and how we live, and how it affects not just our outlook, but how we interact with each other as well.'

New Work: Joseph Phillips and Shawn Smith

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturday through Oct. 9

Where: D. Berman Gallery, 1701 Guadalupe St.

Cost: Free

Info: 477-8877, www.dbermangallery.com