Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Texas Prize aims to create buzz about art

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Culture loves competition these days.

Whether it's pop culture contests such as "American Idol" or loftier competitions such as Pritzker Architecture Prize, creative bouts are buzz-makers.

Later this week, the winner of the 2012 Texas Prize will be announced. The $30,000 award is given by AMOA-Arthouse, the now-merged entity of the former Austin Museum of Art and the downtown contemporary art center, Arthouse.

The Texas Prize started in 2005 as an Arthouse initiative with funding coming from a small pool of individual donors.

To be eligible for the Texas Prize, artists must have lived in the Lone Star State for the past three years and not have yet had a solo exhibit at a major museum.

A panel of recognized art experts nominates a short list of artists from which three finalists are chosen. Each finalist receives $5,000 to create and install a solo show.

The 2012 finalists — Houstonites Jamal Cyrus and Will Henry along with Austinite Jeff Williams — have each filled about a third of the voluminous Jones Center with new work.

(Before the merger, the Texas Prize was changed from a biennial to triennial event.)

A different jury of art experts will select the winner. And the $30,000 prize comes with no strings attached.

Art prizes are part and parcel of the explosion in the past decade or so of big buzzy exhibits and scene-making international art fairs that end up in the style and gossip pages as much as they do the cultural sections.

Wendy Vogel, an independent curator who is writing the catalog essay for the Texas Prize 2012, nevertheless finds that buzz-making ability worthwhile.

"They shine the light on working artists in regions where state funding or the markets for contemporary art may not be as well-established," she said via email. "Also, significantly, (such prizes) are determined by a jury of professional critics, curators, etc., of international repute. These prizes, in other words, are operating with a kind of ‘glocal' mindset."

Which is to say that the Texas Prize is a local (or regional) contest that artistically is in step with the global art world.

"Glocal" might just be the best shorthand to describe the work of 2012's finalists.

Sure, Cyrus, Henry and Williams reference where they live on the planet. But you could hardly describe them as regional artists, the champions of a romanticized locale.

Instead, they are working out the same concerns and using the same creative strategies as their peers in other parts of the world, fully in dialogue with the broader creative conversations percolating internationally.

Cyrus' installation is quite literally a stage for questioning history, particularly the history of African Americans and the appropriation of black music by today's globally directed mainstream culture.

Towers of animal-skin drums bookend a platform ringed by feedsacks. A lonely saxophone sits to one side of the stage next to a deep fryer. Periodically throughout the exhibit, which continues through July 22, Cyrus will stage various performances that will involve everything from free jazz to music made by the rhythm of a vintage washing machine. Conceptual as it is, Cyrus' installation pokes directly at issues imperative to African American culture.

Full of wry humor, Henry's luminous oil and gouache paintings are a mash-up of cowboy scenes with glowing skies along with the flat pictorial planes of Pop Art.

Aggregating things even more, Henry combines references to the celebrated Texas-centric 1956 film "Giant" with allusions to the shrine of minimalist art created in West Texas by artist Donald Judd.

"Giant" was filmed in Marfa. Years later, Judd installed his sprawling Chinati Foundation in Marfa, too. Mixing up "Giant" and Judd makes for a clever comment on how different notions of an idealized Texas work their way into the larger world.

Last, Williams — the first Austinite to be a finalist for the Texas Prize — literally pulls from his immediate place. As if part of a scientific experiment, fossils from Central Texas sit in puddles of an indeterminate liquid atop weathered Plexiglas sheets harvested from University of Texas surplus. With deadpan style, video screens show chunks of old masonry from the Jones Center carefully rotating, cleverly mimicking educational footage.

And take a look at the gallery's dividing wall. Williams coated it with latex, then slipped in dollops of glycerin to create sacs that, over a course of 60 hours, slowly drip down to the floor.

Decay, chemical alteration, the impermanence of nature and the fragility of the built environment all get their moment in Williams' ersatz science lab.

The Texas Prize tries to give a moment to contemporary art. How its growing roster of finalists and winners eventually ascend the art world ranks remains to be seen. For that matter, how much chatter it can even percolate beyond art circles is still to be proven.

In the best of all circumstances, the Texas Prize might spark some more museum attendance.

Baby steps to the glocal art world.

Contact Jeanne Claire van Ryzin at jvanryzin@statsman.com or 445-3699

Texas Prize 2012