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With its reopening, a renovated Arthouse becomes fodder for artists' projects

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Ryan Hennessee's animated video short illustrates the gallery's street intersection in the past, present and future.

When the Congress Avenue contemporary art center Arthouse officially reopens Oct. 24, one of its signature projects will be construction trash several tons of it, in fact.

Artist Jason Middlebrook used leftover steel ceiling joists, masonry, lumber and glass partitions and other debris from Arthouse's renovation to create functional furniture, sculpture and other objects for the new exhibit, "More Art About Buildings and Food."

Middlebrook's sprawling project is one of three commissioned to celebrate the reopening of Arthouse. And for each artist — Middlebrook, Tony Feher and Ryan Hennessee — the directive was simple but specific: Use Arthouse's building, in some way, as a source of inspiration.

There was plenty to work with, as the building was first a 1920s movie palace, then a 1950s department store, before Arthouse purchased it in 1995. Though it was founded in 1911 as the Texas Fine Arts Association (the oldest visual arts organization in the state), Arthouse emerged with a larger, new profile in 1998 when it opened the doors to its current downtown home, though it was limited to using the first floor for gallery space.

Not a traditional museum with a permanent collection, Arthouse presents a continually changing schedule of exhibits by emerging artists from across the globe, often commissioning artists to create site-specific projects.

Now, after a $6.6 million renovation by New York-based Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis, the previously inaccessible second floor boasts a huge gallery, a public lounge, two studios for visiting artists and a community meeting room. Also, a new roof deck is equipped with a movie screen for film viewing. The dramatic renovation left many of the building's layers and historic features, including the barnlike second-floor ceiling with its old yet solid rafters, joists, trusses and decking.

The New York-based Middlebrook took the Arthouse directive literally. In a warehouse in Elgin, Middlebrook, whose site-specific projects have been exhibited around the country and abroad, spent the past summer crafting benches and dining tables from the leftover lumber, steel and glass.

Steel trusses became supports for benches made of salvaged lumber. A glass wall that formerly separated offices from galleries was cut to become a large table. Metal signage was refashioned into a cactus planter for the new roof deck.

With the aid of Austin glass artist Kathleen Ash, Middlebrook used recycled bottles gathered from Austin restaurants to re-form them into dinner plates and serving platters.

"You can change the path of history for the object, for the materials, when you alter and reuse it," Middlebrook says. "A green (environmental) approach doesn't have to be complex or exclusive."

Nor does a sense of history have to be obscure either, he suggests. "Buildings made at the same time all across the country were made of the same materials that were used in the (Arthouse) building," he says. "There was a universal language of building material, and now that hasn't been erased or thrown away."

Middlebrook's seating and tables will fill the second-floor gallery, transforming it into a banquet hall of sorts — deliberately. Like buildings, Middlebrook notes, food connects us over time and distance. And so, over the course of the summer, he solicited family recipes from Central Texans. Middlebrook selected 177 of those recipes. (The number equals the number of glass blocks the architects inserted in the Arthouse building façade, a signature element of the redesign.) Along the gallery's new 57-foot long moveable wall, those recipes are written by hand, each framed within a colorful painted rectangle the same size as the glass blocks.

Middlebrook designed his rustic yet grand banquet setting to be an unexpected gathering place for Arthouse visitors. Any visitor can have a seat at the tables. And the setting will also be the site for upcoming brown-bag lunchtime conversations and a communal potluck dinner in November.

"Making art is a little like cooking," Middlebrook says. Food "has the ability to connect us all."

Hennessee's video "The Specious Present at 700 Congress" also attempts to make connections — between the new Arthouse and its past and future.

The three-and-a-half-minute animated digital video will screen at night on a continuous loop, rear-projected from the second-story window that overlooks Congress Avenue. (Arthouse will be open late to attract downtown entertainment-seekers, with the galleries open until 9 p.m. most nights and until 11 p.m. on Wednesdays. Admission to exhibits will always be free.)

Hennessee, who is part of the celebrated Austin artist collective Okay Mountain and helped animate Richard Linklater's 2006 movie "A Scanner Darkly," leverages an oddball philosophical problem — the idea that present time is specious, erroneously seeming to be a definite thing yet really not existing. (The term "specious present" was coined by the 19th-century amateur philosopher E. Robert Kelly.)

A series of meticulously hand-drawn colorful cartoonlike scenes of the intersection of Congress Avenue and Seventh Street flicker by in Hennessee's video. But instead of a logically unfolding story about Arthouse's prominent downtown location, "The Specious Present" ricochets around Hennessee's irreverently imagined past, present and future. Depending on when you catch the video, you might first see sign-carrying protesters parading in front of the newly redesigned Arthouse, then a quirky Disney-esque scene of a pre-human time when only cute animals roamed a lush planet, then perhaps images of a fiery apocalyptic explosion. "I liked the idea of people just passing by and catching a few moments of the video and maybe noticing that what they're seeing is (an imagined scene of the same location) of where they are," Hennessee says.

The art of noticing is behind Feher's installation, too. The New York-based artist visited Arthouse several times during construction and settled on using the void between the exposed second-floor ceiling and the steel support beams for his playful installation "Dr. Hawking," named for the famous theoretical physicist and cosmologist. Feher, who grew up in Corpus Christi and graduated from the University of Texas, suspended more than 200 half-filled plastic water bottles from the ceiling, catching the light in intriguing ways. "Each one is a microcosm of the planet inside a vessel made of a once-toxic, petroleum-based material," Feher explains.

And yet the playful nature of so many mundane water bottles populating a space usually overlooked makes the installation an instant eye-catcher.

Says Feher, "It's about exploiting, taking advantage of in a good way, the opportunities this building offers."

Visiting Arthouse