Listen to Austin 360 Radio

In a solo exhibit at Texas State, artist W. Tucker gets in touch with child side

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Artist W. Tucker at the Art Gallery in the Mitte Building at Texas State in San Marcos on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. Tucker is creating large, site-specific work at the gallery, spending 5 days actually living in the space as he does his work. He is sitting on the cot he has brought in to sleep on. Over the doorway to the gallery are large sheaths of plastic with peepholes cut out for people to watch him while he works in the space.

SAN MARCOS — After a few nights of sleeping in the gallery at Texas State University, W. Tucker doesn’t look worse for the wear.

Tallish, lithe, with deep-set eyes, Tucker is dressed very much the quintessential artist in paint-spattered pants and T-shirt.

And though it’s certainly not untypical for an artist to become deeply immersed in the creation of a new exhibit or a new series of work or a site-specific work, Tucker, 53, has taken it a bit further than most.

To install his solo show, which runs through Oct. 18, Tucker (who’s first name is William though he has gone simply by ‘Tucker’ since his 20s), recently spent five days and nights in the tall-ceilinged gallery. In the center of the space, he laid out his hyper-organized array of art-making supplies: a rainbow of colored pencils, charcoal and resin drawings sticks, paints and brushes, rulers, razor knives, hand tools.

During his five days in the gallery, the Austin-based artist spent every conceivable waking moment creating two enormous wall drawings and other sketches and drawings in odd and sundry places in the box-like white-walled room.

At night, with ascetic simplicity, he slept in a blue sleeping bag on a modest pad.

Throughout his self-created residency, Tucker covered the gallery’s entry with opaque plastic sheeting but punctured three holes at different heights so passers-by could see in.

“Sometimes I’d be working away and look up and by surprised to see three faces pressed against the plastic watching me,” Tucker said.

Likely passers-by were more surprised by Tucker’s seemingly elementary work.

Loosely drawn in an ostensibly childlike fashion, a small cast of characters and images cover the myriad surfaces on which Tucker draws, large and small. On one gallery wall he drew several dozen boats. He covered another wall with chalkboard paint and on it placed yet another a boat, a head and a chubby stick figure (perhaps it’s a rabbit).

Each image is surrounded by vast amounts of empty space. A few smudges of lines and shapes Tucker has erased still show.

Centering yet another wall is a tiny yellow painted one-inch wooden cube with yet another image of a boat. The tiny block seems to be the only thing on the large white wall.

Until you look again.

Over a nearby exit sign Tucker’s drawn a simple man-like figure; similar but smaller figures populate the wall around a set of light switches. In a corner just above a floorboard, he’s scrawled “How many boats can you draw.”

In the five days and nights he’s spent in the gallery, in addition to hanging previously made paintings and drawings, Tucker’s made his mark in the most surprising places.

Earnest and wry, urgent and playful, Tucker’s art is elemental, but not elementary. It’s highly conceptual art, loaded with philosophical and emotional potency though the artist professes to work from and within a completely intuitive mind-set.

“There’s nothing wrong with using your intellect, it’s just not the way I choose to go about it or where I start from,” he said. “I’m trying to get to that energy that a kid has. I’m starting from that zero space.”

Tucker is right-handed but always draws or paints with his left hand. Over time he’s become increasingly more ambidextrous and so to keep making his wobbly, imperfect lines he’ll often hold his pencil or brush in an awkward grasp.

“That keeps me from overthinking what I do,” he explains.

Tucker literally draws on everything, finding particular beauty in the imperfections of a worn surface: tattered and stained old book covers, pieces of found scrap lumber, old dominoes or mahjong pieces, folded sheets of translucent tracing paper, album covers, bits of wood furniture and doors and window blinds and even an old dollhouse.

He scavenges for materials wherever he can, often picking up things he finds around his South Austin neighborhood.

He has a penchant for sticking with certain images: boats, a rabbitlike animal, a male figure with a hat and puffy cartoon hands and lips. Tucker maintains that such characters have little conscience, specific symbolism for him. But he’ll accept the suggestion that his figures function as archetypal characters engaged in universal life challenges.

“I think I’m just trying to work out how hard it is to be a person,” Tucker told a group of students at the beginning of his residency. “I think (in my work) you can see there’s a sense of the life struggle, the everyday epic.”

Noted playwright and University of Texas faculty member Steven Dietz is a longtime friend of Tucker’s and one of the cohorts that nudged the artist and his wife to relocate to Austin from California about four years ago.

Dietz recalled the way Tucker always took focused interest in the proverbial “fridge art” — the child’s kindergarten drawings every proud parent tapes to the refrigerator. Usually, Dietz’s friends would make some passing polite comment and the conversation would move on to more adult things.

But not Tucker.

“He would really stare at these crayon drawings or simple little paintings,” Dietz said by email. “He would look at them deeply. Study them. Talk to our kids about them. He took this work seriously and approached it with curiosity and joy.”

“It was clear to me that with all his skill and experience as a painter, Tucker was – remarkably – still viscerally connected to the innocent, primitive, intuitive artists that lived in us as children. His work seems always to be imbued with this childlike guile, quiet wisdom and irreverent zest.”

Tucker didn’t set out to be a visual artist.

Born in North Carolina to a military father whose career moved the family around, Tucker eventually found his way to New York University, where he received a degree in acting. After a few years in New York spent auditioning and getting a few small roles acting or modeling, Tucker moved to Los Angeles.

By the early 1990s, he was living in a house in Laurel Canyon with a group friends and getting small acting gigs but basically at lose ends. Then one day a friend left behind a drafting table and materials.

“I literally didn’t have anything else to do, so I just started drawing,” he said. “I think now I was trying to purge through a bunch of emotional stuff.”

Since then Tucker hasn’t stopped drawing.

He exhibited his work in California, but his work has gained considerable traction since he moved to Austin. He’s currently represented by Dallas’ Conduit Gallery, Houston’s Koelsch Gallery and Austin’s D. Berman Gallery (now an online gallery only). His exhibit at Texas State is his largest solo showing in the greater Austin area to date, and he has several solo exhibits scheduled in Houston and Dallas in 2013.

In the meantime, Tucker will be carefully, methodically making his seemingly willful and guileless images.

“I try not to think too much about the final meaning of my work,” he said. “I’d rather just make it.”

‘W. Tucker: To Stand in a Boat That Floats’