Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Vive la 'Femme Abstract,' a colossal art show in East Austin

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
The second installment of "The Femme Abstract" runs through Jan. 30 in a former warehouse and office space on Springdale Road. In the background is a wall-wide hanging of fused glass that looks like an iCal calendar. Up front is “Lump” by Magdalena Jarkowiec.

Trailblazing women have written the history of Austin art.

Start with sculptor Elisabet Ney, whose 19th-century studio in Hyde Park became the city’s first art gallery and today shines as a small museum dedicated to her life and works. Follow that with the ongoing work of her admirers among the members of early 20th-century advocacy groups, such as Austin Art League and Texas Fine Arts Association (an ancestor to the Contemporary Austin), populated almost entirely by women.

It is true that the postwar generation of artists and teachers who dominated the new fine arts program at the University of Texas were, for the most part, men. Yet they were followed by the visionary founders of Women & Their Work, which since 1977 has promoted the careers of hundreds of artists as part of a program that is recognized and admired across the country.

(Its new home on East Cesar Chavez Street is just right for Women & Their Work’s mission, and, if the stars align, it will open later this year.)

Moya McIntyre curated the magnificent "The Femme Abstract" for a second year in a row. Behind her is Elizabeth Chapin's "Mother."

At various points since then, women have simultaneously helmed almost all the major visual arts institutions in town. Several women, including Katie Robinson Edwards and Rebecca Cohen, have written some of the most important books on the region’s art, and women have led the ranks of journalists who specialize in visual art.

Women also have played major roles in the multiplication of galleries in the city, as well as recent waves of solidarity and activity among the city’s working visual artists, including that sterling umbrella outfit, Big Medium, and its sprawling annual studio tours, the East and West Austin Studio Tours.

One magnificent, raw-edged show to come out of the 2019 EAST was “The Femme Abstract.” Curated by Moya McIntyre, the show took over an old, large warehouse and filled it with the astonishing works by women artists, both veterans and newcomers.

Piece by piece, “The Femme Abstract” told a visual history of abstract art in Austin. It returned under pandemic protocols on New Year’s Eve and continues on Saturday afternoons through Jan. 30.

"Between the Blue" by Denise Elliott Jones works on micro and macro levels.

This time, more than 200 works of art are spread out over 20,000 square feet on two floors of a partially renovated factory on Springdale Road. I counted more than two dozen separate display spaces in what clearly had recently been modern, open offices that occupied part of the former factory that now includes a rock climbing studio, a cider house and the Ground Floor Theatre, one of the finest young performance groups in town.

It is also home to Dimension Gallery, which McIntyre curates year round. Just inside the entrance of “The Femme Abstract,” one finds a grouping recently shown at Dimension: Nigerian American artist Dawn Okoro’s baleful “Balky, Unruly, Tenacious, Anti and Obstinate.” It presents foam heads of five women held up as if on spikes, their limp headdresses tilted to the side, while their black lava-rock and copper surfaces appear to peel away with time.

More than 200 works of art are spread out around 20,000 square feet of well-curated space in "The Femme Abstract."

Two larger pieces set the tones for the lower and upper floors. Impossible to miss at the base of one stairwell is “A Dark Wood Grew Inside Me” by Hollis Hammonds and Sasha West, who have piled high multiple towers of domestic detritus like tree trunks, sprayed black and accompanied by an ominous, muffled voiceover about personal and political crises.

Upstairs, one finds the grandest and most sophisticated artwork in the show, Laurie Frick’s “Time Minus Work, School, Commute & Sleep.” Her strips of fused glass, hung vertically over an entire wall and composed in subtly dark colors, look like a giant, fragmented iCal calendar. Frick’s visual time study belongs in a museum.

"Prairie Urchins" by Jennifer Hill is perfectly displayed on ledges.

It would be impossible to summarize the rest of the art, immaculately staged, with perhaps the exception of a few works stuck in out-of-the way corners. Yet it occurred to me that much of the art could be classified as geologic, biomorphic or geometric.

Among the geologic, one might consider Mars Woodhills’ densely colored swirls and masses on large canvases, for instance, which echo geologic formations. I’d also look to Carol Stanley Aaron’s mature-stage “Primarily Pink,” “Spark” and “In Gray and White,” whose thick encrustations resemble marble or granite until they confuse the eyes as perhaps instead crushed cake. That’s the beauty of abstract art.

Alejandra Almuelle contributes exquisite torsos, busts, vessels and tools to "The Femme Abstract."

For the biomorphic category, I go straight to Alejandra Almuelle’s consummately precise torsos, tools and vessels that look as if they have been retrieved from an archeological dig. Also, Jennifer Hill’s series, “Prairie Urchins,” pastel-colored scrolls turned into objects you might see in a corral reef, rhythmically lined up on ledges.

My favorite geometric assembly is Denise Elliott Jones’ “Between the Blue,” whose swirls of dark and light blue on multiple blocks work not only on the micro, but also on the macro level. As installed, they swarm the senses.

"A Dark Wood Grew Inside Me" by Hollis Hammonds and Sasha West is one of the most charismatic offerings in "The Femme Abstract."

Not everything in the show is absolutely abstract, nor necessarily memorable. There are smaller, quieter pieces that one might pass by, even on multiple circuits around the show. Don’t skip, however, the lovely, a delicate trio by Jennifer Hill that look like sprouting root vegetables, finished with extraordinary care.

I go back and forth about the lack of supporting materials. On the one hand, we are left to guess the dates, materials, methods and aims of each artist without the aid of detailed wall texts, banners or catalogues. On the other hand, we are given the freedom to observe, describe, analyze, interpret and evaluate each work of art for ourselves.

I embrace that freedom.

“The Femme Abstract”

When: Noon-5 p.m. Saturdays through Jan. 30

Where: 979 Springdale Road, St. 123. Drive behind the old factory building. When you see Ground Floor Theatre sign, park. Go to the entrance to the left of that.

Cost: Free

Info: Femme Abstract on Facebook

"Natural Concurrence" by Mars Woodhill might be classified among the geologic pieces in "The Femme Abstract."