Field Report: Austin
Distance: 689 miles
Elevation: 489 feet
Population: 2 million metro
Named for: Colonizer Stephen F. Austin
I keep waiting for New Mexico to embrace the taco. I love a burrito as much as the next guy, and the enchiladas at La Choza are life-changing, but with so much green chile and red chile flowing here in Santa Fe, the taco and its valiant hero, salsa, have been eclipsed. I visited Austin, TX, my personal taco hub, to escape the late nonexistent-winter blues and, in between meals, tracked down some of its art gems.
Austin has gotten bigger than its britches. As with so many aspects of Texas, size matters. In the last thirty years, the city’s population has doubled. The state capitol building is the same proportions as the U.S. Capitol but bigger. As an art city, however, Austin remains on the small side. While live music continues to flourish in both ideal hole-in-the-wall venues and gargantuan festivals, a few galleries and a new museum are trying to make their mark. In its current permutation as both a university town and a tech hub, much of cultural Austin can feel geared toward bro-life, but beneath that, weirdos continue to exist—if not exactly to thrive as they once did. Austin was my home for seven years, and in that time, as so many Austin residents and transplants can attest, I fell in deep love/hate. I love the year-round swimming, endless taco trucks, and constant social butterflying from show to bar to yard. I loathe the massive pick-ups with balls hanging from their bumpers, the lines that on this last visit sprouted up everywhere from the Ellsworth Kelly opening to every single restaurant on Cesar Chavez on a Saturday morning, and, speaking of which, the gentrification. But in a city where summer never ends, vibrant visual art and culture are finally making their way through the onslaught of commodification and neoliberal haze. Did I mention there are tacos?ART
Blanton Museum of Art
The University of Texas at Austin
Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, opened February 18, 2018, open year-round
Like Mark Rothko’s Chapel and James Turrell’s Quaker Meeting House in Houston, Ellsworth Kelly’s final artwork and only freestanding building, Austin, provides visitors with a meditative space to interact with color and with their own perception. Or it would, on a day when it isn’t mobbed. The arched chapel with brightly colored glass windows seems to have landed from outer space in the midst of UT’s oversized, overstated Spanish-influenced campus architecture. I hear if you go on a rainy day, you might run into the artist himself, in spirit…
Rodney McMillian, Against a Civic Death
February 1-August 26, 2018
Occupying both floors and the stairway of the Jones Center, the downtown museum space of The Contemporary, South Carolina–born and L.A.–based artist Rodney McMillian’s Against a Civic Death makes its first statement in color—a black tapestry draped over the stairway railing. On the second floor, black vases sit several to a table, the tables circling the room. Some are shined to a high gloss; some are matte; some shiny inside and matte without. Some of the black leans to blue, to red, to purple. Overhead, a recording of Shirley Chisholm’s May 22, 1972, speech plays, while a vocal interpretation of Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1975 song “That’s the Way of the World” emanates from behind a black painted curtain. Downstairs, you’ll find a vinyl re-creation of the façade of the White House, instantly recognizable, even in this slightly cartoonish interpretation. Unlike the black curtain upstairs, which curves around to the walls on either side, impenetrably, the White House façade opens at either side to allow the viewer into a screening of Untitled (neighbors). The video depicts three figures shrouded in white hoods and garments, dancing, then simulating sex with a set of Doric columns (Fucking whiteness? Fucking Classicism?) and ultimately engaging in ritual self-flagellation.
Eastside Pot Shop
Nick Wedell: New Works
on display through April 28
The Eastside Pot Shop features current work by up-and-coming ceramicists in its gallery, and it offers a ceramics studio and project space for artists and community members to create and fire their works. The shop was founded by artist Scott Proctor, who earned his MFA from UT Austin, worked as a professor for a while, then abandoned academia and returned to Austin, and opened this shop with help from a Kickstarter campaign. Eastside offers wheel classes and open studio time to anyone who’d like to try their hand at throwing pots.
Graffiti Park at Castle Hill
while it lasts…
This palimpsest of aerosol artwork began as a temporary installation by street artist Shepard Fairey (best known for his Obama “Hope” poster) during South by Southwest, Austin’s annual music and technology festival, in 2011. Since its creation, the work of more than three hundred artists has found a perch overlooking downtown Austin and its ongoing construction. As with so many things in Austin, it will soon be demolished to make way for—you guessed it—condos. HOPE gallery has found a space for it in East Austin, where it will also serve in its new iteration as a community center.
The University of Texas at Austin
James Turrell, The Color Inside, 2013
At the top of a building on the UT campus, Austin’s James Turrell Skyspace The Color Inside isn’t well marked or easy to find, but unlike some of the other Skyspaces I’ve visited, it also doesn’t feel quite so orchestrated or choreographed. It has an abandoned feeling—some peeling paint, few visitors. When my partner and I went there on one of our first dates, there was no one around but us and a student with an open textbook in front of her. It was sunset and the colored lights around the egg-shaped hole made the sky unrecognizable. According to their website, reservations are required for sunset viewing..
Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park
If you’re looking to get away from the traffic for a few hours, the sculpture park at Laguna Gloria makes for a great shady walk. The Driscoll Villa, a house museum on site, will likely be occupied by a wedding or event, but the garden is usually pretty quiet. Walk along Lake Austin and pause to listen to the recordings at Terry Allen’s Road Angel, a bronze cast 1953 Chevy. Punk kids will be leaning against it, rules be damned. Bask with Wangechi Mutu’s Water Woman, pop your face into Nancy Holt’s Time Span, take in some highly Instagrammable Toms (Sachs and Friedman) and an Ai Weiwei. And just down the road, you can share a picnic with the peacocks of Mayfield Park.
Proxemics: Ben Aqua, Felipe Baeza, Xavier Schipani, Silky Shoemaker, Riel Sturchio, and Jaimie Warren
January 19-February 24, 2018
A pyramid of bodies greeted me as I walked into MASS Gallery: cartoonish nude male bodies, of every shade in the Crayola skin tone box. Without any context, Xavier Schipani’s Important Male Figures mural struck me as at once masculinist and queer. I am used to seeing vertical celebrations of manhood in art galleries, but rarely are they so explicitly about men having sex with other men. Schipani, a transman, drew from the “Herndon Monument Climb,” an annual tradition at the U.S. Naval Academy in which first-year male students climb on top of each other to reach the top of a twenty-one-foot-tall granite obelisk on campus. Jaimie Warren’s photographs, in which she recreates celebrity photos using her own face and food, are like Cindy Sherman had a disgusting baby with Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Mexican-born Felipe Baeza collages parts of brown bodies onto ancient sculptures that appear in found black-and-white photos from books for his Gente del Occidente de México series. Proxemics, the concept that ties the show together, is a term borrowed from urban sociology to describe the distance or closeness between people.
Women and their Work
Julie Libersat: Paved Paradise
March 10-April 19, 2018
Celebrating its fortieth year, this nonprofit contemporary art space shows exclusively women artists. They will mark the anniversary of bringing women’s art to downtown Austin with exhibitions, performances, and a benefit this April.
Harry Ransom Center
The looming humanities archive on the UT campus holds some of the most valuable literary artifacts of the twentieth century: the papers of David Foster Wallace, Radclyffe Hall, Alice Corbin Henderson, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Gabriel García Márquez, among many others. While their literary acquisitions skew white, cis, hetero, and male, the Ransom Center boasts excellent theater arts and performing arts collections, film archives, and a huge Latin American art collection. There’s always something on view in the downstairs gallery, including a Gutenberg Bible and the first photograph, and a self-portrait of Frida Kahlo hanging in the lobby. The Center also houses some unexpected personal effects, like a coffin filled with refined sugar that Kenneth Anger sent to Gloria Swanson as a curse. Also, Montgomery Clift’s speedo and nearly every article of clothing worn by Robert De Niro in his movies.
February 14-18, 2018
The annual LGBTQ+ multimedia arts and scholarly conference exploring queer lives coincided with my visit this year. OUTSider Fest includes film screenings, performances, panels, and readings—not to mention a twenty-four-hour porn installation, Sesión Continua, curated by Bradford Noreen, director of Dirty Looks, a bi-coastal experimental queer film platform, which was taking place at the Vortex theater at Butterfly Bar where I was having birthday drinks. Friends kept disappearing throughout the night, only to be found camped out in the screening tent.
Texas Book Festival
State Capitol Building
October 27-28, 2018
If you’re planning a fall trip to Austin, aim for the dates of the Texas Book Festival to see authors, readers, and publishers large and small converge on the state capitol for an event-packed weekend. And don’t miss Austin Lit Crawl, a literary-themed bar crawl on Saturday night with some of your favorite writers, e.g. a graveyard tour by R.L. Stine.
Live music is everywhere, all the time, especially if you visit during SXSW. During the two-week festival, every single place you go is a venue: the grocery store, the bar, your neighbor’s house. Seasoned locals tend to rent their homes out on Airbnb and skip town for the duration. While I was in Austin in February, I caught Jana Horn at Hotel Vegas, a former strip club and now pleasantly divey east Austin bar and music venue. The performers were blissfully bored with us, and their songs were salty but sweet, like Pam from The Office meets 1980s Mia Farrow.
The coldest water I have ever felt. Go for a night swim in the warmer months, which is most of them.
open daily, by donation on Sundays
The best yoga community in Austin, Eastside is the place to be on a weekend morning. Try any of Mary’s classes and you will emerge a new person.TACOS
Some people will try to tell you to go to Torchy’s, Austin’s other homegrown taco franchise, but those people will be wrong. Go to TacoDeli’s original location on Spyglass and then hike the Green Belt. I’d never tell you what to order, but I will tell you to combine the roja and doña salsas. Closes at 3 pm. Best to go on a weekday.
Owned by sisters Reyna and Maritza Vazquez, who were born and raised in Veracruz, Mexico, Veracruz is a relatively recent addition to Austin’s taco family. If you go on a weekend, you will probably wait an hour, but it will be worth it for the migas taco, I promise.
A hometown favorite, El Chilito is the place for your everyday taco. Open through dinner, El Chilito has a big menu and plenty of picnic tables to meet your friends or grab a bite after yoga or on your way to the bar—or the following morning when nothing but tacos will do.
Bumper to bumper traffic at 2 pm on a Thursday
Where are you all even going?
open daily 9 am-11 pm
A giant independent bookstore continues to thrive in the middle of downtown Austin, despite the efforts of the next-door flagship Whole Foods, now owned by none other than Amazon (gag face), to oust them from their perch. I worked there for all seven years I lived in Austin, and it will always have a place in my heart. You can still find some of my staff selections on the shelves, along with a million others from the avid readers on staff.