Not Just Any Cake

December 20, 2015
By Wendy Atwell

Artpace is turning 21 and they’re celebrating with cake, but not just any cake. The Window Works installation by Chris Sauter, Biography Construction Site (Cakes) is on view until April 24th. Another delectable exhibit is on view in the Hudson Showroom, Lorem ipsum, by New York-based Cordy Ryman. These two shows are a parting gift from Interim Executive Director Sue Graze, who has filled the gap while Artpace has looked for a new director. Artpace’s new Executive Director, Veronique LeMelle, begins next week. Before this, Graze served as Executive Director at Arthouse at the Jones Center (now known as the Contemporary Austin). During her 12-year career in Austin, she oversaw amazing shows by artists including Dario Robleto, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Margarita Cabrera, Katrina Moorhead, and Francesca Fuchs, to name just a few.

Finding someone with the same aesthetic taste is a rare delicacy; it’s like a meal with all good ingredients. Even better, a meal with exotic, heretofore unknown ingredients. Good art promises discovery. The curators Regine Basha and Elizabeth Dunbar worked under Graze at Arthouse. They presented thought-provoking, challenging shows.

With discovery, I don’t expect answers. The discovery can be in presenting new information that asks an entire series of questions that I never thought to ask before, both conceptually and formally. This new material is never dominated or mapped out in entirety; it exists as a prompt, a sign pointing the way towards further inquiry.

I have followed and admired Sauter’s art since I knew him at UTSA. He has replicated his childhood bedroom and his family’s kitchen, and I’ve always wondered why he was drawn to these places. Today he explained that it’s because he is interested in how these spaces shape a person’s perception of the world and how the actual physical space of a place functions. He’s interested in institutions, which may mean a house, a school, and, yes, places like Artpace. It’s fitting that Graze selected Sauter for this honor.

He was one of the first residents of Artpace in 1999. Today he explained that Artpace was one of the reasons he stayed in San Antonio. The way Artpace is structured, it “acts as a conduit to the international art world.” Everyone in San Antonio may not know about Artpace, but everyone in the international art world does. After receiving his MFA in 1996, Sauter worked as a baker at HEB to pay off his school loans.

In the front window of Artpace, Sauter built a temporary wall that is painted with the “Artpace Turns 21” graphic on it, and then he cut circles out of this wall and used them to construct his cakes. The varied sizes of cakes are on display behind the wall. Sauter iced some of his round, tiered cakes with joint compound. Some cakes are hollow. A few of the solid cakes have slices cut out of them. Other cakes are Styrofoam with pale pink frosting. If you look carefully, you can see slices casually set behind the wall, like someone set them down at a party.

As with his prior installations using drywall, Sauter employs remarkable efficiency; not one piece gets wasted, and every hole is part of an overall strategy. Part of the delight in Sauter’s installations comes from recognizing this after studying it in its entirety. It’s like a sculptural demonstration of inductive reasoning—the viewer sees all of these holes in the wall and then discovers their use.

Sauter’s primary tool is a laminate trimmer, which allows him to cut the drywall and then pop it out, instantly transforming a two-dimensional drawing into a three dimensional sculpture. For Sauter, this is an analogy for mind/body. The eye perceiving a drawing is visual; in the mind. But the body relating to a sculpture is a physical experience. The first time I heard about this concept, I was in graduate school, studying Donald Judd’s pivotal essay, “Specific Objects.” This essay stresses how these three dimensional objects activate their physical environments.

Upstairs in the Hudson Showroom, Ryman has filled the space with varied multimedia constructions. Ryman’s talents center on his use of color and composition, but also his overall cleverness with space and material. I see echoes of Carl André and Sol LeWitt in Ryman’s work. But Ryman’s materials contrast with LeWitt’s serious formulaic approach; Ryman’s compositions and arrangements appear playful and intuitive. Instead of fine art materials, like André’s copper tiles, Ryman’s constructions are composed mostly of rough-cut scrap material. The similiarity is in the artists’ arrangement of modules. Ryman’s arrangements are abstract designs without any narrative element, so the installation’s title seems apt–it refers to the filler text used to demonstrate the graphic design in a document.

Bright pinks and oranges, painted on the sides of wooden pieces, glow on the white walls. Ryman’s tantalizing use of color stems from his restraint. He teases the viewer with his dabs of color here and there, waiting like visual treasures inside and around his pieces. Sauter called Ryman’s recycled material “cannibalization.” If there’s an older piece sitting around in his studio, he eventually cuts it up and incorporates it into newer work. That’s part of the way the color happens; it’s leftover color from something else, a reincarnated patchwork. This is why Ryman is flexible about how his pieces are hung–a horizontal piece may be installed vertically and vice versa, depending on the space.

Even though Sauter and Ryman make totally different work, there’s an uncanny similarity in their goals: each artist explodes the boundary between two and three dimensional art. With resourcefulness and ingenuity, they transform the gallery spaces in surprising, unimaginable ways.