Gracelee Lawrence & Ryan Hawk respond to Charles Umlauf
by Catherine Zinser
The UMLAUF Sculpture Garden and Museum was established in 1991 to house the collection of work given to the city of Austin by twentieth century sculptor, Charles Umlauf (1911–1994). When the current curator, Katie Edwards, interviewed for her position just over two years ago she stressed the importance of competitive, juried exhibitions for smaller institutions. “It’s how art moves forward,” she said. The museum enthusiastically agreed and as soon as Edwards was on staff she revived the UMLAUF Prize, a juried award open to MFA students at The University of Texas at Austin where Umlauf taught for 40 years.
“It’s how art moves forward”
Damian Priour—a UT alumnus and UMLAUF board member—and his wife Paula founded the Prize in 2004 to foster a dialogue between established and emerging art while supporting the careers of young artists—passions the Priours shared with Umlauf. Winners receive a monetary award and a stipend to create new work for display in the galleries or on the grounds of the museum. The Prize was awarded four times before it was suspended in 2008. Edwards resuscitated the Prize with an exhibition of work by Adam Crosson in 2014. For the first time this year, UMLAUF recognizes two recipients, Ryan Hawk and Gracelee Lawrence, in the exhibition murmurs. Another first—both artists respond directly to Umlauf’s work, creating site-specific pieces that reflect twentieth-century ideas and present them to a twenty-first-century audience. Though their work is paradoxical in many ways, Hawk and Lawrence both address gender roles, gender identity and sexuality to question past and present societal norms. Juror and arts advocate Suzanne Deal Booth recognized that either artist would have been a strong choice but that together their work plays off one another, generating a conversation that flows in and throughout the gardens and gallery.
Both artists were immediately struck by Umlauf’s figurative work. Influenced early in his career by Auguste Rodin, Umlauf ‘s male figures are muscular, heroic and seemingly larger than life. The female figures, however, are willowy and pliable and seem to lack any logical bone structure. This isn’t a critique on Umlauf’s skill as an artist. The suppleness of the women in his sculptures speaks to their place in society—a male-dominated society—in mid- century America. As a whole, the Prize exhibition suggests that gender exists on a spectrum. Viewers are asked to suspend preconceived notions of gender and reconsider what it means to be masculine or feminine. Hawk and Lawrence approach this from very different angles.
Gracelee Lawrence sought to create something site- specific that would respond to its surroundings. Using 3D scanners and a computerized milling machine in the new Digital Fabrication Lab at UT, Lawrence fabricated three fountains: each addresses a sculpture by Umlauf and is oriented near its inspiration in the ponds of the garden. CNC (computerized numerical control) technology allows Lawrence to dramatically alter the scale of her work. Lawrence often works with food—pulps and juices––as materials in their natural state, but here she uses fruit imagery for the first time, scaling to human-sized proportions. Feminism has always been central to Lawrence’s work and she uses fruit because of its long-established associations with fertility and fecundity. For this same reason, she prefers to use soft, pastel colors—gendered feminine––to debunk the opinion that serious art requires a reserved color palette.
Lawrence was drawn to Umlauf ’s The Kiss. “The way these bodies are shown, the physiological aspects, is very troubling. She is malleable and he is a pillar,” Lawrence explains. For her work entitled The Kiss (Bananapear) Lawrence substitutes the human figures with fruit, mimicking the lines and forms in parody of Umlauf ’s work. Her Forbidden Fruit (Eve’s Stack) stands near Umlauf ’s Ballerina. Lawrence parodies the figure’s stiff, bulbous breasts with a pile of plump pomegranates, pears and apples. The pairing is a play on seduction and temptation. In these sculptures, the fruit acts as a foil, exposing the heteronormative nature of Umlauf’s work and the twentieth-century mindset: men are powerful and dominant and women are delicate and submissive. Lawrence shines light on society’s need to fit all things—particularly people—into neat categories and by doing so, begs her audience to ask why?
Ryan Hawk is first a performance artist, and the human body is central to the videos and installations in this exhibition. Throughout the gallery, if Hawk doesn’t present a male body physically, he suggests one with hand-smeared Crisco or glistening goop (GAK polymer) flowing in and out of a tight space. Hawk’s work requires more unpacking than Lawrence’s. Subtle subculture references give deeper meaning to the context of his work. For instance, Crisco had an almost exclusively female consumer base in the early twentieth century, before it became the preferred lubricant for gay men in the 1970s. The product may not have experienced a complete gender reassignment, but it’s worth noting its disparate uses. Crisco is used in Untitled (A Ring Is Not A Hole With Something Around It), where Hawk references the etymology of the words “ring” and “anus” and their shared root. This piece is positioned near Untitled (Plumbing), two screens that show the GAK flowing in and out of a hole, suggesting the multidirectionality of orifices.
“I think it’s ironic that Ryan’s work reads as masculine and mine as feminine—I think that goes back to [society’s] tendencies. I think we both have an understanding of the fluidity between the two and that everything is existing on a giant spectrum instead of binaries and dualities.”
The main work in the gallery is Untitled (After Spirit of Flight), another video on two screens. Like Lawrence, Hawk was struck by Umlauf’s proclivity towards representations of powerful, physically superior male figures. Hawk’s subject, a male nude, mirrors the pose of Umlauf’s heroic bronze, Spirit of Flight, but Hawk’s figure is dominated rather than dominant; GAK slowly flows down his body and he finds arousal in this submissive role. As Hawk explains, “Showing this type of masculinity—that it can be passive and it’s okay to be passive—alleviates masculinity of things that can be detrimental, especially to queer people. Simultaneously it alleviates female bodies of femininity, from passivity and assumptions that a female body can’t be an active force. I hope that addressing a male figure does both of those things.” Lawrence continues:
For the museum, the exhibition is revolutionary.
For the museum, the exhibition is revolutionary. Lawrence and Hawk are pushing 25-year-old boundaries that are begging for slack. The museum is charged with the presentation of and education about the work of Charles Umlauf and his contemporaries, and the institution continuously does this in an elegant way. This exhibition shows there is room for other voices; it allows viewers to experience contemporary art in conversation with work that is already considered universally pleasing. It’s important to periodically hold up that lens. Kudos to the UMLAUF for taking a running leap in the direction of serious contemporary art that can question the past and do so without being flippant or dismissive. Next year, the museum will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary with two Prize exhibitions: a retrospective of all Prize winners and another singular exhibition chosen from current students by juror Don Bacigalupi, founding director of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and UT alumnus. Viewers of this year’s murmurs will agree next year’s applicants will have their work cutout for them.
The exhibition murmurs will be on view at UMLAUF Sculpture Garden and Museum until November 8, 2015. More information can be found at www.umlaufsculpture.org