Bale Creek Allen Gallery
by Veronica Ceci
Musicians unpack their instruments in a small room crammed with people craning their heads to get a glimpse of the short film being screened prior to the performance of a local legend. Hollywood stars hobnob with leather-clad rockers in the types of improbable encounters that happen regularly at SXSW auxiliary events such as this. If the lights weren’t so bright, this party could be at any club in Austin, but the scene was, in fact, a sneak preview of the new Bale Creek Allen Gallery on March 12th.
There seems to be a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll to everything that Bale Creek Allen does . . .
Although not officially open until late April, Canopy’s newest tenant drew an impressive crowd for its event: a screening of the film, Hi How Are You Daniel Johnston, along with a musical performance and an exhibition of work by the celebrated Texan. Johnston is perhaps best known for his mural Jeremiah the Innocent, locally referred to as the “Hi, How Are You?” frog. The image, originally painted on what was The Sound Exchange record store in 1993, is at 21st and Guadalupe. When the store closed and the building changed hands in 2004, the artwork was set to be destroyed. Saved by local protesters, it is an icon of local art and has been riffed on and reproduced endlessly, familiar to persons who may know nothing of Johnston’s music or travails.
The film, written by Johnston, David Lee Miller, and Gabriel Sunday and listing Lana Del Rey as one of the executive producers, gives the uninitiated a visceral entry into the artist’s inner world. In the work of short cinema, Johnston, who in real life has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, gives advice to his younger self, played by Sunday, as he struggles with his first significant mental breakdown. Characters from Johnston’s drawings appear as fully animated torsos manifest as body-painted nudes.
Regrets are mused upon, chords both literal and metaphorical are struck, and the viewer is given a sense of what it might be like to be simultaneously inspired and tortured by one’s own mind.
The popular frog is just one of many friendly monsters that exist in Johnston’s world. The works featured at the accompanying exhibition were modest in size but plentiful and dense. Each presented a fragment of time and narrative, often captioned by the characters telling their story in speech bubbles. In one work, a female figure sketched out in yellow marker with black outline stares out of the picture plane, paying no mind to the red-winged eyeball and six-legged smiling creature approaching. She sums up her feelings with understatement: “It’s great, but not too good.” This mix of surreal beasts and vocally expressed sentiments made for a show as tender as it was nutty. The stories that result have a visual appeal leaving little wonder why one of Johnston’s drawings was featured in the 2006 Whitney Biennial.
As an artist and musician, Daniel Johnston was a natural choice for the gallery’s inaugural show, as its namesake founder, Bale Creek Allen, also lays claim to both titles. Allen himself creates in a multitude of media: bronze sculpture, painting, photography, neon, woodwork, spoken word, music and theatre. A notable on the Austin scene for many years, his most recognizable past work comes from casting detritus of the American West, such as tire tread and tumbleweeds, in bronze.
Allen is continuing to follow that thread and many other intersections of craft and concept in an ambitious new project, My America. Over the next five years, he plans to do site-specific work in every state in the country, exhibiting in public spaces like universities and art centers. Many pieces will be left behind on public land, and all will be marked on a grand map from which an art enthusiast can tour the country through Allen’s eyes. The works will explore the contrast between what makes every place America and what makes each state individual.
Starting the project in Texas, Allen was leaving the day after our chat to collect local roadkill which will be cast in clear glass, anticipating that they will shine like diamonds. Collecting is central to Allen’s work. He plans to excavate a highway center-line from each state and assemble them all in one large sculpture and to build a wooden floor where each piece of wood comes from one of the fifty states. The works dedicated to Texas will be a proving ground, experiments to help refine how things will manifest moving forward. Look for these to be previewed at the gallery space.
Meanwhile, Allen has a series of exhibitions scheduled for the new gallery. Following Johnston, artist Boyd Elder will be featured. The exhibition will showcase two painted skulls from the original 1970s series featured on several album covers by The Eagles alongside other work. Allen said that having two music-related exhibitions in a row was coincidence, pointing out that his fall artist, New York-based David Lyle, is a photorealistic painter. That doesn’t mean that Lyle’s work lacks edge, however, as his juxtapositions of wholesome 1950s-era tableaus with hints of modernity including graffiti and technology court subversion.
There seems to be a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll to everything that Bale Creek Allen does, from the artists he chooses to the way he structures his projects. In a place like Austin, where keeping it weird is a badge of honor, that makes for a gallery worth a sojourn.