The arts matter, and always will, in Austin

I’m delighted that, in the 17 years I have been writing for the American-Statesman, my last story as the staff arts critic/reporter is about an institution that has lately proved how art can respond to its community and its time.

READ: Contemporary Austin’s downtown museum gets a new look, new spaces

With its recent remodel of its downtown venue, and its continuing development of its sculpture park and its bold new installation on Congress Avenue, the Contemporary Austin proves how a nimble and progressive mindset makes it relevant to the city Austin is today.

And the museum does so while not losing sight of the museum’s own legacy as a foundation of Austin’s early cultural forays.

READ: 100 Years of Art: With Laguna Gloria, Clara Driscoll laid foundation for art in Austin

It is not my decision to leave the American-Statesman. The paper’s leadership has elected to eliminate my position.

We all benefit from Austin’s vibrant and democratic arts community. Whether a frequent participant or a sometimes participant, or even if rarely a participant, the cultural arts resonant in Austin with a kind of openness, accessibility and innovation that’s often lacking in other cities.

In the 17 years I have been at the American-Statesman — and in the 25+ years I’ve been in Austin — I’ve seen the city’s cultural community grow exponentially. And not just by the numbers, as Austin remains one of the nation’s fastest-growing and list-topping cities.

Austin’s cultural community has most importantly grown in depth, sophistication, diversity, resourcefulness, leadership and innovation. It’s a scene that is a dynamic force in the state, eyeballed (and envied) by people around the nation, around the world.

READ: Ballet Austin embarks on a pioneering 5-week tour to China

Yes, Austin’s major institutions have grown exponentially. But just as important are this city’s bold, independent organizations and its enterprising individual artists and collectives. And they need the public’s support, attendance and attention just as much.

READ: Austin’s One Ounce Opera is for everyone

The artist-initiated — and often delightfully scrappy — experiments, collaborations, temporary happenings and risk-taking, give Austin’s creative character its character.

The arts matter in Austin, small or big, traditional or experimental. And they always will.

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eatured l to r: Lana Lesley, Jason Liebrecht, Thomas Graves Humana Festival of New American Plays, 2010, Actors Theatre of Louisville Photo by Alan Simons
Austin theater company the Rude Mechanicals perform “The Method Gun” at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, 2010, Actors Theatre of Louisville. (Left to right: Lana Lesley, Jason Liebrecht, Thomas Graves.) Photo by Alan Simons.




UT theater alum joins ‘Hamilton’ cast in Broadway debut

J. Quinton Johnson, a former student in the University of Texas’ Department of Theatre and Dance, has been cast in the role of Hercules Mulligan/James Madison in the Broadway production of the Tony Award-winning smash hit “Hamilton,” Playbill announced today.

Johnson debuts Jan. 6, following the departure of original cast member Okieriete Onaodowan.

Johnson attended UT from 2012 to 2015. He starred in UT’s 2014 production of  “In the Heights,” also by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Among his roles at Zach Theatre, Johnson appeared as Stokely Carmichael in “All the Way.”

Johnson had his breakout film role in Richard Linklater’s ensemble comedy “Everybody Wants Some,” and the actor currently is working with Linklater once again for Amazon’s “Last Flag Flying” with Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne.

This past year Johnson completed work in the upcoming musical re-imagining of the 1987 film “Dirty Dancing,” and he was cast alongside Pierce Brosnan in AMC’s “The Son,” an adaptation of the epic Texas-centered novel by UT’s Michener Center alumnus Philipp Meyer.



Bestselling CD of 2016? Not Beyoncé or Drake

Who had the bestselling CD of 2016?

Sorry Beyoncé.

A German composer who’s been dead for 225 years bested any of today’s pop stars when it comes to moving units.

Billboard announced recently that the giant ‘Mozart 225,’ a massive 200-CD boxed set, emerged as the biggest-selling CD release of the year

Breathtaking by any measure, ‘Mozart 225’ presents every work by the Classical era genuis. Some 60 soloists and 60 orchestras were enlisted for a total of 240 hours of music.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) composed more than 600 works, many of which profoundly shaped the history of music.


This weekend, gallery events offer respite from holiday overload

Considering retail stores had holiday decorations two seconds after Halloween, who isn’t sick of looking at Christmas visual clutter?

Austin’s indie galleries got fix for that this weekend.

Friday, Grayduck Gallery opens “Lumens & Currents: Elizabeth Chiles and John Swanger,” a smart pairing of two very thoughtful artists. Opening is 7 to 10 p.m.

Also Friday 7 to 10 p.m., Pump Project celebrates the opening of “I Saw the World: Betelhem Makonnen.” Using appropriated images from the British military invasion of Ethiopia, Makonnen subverts history and its authority.

At Mass Gallery, the cooperative is hosting a Big Blowout Holiday Sale, with 20% off everything in their shop including the one-of-a-kind artwork in the 12 x 12 bin. It all happens 5 to 8 p.m. Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday. (On Saturday they’re spinning vinyl and offering eggnog.)

It’s also the final chance to see “Understory,” yet another super smart group show by this artist-run gallery.

Elizabeth Chiles, “Lumen.5.16.1,” lumen photographic print. Grayduck Gallery.

On Saturday afternoon, from 1 to 4 p.m., the galleries in the Flatbed building host an open house.

Camiba Art Gallery celebrates the opening of a solo show by Tahila Xicahuamazatl Mintz. At 2 p.m. Mintz will discuss her meditative black-and-white photo portraits of the forest.

Flatbed Gallery itself will offer 10% off any of its one-of-a-kind prints

And Gallery Shoal Creek and Photo Méthode also join in on the open house fun.

Tahila Xicahuamaz Mintz, "Embrace," (detail). Camiba Art Gallery.
Tahila Xicahuamaz Mintz, “Embrace,” (detail). Camiba Art Gallery.



At the Contemporary Austin, an artistic monument to liberty and justice rises

A potent, monumental sculpture has now taken up permanent residence on the rooftop of the Contemporary Austin.

Working over the last two nights, the museum installed Jim Hodges “Liberty and Justice for All (A Work in Progress), an illuminated sculpture of seven-foot-tall letters that rim the newly updated rooftop of the museum downtown Jones Center venue at Congress Ave. and Seventh — just a few blocks from the Texas State Capital

During the day, the letters’ iridescent, mirrored surfaces will oscillate hues shifting between blues, purples, oranges, and pinks.

At night, the letters are lit from within.

In his artistic practice Hodges — born in 1957 in Spokane, Washington — typically uses mundane materials to create his poetic and conceptual sculpture as a means to embrace the ephemerality of art and celebrate the handmade.

As a gay artist, Hodges was deely affected by the culture wars and AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s. As Contemporayr curator Heather Pesanti points out, Hodges devised a creative strategy of using language in a profound but simple manner. Writes Pesanti; “Hodges’s response was not heavy-handed politicism but disarmingly simple, sometimes beautiful, and seemingly innocuous objects and installations that often engaged the viewer in an immersive or even playful manner while serving as Trojan horses for powerful political messages.”
In 2004, for an installation at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, Hodges invited representatives from all member-nations of the United Nations to write down the phrase “don’t be afraid” in their native language.
“Liberty and Justice for All (A Work in Progress) is permanent installation. It will be celebrated Dec. 17 with a slate of free public programs and free admission at both the Jones Center and at the Contemporary’s sculpture park at Laguna Gloria.
Photo courtesy The Contemporary Austin.
Photo courtesy The Contemporary Austin.

The Hodges’ installation is just part of a $3 million renovation of the architecturally distinctive Jones Center. Most dramatically, a 21-foot high canopy was added to the rooftop where the museum stages films screenings and other events. The new canopy offers shade and rain protection, fans and hook-ups for heaters as well as sound abatement.

Inside the museum’s first floor was opened to add 2,000 square feet of flexible gallery space. In total, the Jones Center now has 7,000 square feet of exhibit space.

Less visible are significant upgrades to the Jones Center humidity and temperature controls to meet stringent museum industry specifications. And a heavy-capacity electric lift between the lower and upper floors allows the museum to move larger works of art. The seven-foot letters of Hodges’ sculpture were among the first art works to make use of the new lift.

The museum funded the $3 million renovation from a combination of $1.3 million grant from the Moody Foundation, a bridge loan and private donations.

Acquisition of Hodges’ sculpture comes from donors including Amanda and Glenn Fuhrman, Agnes Gund, Horizon Bank, Candace and Michael Humphreys, Jeanne and Michael Klein, Lannan Foundation, Nancy and Dr. Robert Magoon, Amy and John Phelan, Lora Reynolds and Quincy Lee.

A previous version of the work installed on the ground level outside the Aspen Art Museum in 2014.


A day after its initial installation, Jim Hodges’ sculpture on the rooftop of the Contemporary Austin’s Jones Center, Congress Ave. and Seventh St. Photo by Jeanne Claire van Ryzin.

Theater review: With ‘Requiem for Tesla’ remount, Rude Mechs reaffirm their daring, original theater

The Rude Mechs’ current production of “Requiem for Tesla” is the last the Austin-born internationally-recognized theater collective will stage at the Off Center.

The Rudes has lost the warehouse off East Seventh Street in 1999, one of the earlier indie arts venues in East Austin and a symbol of the kind of creative moxie and artistic freedom that once readily flourished in this city.

Forced with a 340% rent increase the Rudes will vacate the Off Center in May. And in a strange twist of timing, this season is also the company’s 20th, remarkable for any arts organization.

And so the Rudes have remounted “Tesla,” its homage to the misunderstood though now popularly mythologized inventor — the Croatian-born scientist and futurist who patented the first alternating current induction motor.

Equal parts exuberant and melancholic, “Requiem for Tesla” represents the type of original theatrical collage the Rudes so deftly generate. And this current iteration builds on the play’s premiere in 2001 and its significant reinvention 2003.

The ever restless Rudes, after all, never leave well enough alone. And the audience so roundly benefits from artists who consider, then deeply reconsider their own work.

This “Tesla,” directed by Shawn Sides, feels every moment a heartfelt valentine to scientific and artistic ingenuity.

"Requiem for Tesla," created by Rude Mechs. Left to righ: Robert S. Fisher, Lana Lesley, Hayley Armstrong. Photo by Bret Brookshire
“Requiem for Tesla,” created by Rude Mechs. Left to righ: Robert S. Fisher, Lana Lesley, Hayley Armstrong. Photo by Bret Brookshire

Kirk Lynn’s dense yet swfit-moving script — poetic, colloquial, clever —  makes as much of Tesla’s scientific accomplishments as the man’s many psychological oddities. And Tesla’s oddities were legion. He loved pigeons, was scared of germs, the dark and round objects; and was obsessed with the number three. He claimed to have visions. He was asocial. (The info-stuffed program on all things Tesla is a whimsical written wonder unto itself.)

Tesla’s peculiarities added to the mad-scientist characterizations he suffered in pop culture in his lifetime. And the Rudes cleverly spin the vintage horror-film trope.

Stephen Pruitt’ atmospheric set, augmented with Michael Mergen’s video design, offers a stage, dark and dusty-seeming, filled with an assemblage of vintage electrical equipment and light bulbs, a resplendent old cord switchboard and a giant Tesla coils that spews a live bolt.

Matthew Frazier plays Tesla with a combination of earnestness that enhances a portrait of Tesla as something of a benign, if weird, genius. (Tesla dreamed of free wireless electricity for all.)

 Requiem for Tesla 2016 created by Rude Mechs featured l to r: Lana Lesley, Matt Frazier, Hayley Armstrong photo by Bret Brookshire

‘Requiem for Tesla’ 2016. Matthew Frazier as Tesla (center) with
Hayley Armstrong and Lana Lesley. Photo by Bret Brookshire.

Michael Kranes, Tesla’s assistant, skitters around Igor-like. Graham Reynolds performs his score live, a kaleidescope of a movie-house organ, maddening percussion on a metal can, melancholic solo piano and the eerie theremin sounds played by Blair Bovberg.

Lana Lesley and Hayley Armstrong deftly play bifurcated roles, each part minor female character and then as villain industrialists George Westinghouse and J.P. Morgan, respectively, who think nothing of cheating Tesla out of his profits, and patents.

The conceit of a bifurcated character shines with Robert S. Fisher who reprises his role as both Tesla’s good friend Mark Twain and arch enemy Thomas Edison fused into one body. Artfully costumed down the middle (designer Leslie Bonnell and her sartorial creativity in spades), Fisher is on one side a white-haired white-suited Twain. On the other side, Edison in all black.

Indeed it’s that willingness on the part of the Rudes to run with disparate sensibilities — or sometime ridiculous impulses (half-friend, half-enemy in one actor? really?) — that’s resulted in such compelling, daring, original theater.

"Requiem for Tesla," 2016. Created by Rude Mechs, Left to right: Hayley Armstrong, Lana Lesley, MIchael Kranes and Matt Frazier as Tesla. Photo by Bret Brookshire.
“Requiem for Tesla,” 2016. Created by Rude Mechs, Left to right: Hayley Armstrong, Lana Lesley, MIchael Kranes and Matt Frazier as Tesla. Photo by Bret Brookshire.

Theater review: ‘Baskerville, A Sherlock Holmes Mystery’ is elementary fun

By Andrew J. Friedenthal, American-Statesman freelance arts critic

Although I am by no means a Sherlock Holmes expert, my father is a devoted Baker Street Irregular. As such, I have been exposed to more than a few variations on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s consulting detective over the years. Ken Ludwig’s play, ‘Baskerville, A Sherlock Holmes Mystery’ (playing at Austin Playhouse through Dec. 18th), is by far the silliest.

Ludwig is a renowned, award-winning playwright with a long history of hit comedies on and off Broadway, including ‘Lend Me a Tenor’ and ‘Crazy For You.’ His oeuvre includes a wide variety of adaptations of literary classics. With ‘Baskerville,’ first produced in 2015, he has turned to Sherlock Holmes, which proves to be an interesting choice for him.

The serious plots and sardonic humor of Doyle are somewhat incongruous with the madcap antics that are Ludwig’s stock-in-trade. As such, there seems to be two plays going on at the same time; the relatively serious investigation by Sherlock Holmes and sidekick Dr. John Watson into a mysterious murder, alongside three other actors who comically encompass several dozen other characters throughout the course of the show’s two acts. The two tones never quite meld, and the text doesn’t ever really decide what it wants to be.

Austin Playhouse’s production of ‘Baskerville’ does its level best to make sense of this muddled play, and they succeed admirably in creating a fun, atmospheric piece of comedy/mystery. Director Don Toner keeps the show moving at a rapid clip, shifting from location to location and rotating the three multi-role actors on and off the stage in fanciful ways (although some of those scene change demands do unfortunately require long blackout pauses).

The three actors in question—Stephen Mercantile, Zac Thomas, and Marie Rose Fahlgren (labeled in the program as “Actor One,” “Actor Two,” and “Actor Three,” respectively)—do a wonderful job metamorphosing from character to character, even though the text demands most of those characters act as overly broad stereotypes with a variety of funny accents. They make the most out of the humor, and their performances are delightful to watch.

Holmes and Watson—played by Jason Newman and J. Ben Wolfe, respectively—are much more subdued and realistic, carrying the momentum of the plot. Wolfe’s Watson is charming, smart, and capable, belying the inept bumbler that Doyle adaptations often cast him as. Newman, as Holmes, is a study in contrasts; cold and businesslike to most, but warm, gentle, and even funny with Watson. Their interaction is the highlight of the production, though they ultimately share surprisingly few scenes together.

Ludwig’s ‘Baskerville, A Sherlock Holmes Mystery’ is somewhat like a light version of a Mel Brooks parody (indeed, multiple jokes appear directly stolen from Brooks’ films) that doesn’t fully commit to being full satire. Austin Playhouse’s production, though, manages to emphasize the humanity of the main characters to create an amusing diversion that taps into the more humorous side of Sherlock Holmes.

461 - Zac Thomas, Marie Fahlgren and Stephen Mercantel. Photo by Jess Hughes.
461 – Zac Thomas, Marie Fahlgren and Stephen Mercantel. Photo by Jess Hughes.

Blanton Museum announces major initiative in Spanish Colonial art

The Blanton Museum of Art announced Wednesday that thanks to a major gift from a private foundation the University of Texas museum will significantly expand its focus to include Spanish Colonial art.

A donation from the Chicago-based Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation will fund a full-time curators position devoted to Spanish Colonial art. And a long-term long agreement will see the Blanton receive many Spanish Colonial paintings from the Thoma Foundation’s collection.

The Thoma Collection paintings span the 17th-century to the 19th-century and were created in Latin America by both indigenous artists and Spanish colonists.

Additionally, the donation brings funds to support research grants and other scholarly programs that will be collaboratively administered between UT’s  Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies and the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection.

Two galleries will be dedicated to art from the Spanish Americas when the Blanton’s unveils the reinstallation of its permanent collection in Feb. marking the first time that the Blanton will have permanent gallery space dedicated to Spanish colonial art, including paintings from the Thoma Collection.

Related: Blanton set to reconfigure its permanent galleries

The initiative represents a major expansion of the Blanton’s scholarly focus.

While the Blanton has long been regarded internationally for its modern and contemporary Latin American collection, it has not had the resources to include collection materials of earlier eras of art from the Americas.

In 1963, decades before most North American or European museums considered Latin American art to be anything beyond folk art, UT’s Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery — predecessor to the Blanton —  initiated collecting in the field.

By 1988, the Blanton had become the first museum in the United States to establish a curatorial position devoted solely to Latin American art. For many years, the museum’s collection stood as one of the foremost of its kind outside Latin America, and UT built a strong art history program in tandem.

Related: Donation rewards Blanton dedication to Latin American art

In a statement Blanton director Simone Wicha said: “We are thrilled to share these beautiful and impactful works of art from the Thoma Collection with UT and the community. I am deeply grateful to Carl and Marilynn Thoma for this transformative gift and the loan of works from their collection.”

The Blanton has appointed Rosario I. Granados, a curator and lecturer in the field of Spanish colonial art and religious material culture, the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Associate Curator of Spanish Colonial Art. Granados has taught extensively on material culture, art, gender, and religion in Latin America, and has recently held positions at Skidmore College, the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Chicago, and the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas

The partnership between the Blanton and the Thoma Foundation dates to 2008 when the museum exhibited  The Virgin, Saints, and Angels: South American Paintings 1600—1825 from the Thoma Collection, organized by the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. In 2014, the Blanton organized Re-Envisioning the Virgin Mary: Colonial Painting from South America, an installation of Spanish colonial paintings featuring works from the Thoma Collection.

Related: Blanton Museum exhibit focuses on South American Colonial painting

"Our Lady of Pomata, " Cuzco, Perú. The Marilynn and Carl Thoma Collection, 2003.04 From the exhibit "Re-envisioning the Virgin Mary: Colonial Painting from South Americam" at the Blanton Museum of Art
“Our Lady of Pomata, ” Cuzco, Perú. The Marilynn and Carl Thoma Collection. From the exhibit “Re-envisioning the Virgin Mary: Colonial Painting from South Americam” at the Blanton Museum of Art

Sarah Silverman brings show to Austin Jan. 22

Two-time Emmy Awar-winning comedienne Sarah Silverman brings her stand-up show to Austin Jan. 22.

Silverman will perform a 8 p.m. show at UT’s Bass Concert Hall.

Tickets go sale Friday, Dec. 2. at 10 a.m.

But there’s a pre-sale starting 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.  Use the code: FUNNY

Silverman will next be seen in both The Book of Henry and Battle of the Sexes, both of which are set for release next year. She also continues to lend her voice to the Emmy-nominated Fox animated series Bob’s Burgers and has a recurring role on the Golden Globe-nominated Showtime series Masters of Sex. Additionally, she is a part of JASH, a comedy collective on YouTube featuring original content by Silverman and friends Michael Cera, Tim & Eric, and Reggie Watts.


Choreographer Yacov Sharir donates archive to UT fine art library

Choreographer and longtime faculty member Yacov Sharir has donated his archive to the Fine Arts Library at the University of Texas, library officials announced Wednesday.

Sharir has been on the UT faculty for nearly 40 years.

His archive consists of video documentation of hundreds of dances between 1977 and 2015, as well as paper documentation (programs, photographs, press clippings, etc.) of the work of the American Deaf Dance Company, the Sharir Dance Company and Sharir+Bustamante Danceworks.

As a choreographer and teacher, Sharir has pioneered the use of new technologies, including virtual reality, intelligent fabrics and interactive systems in performance.

Sharir moved to Austin in 1978 where he founded the American Deaf Dance Company.

He was shortly thereafter invited to teach at UT where he developed a well-regarded university dance program. He founded UT’s professional company-in-residence, the Sharir Dance Company, in 1982, which became Sharir+Bustamante Danceworks (SBDW) in 1998, acknowledging José Luis Bustamante as co-artistic director.

Among the companies Sharir performed with in his career are the Batsheva Dance Company, the Israeli Ballet Company, Kibbutz Dance Company, the Stuttgart Ballet, and the Ballet-Théâtre Contemporain in Paris. His choreography has been performed for more than 70 dance companies around the world.

Read an interview with Katie Van Winkle, the research assistant on the Sharir archive project:


Choreographer: Yacov Sharir Composer/Sound Design: Bruce Pennycook Visuals: Joao Beira / Rodrigo Carvalho Costume Design: Kelsey Vidic
“Ad Mortus.” Choreographer: Yacov Sharir Composer/Sound Design: Bruce Pennycook Visuals: Joao Beira / Rodrigo Carvalho Costume Design: Kelsey Vidic