David Austen

Dec 14, 2018 4:01PM

At the Thresholdby JOHN YAU

David Austen works in many different mediums: oil painting, watercolor, gouache, drawing, etching, collage, sculpture, photography, and film. He writes his own film scripts, as well as prose pieces inspired by his dreams. His engagements with oil paint, watercolor and gouache forge an unmistakable bond between the material and the process, which in turn has given rise to a discrete, medium-based constellation of subjects. The figures we see in the watercolors never appear in the oil paintings because the process by which they are made is integral to one medium and not the other. Additionally, in the oil paintings, Austen has made representational and abstract works without signaling a preference. He is the only artist I can think of whose works on canvas and paper are traditional in terms of medium but are atomized in terms of subject.

When making his oil paintings, Austen uses small brushes to apply the paint dryly and evenly on the rough surface of his flax canvas support, which ranges in scale from intimate to quite large. Since Austen does not try to fill all the crevices exposed by the thick weave, flecks of canvas peek through the paint. The flax canvas’s permeable surface suffuses the painting with vulnerability, while the evenness of the paint application adds a matter-of-fact coolness to the work. Nothing is rushed or forced. The process is methodical and open-ended. The same patient application of a narrow, dry brush is evident in both the small and large paintings. I have the sense that Austen’s works do not happen quickly, and that he often lays out what he is going to paint before he begins. We never lose sight that we are looking at a thing and not an image.

A number of paintings feel both complete and inexplicable, like something remembered from a dream. I am thinking of Tree and Hearts (2006), a large canvas depicting a leafless tree under a starless night, with six simple red hearts attached by strings to its bare branches. The color is flatly applied and the space is impenetrable, while the skin of the painting is porous. What happened, we might ask, to the other hearts, which must have been attached to the ten empty strings still dangling from the branches? Austen has done other paintings of leafless trees at night, such as Tree and Stars (2015), but they do not form a series.

In the intimately scaled Untitled (Janus object) (2017), the artist has painted the continuous, unhurried contour of a bottle capped by an eponymous Janus-headed stopper, two profiles facing in opposite directions. The image is arresting and mysterious. The work is a drawing in paint, a line slowly winding its way around the canvas. In another intimately scaled painting, the abstract Untitled (after Paul Nash) (2017), Austen has stacked, from top to bottom, two different groups of narrowing and widening bands of color edged by black lines.

While the artist used the same technique to make the three paintings I have briefly described, the subject matter of each is very different from the others. This small sample of his work becomes more complicated when we add the paintings that are made up solely of words and phrases, for they constitute a particular territory within Austen’s explorations.

There is nothing in the oil paintings that broadcasts how long it took for the artist to make them: he does not call attention to the labor. Rather, we see a porous surface made of dry, matte color. It is almost as if he were using a crayon of some kind on a tough, scruffy skin, akin in that regard to the grained paper that Georges Seurat used in his Conté crayon drawings, or the rough-toothed paper that Richard Artschwager used in the pastels he made during the last years of his life. The amount of pressure applied while rubbing one thing against another becomes part of the meaning.

In the watercolors, Austen completes a work in one shot while standing at a table holding a loaded brush. He does not revise or go over the figure. The image is either what he is after or it is eventually discarded, a failure. Often the figure or figures are situated in the middle of the sheet. They are likely to be naked but not always. When Austen depicts two figures, their bodies are almost always touching each other, forming a single unit or stain of colored water.

If there is a break between the two figures, as in a watercolor of a naked woman holding a naked child’s hand, the break comes at the gap between the child’s shoulder and arm, which invites all kinds of readings. If you are reminded of mannequins and detachable limbs, as I was, you also realize that there are many contradictory ways to interpret the work. Clearly, Austen is as attentive to the space between the figures as to the figures themselves. Done on square sheets of paper (an abstract domain rather than one we might associate with the landscape or the portrait), the figures do not dominate the space so much as exist in it. Like silhouettes, they name themselves.

The mother and child both come from the initial puddle of watercolor that the artist sets down on the paper and begins spreading around with his brush. This way of working seems true of all the watercolors. We see bellies sag; male genitals droop; and breasts stick out, like bumpers on a big American sedan from the 1950s.

We see a nude male figure with a dangling penis and horns. According to the work’s title, Little red devil (2011), he is the devil, but one who seems less powerful than we might have expected. Am I wrong in thinking that Austen’s red devil is only as strong as the material from which he is made?

The figures are frozen in place, like a film still – a moment from a narrative whose beginning and ending elude us. They are in the midst of a drama unfolding on a bare stage (the otherwise empty sheet of paper). Their bodies perform a voiceless monologue or, if there are two figures, a silent dialogue.

Everything must be gleaned from how Austen positions the body (or bodies) in space. They can be perplexed, upset, angry, fretful, unhappy, embarrassed, frightened, bereft, dispirited, or resigned. Using what amounts to less than teaspoon of colored water, Austen can articulate a figure that is simultaneously comical and – when this is his goal – excruciatingly deflated. From animalistic sexual encounters to states of isolated despair to tender embraces, the variety of emotional states and interactions he has depicted over the years is astonishing.

What looks easy is really an understated tour de force. Applying a few drops of the medium to the paper demands that Austen choreograph the relationship between organization and dissipation until it arrives at the state he wants. Every move and application of pressure is crucial. Once you recognize the degree of subtlety that he is able to achieve with a small amount of watercolor, you become aware of Austen’s concentrated receptivity to the different ways the individual’s body inhabits space as well as relays his or her inner state of being. No matter what they are doing, the figures embody vulnerability, which is conveyed by the medium itself. They are stains and smudges, after all.

I think it is hard not to see a connection between the spreading watercolor and the slumping flesh, that all of us are nothing more than a vulnerable blot. Our awareness of time passing as it pulls us toward chaos — the body’s continuous state of aging — inflects our experience of Austen’s watercolors. He can unerringly home in on private moments of embarrassment. He seems to understand a lot about feeling humiliated, inaccessible, and lonely. The notes of humor sprinkled into the mix help convey a tenderness and sympathy on the artist’s part.

If Austen’s figurative oil paintings and watercolors seem to be the work of two different artists, this impression will become even more complicated once you have taken into account his word paintings; watched his films Smoking Moon (2006) and End of Love (2010); pondered his gouaches; seen his collages; and read his writing. I am not sure how many distinct artists inhabit the one known as David Austen, but I am convinced it is far more than two, and that a whole host of others may emerge as time passes. He is simultaneously polymorphic and singular, a rare combination even in our postmodern world.

Like the poet Walt Whitman, Austen seems to have embraced multitudes, for what comes through all of his work is a feeling of empathy for his nameless figures and dramatic characters, no matter how reprehensible or repulsive we might find them.

Despite the different mediums and kinds of work that Austen makes, the world they evoke is one that I associate with the stripped down realities found in hardboiled and noir fiction, experimental theater and the plays of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Sam Shepard, as well as vaudeville and stand-up comedy. It is a nighttime world that is close to dreams. Dominated by isolated acts, private interactions, and monologues, it is a netherworld where the loss of control is inescapable.

There is something both particular and elusive about Austen’s nighttime world. What do I mean by this? Let’s begin with a small oil painting, which measures twelve by ten inches and is dated 2017. Its title is Moon (a forgotten lamp in the room of the dead). The image is palpable, stark, and direct. A large, pallid circle floats about a third of the way down the central axis of the canvas, which has been painted black. Neither an abstraction nor a representation, the wan disk is a sign of the moon, which is surrounded by a rough-grained black ground. Austen’s tactile night sky is not solidly black; bits of canvas are visible, an insistent field of tiny interruptions, a visual buzz that reminds us of the painting’s physical status.

Doesn’t my description of the placement of the circle sound like a lot of other paintings of the full moon, both famous and unknown? And yet, despite the familiar location of a familiar image, the painting is not like any I have seen before, which is uncanny. The realm that Austen has established for himself and his work is stripped down to the barest element: a full moon in a starless night sky.

While this subject would likely become a cliché in another artist’s hands, it doesn’t become one with Austen. He has applied dry paint to the rough weave with small brushes. The surface is never smooth, and the sky’s skin is rough and dry, which, among other things, might indicate the character of the denizens occupying this sunless domain.

The sensation of encountering a stripped-down world is true of all of Austen’s work, no matter what the medium. And yet, for all the bleakness his paring away might signal, the work is infused with a range of nuances of all kinds. There are the awkward gestures of the naked figures populating his watercolors, the discomfort they feel inhabiting their bodies, as evidenced by the way they look at themselves without the aid of a mirror. There are the moments of tenderness embodied by the bonding of two bodies into a single form, and there is the implied remoteness expressed by two figures having sex without looking at each other. It is a world where everyone is at least partially exposed, both literally and figuratively.

On the other end of the spectrum, the twelve characters — including a cyclops, a dandy, an imprisoned woman, and a trapeze artist — in his film End of Love, which takes place on the stage of a London theater, deliver monologues full of extreme pronouncements, often repeated to build to a fugue-like intensity. Words pour out, like crashing waves. The stage is a physically dark space and the language is both mundane and outrageous, registering the speaker’s feelings of exclusion, of being cut off from other humans. In their extreme isolation, they inhabit a death-like state in which they cannot escape their torment.

It is a place where an elderly Jack the Giant Killer lives full of bitterness and regret, having long ago killed the Giant, who was the first person to show him kindness. Bare-chested, we see the tattoo on his arm depicting a humanoid rabbit standing on its hind legs. In Austen’s domain, it feels natural to accept incongruities of this sort. His attention to the dramatic monologue is rare among contemporary artists. Only someone who has internalized a lot of theater, film, and other spoken arts could have written these speeches.

A Dark Angel stares straight head, beginning nearly every statement with “I doubt…” Another character known as the Fat Man – a possible reference to the smooth-talking Kasper “The Fatman” Gutman played by Sydney Greenstreet in the classic noir film, The Maltese Falcon (1941), starring Humphrey Bogart – stands on the stage, repeating the phrase, “but love never found me,” prefacing each iteration with a contempt-filled reproach about a dubious accomplishment. Self-loathing, bitterness, pathos, smarminess, and fear are rolled into a braggadocio’s rhythmic solo. His monologue turns self-disgust into lyric flights, at once magnetic and disconcerting.

Before I read its title (and parenthetical subtitle), I stood before Austen’s Moon (a forgotten lamp in the room of the dead) and I found myself drawn closer and closer to its rough-grained surface, enthralled and wondering: how can this be possible?

It was when I learned the name of the painting, that something clicked: it became clear that in work after work, Austen’s purgatorial urban underworld is presided over by something omnipresent and forbidding – a full moon that has become “a forgotten lamp in the room of the dead”. It is a place where emotions are either extreme and overheated, or cold and in need of an autopsy.

Curious about the moon painting’s title, I wrote to Austen, who told me that the line comes from Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). Soon, we began exchanging emails about various authors we had read, TV shows we had watched, and movies we had seen, discovering in the back and forth a lot of shared interests and enthusiasms.

One poet we have both read is Frank Stanford, dubbed by fellow poet Lorenzo Thomas as “a swamprat Rimbaud”. Stanford, who, in 1978, committed suicide at the age of twenty-nine in Fayetteville, Arkansas, was incredibly prolific during his short life. What About This: The Collected Poems of Frank Stanford (2015) is nearly 800 pages long.

In a gouache made up of rows of awkward red circles woozily pressed together, Austen has included a phrase from Stanford. Austen types the text out on a sheet of paper using an old Remington Rand typewriter. Typed in capital letters and visible between two rows of circles near the paper’s bottom edge, the phrase reads: BLOOD CAME OUT LIKE HOT SODA.

It seems to me that what caught Austen’s attention is the incongruity of Stanford’s line. On one hand, it announces that someone is bleeding, which is cause for alarm. On the other hand, it describes the flow of blood almost comically, as spurting out like “hot soda,” which prompts the reader to ask: what does that mean? Stanford’s line makes emotional sense, even if we cannot explain it. More importantly, it evokes a complex collision of feelings, including pain, humor, and surprise. It describes images that seem impossible to reconcile. How do you collapse together blood and hot soda or, for that matter, the moon and a mortuary lamp?

Austen seems provoked by language that embodies a perceptual impossibility: something that is both concrete and invisible. Are the rows of red circles supposed to be read as large red drops of blood, or of hot soda? Their orderliness contradicts Stanford’s poetry. We cannot overcome the gap between the words and the picture, reminding us of the distance between verbal and visual images. By pairing inscrutable imagery with ambiguous language, Austen exacerbates the separation between them and stirs up complex, contradictory feelings.

The phrases that Austen incorporates into his work are as pared down as his images. In one gouache, whose title reflects the date it was made, 23.8.17 (2017), we find another line derived from Stanford: WHERE THE MOON SAYS I LOVE YOU, typed onto the paper, which the artist has carefully painted from top to bottom in black gouache, leaving the white of the paper as a space around the words, arriving at a light-sucking matte ground. The line seems to refer to an emotionally loaded state of mind, rather than an actual place. What is this nighttime domain, where the moon declares its love for you?

In the large word painting Animal at Night (2010), the title fills the canvas in pale gray letters against a black ground. The rough surface in tandem with the black and gray bring to mind grainy black-and-white movies from the 1940s and ’50s, the age of film noir. At the same time, the canvas’s visible weave evokes a porous skin, sensitive and open to the world.

What is the context in which these words exist? Is it an evocation of the change a lover undergoes at night? Is it of the terror lurking in an urban environment or prowling a rural one? Austen’s haunting phrase is singular rather than plural. The act of reading it lures us into a consideration of all the ways it can be read, all the meanings that can be applied, and in that sense, we become the author.

What about the word painting, City of Love and Fear (2009)? In contrast to Animal at Night, the letters of the painting’s title are done in different shades of blue, yellow, red, green, violet, and orange (the spectrum). The jauntiness of Austen’s palette invites a number of different readings, with none dominating. Using language that is seemingly reportorial, Austen hints at the chaos roiling just beneath whatever face we present to the world.

This is the paradox running through his art. The realm his works summon is self-contained and open, complete and cellular. There is the porous and smudged stain made by the watercolor, or the weave of the canvas faintly showing through the oil paint. There are the lines made by leaving the space unpainted by the gouache, and these unpainted slit-like spaces undulating across the surface are like the fine lines of a web. There are the aggrieved expressions of the characters in his films as they talk to us and to themselves, unable to control what spills out of their mouths. The paintings of stars seem to be about shaping our passage through time, even as we recognize the pitfalls of aestheticizing experience: to view the star-filled Ocean (2018) as a commentary on abstraction and representation is to miss the deeper beauty it possesses.

No matter how disturbing the vein of human behavior he addresses, Austen’s work is full of longing, wonder, compassion, and a stubborn faith in art’s redemptive power. His art is about the most difficult of subjects: being human and all the fear, terror and desire we find ourselves being haunted by, succumbing to, accommodating ourselves to, or trying to ignore.