Van Ryzin: Umlauf Prize winner Adam Crosson’s “Intermodal” installation

A battered pale green shipping container sits out in front of the graciously landscaped entrance to the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum, its ridged metal surface pocked with patches of rust and gouged with scratches, enigmatic codes of numbers and letters dotting the door panels.

“Probably, people think the museum is using it for storage,” says Adam Crosson, shrugging. “Most people at the opening walked right by it.”

Crosson, 31, is the winner of the 2014 Umlauf Prize, an annual award the museum gives to a University of Texas graduate student in sculpture.

The prize comes with a $500 award and a solo exhibit at the Umlauf. Crosson’s exhibit, “Intermodal,” opened last week and continues through Oct. 19.

The Umlauf Prize was started by the late sculptor and museum board member Damian Priour, also a UT alum, as a gesture to continue the legacy of Charles Umlauf, who taught sculpture at UT for 40 years, from 1941 to 1981, and whose sculptures dot the four-acre garden. One of Priour’s sculptures joins Umlauf’s in the garden on permanent display.

The juror for this year’s prize was Suzanne Deal Booth, an Austin philanthropist and art collector.

“Intermodal” starts with “Untitled (Room for Freight)” the rented shipping container in which Crosson has installed two assemblages both made of off-the-shelf materials — fluorescent bulbs, fans, electrical wire — exactly the kind of products that travel in shipping containers from other parts of the world.

One assemblage, of circline fluorescent bulbs, is suspended at one end of the container, the half dozen differently sized tubes of light strung in a configuration that suggests a human form that’s about the same scale as Crosson himself — a deliberate gesture on the artist’s part, a way for him to symbolically inhabit the container, he suggests.

“I’m fascinated with shipping containers,” he says. “This one has been all over the world, I’m sure, but who knows where. And it’s haunted by everything that was once in it. Then there are the containers that fall off ships and disappear to the bottom of the ocean.”

Beyond their unpredictable (and unrevealed) travels, Crosson finds intrigue with the standardization and systematic uniformity that shipping containers — called intermodal freight transport in formal terms — necessitate. Goods we use everyday are designed to be packed efficiently. And other efficiency demands mean the metal containers are moved with mechanical equipment — cranes, hoists, etc. A widget made in China maybe not pass through human hands before it arrives in, say, Chicago, after traveling on ships and trains.

Aspects of transit and transportation ricochet through “Intermodal.”

Crosson hung the wing of a 1962 Cessna plane from the ceiling of the Umlauf pavilion, a conceptual nod to Umlauf’s own “Angel’s Wing” bronze piece elsewhere on the grounds — a 4-foot-long fragment of a much larger sculpture.

And among Umlauf’s expressionistic bronze and cast stone figures of animals and religious and mythological figures, Crosson placed four of his own sculptures, all cast concrete and steel.

One is cast from an airplane passenger seat, its puffy cushioned upholstery rendered impossibly uncomfortable in concrete.

The remaining three pieces — including “Untitled (Passenger II)” which is installed in the garden’s pond — resemble cross-sections and remnants of the enormous culverts that lace the infrastructure of so many urban and suburban areas.

Crosson is charmed by such infrastructure, the strength and beauty of the industrially-made giant circles, ellipses or box-like concrete forms — and fascinated by the way in which these enormous forms remain mostly hidden from view.

“These things are beautiful in their own way,” he says. “You don’t see them, but they perform a necessary function for us even if we don’t have a direct relationship to them.”

“It’s interesting to speculate what kind of fiction you can create with something that’s so familiar, so practical.”

A native of Arkansas whose father was a railroad engineer — “His job was all about transportation and travel,” Crosson says — Crosson received his bachelor’s degree in architecture at the University of Arkansas, intermittently working construction jobs along the way. A brief stint for an architectural firm in New Orleans after graduation did nothing but convince him the practice of architecture wasn’t his thing.

“I need to be physically involved with the making of things,” he says.

Crosson came to Austin last year for graduate school. In June he received the UT art department’s first fellowship to study in an exchange program with the Royal College of Art, where he’ll spend the rest of this semester. And this past summer he received a residency at the prestigious Vermont Studio Center.

At the Umlauf, Crosson’s showing is one of two temporary sculptural installations featured. Occupying the gallery and also scattered throughout the garden is Margo Sawyer’s multi-part “Reflect.” Sawyer is a longtime UT art faculty member, and Crosson has been one of her students.

Crosson says being asked to join in on a continuum of Austin-based sculptors — Umlauf, Priour, Sawyer — is flattering.

And there’s something about having his very conceptual sculptures embedded within the lush garden and amidst work by others that surprises him. “I’m finding new fictions in my work.”

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