With the announcement last month that the Contemporary Austin had netted a $9 million award from Dallas’ Marcus Foundation, the museum has solidified its plans to re-imagine its 12-acre lakeside site known as Laguna Gloria as a sculpture park.
The Laguna Gloria site is ripe for artistic re-discovery — especially since the museum had been artistically adrift after a merger of Arthouse and the Austin Museum of Art in 2011.
Its historic Italianate villa, its mix of formal gardens and semi-wild grounds, its lagoon, waterside trails and picturesque peninsula — all form an uncommon aesthetic palette, a blank canvas so to speak, primed for today’s forward-thinking multi-disciplinary artists.
And nevermind the forgettable chunky abstractions made of steel or stone that stand for sculpture in many a landscape and forget even the untouchable minimalist masterpieces that mark the West Texas town of Marfa.
What a 21st century sculpture park in Austin can look like is suggested by the debut of solo projects by Liam Gillick and Marianne Vitale, who have created site-responsive work.
Both New York-based artists (but chiefly Gillick) come from a contemporary school that has for the past several decades tried to upend the conventional museum experience. Instead of the traditional passive admiring of precious art objects, such artists offer a kind of social sculpture — structures or installations that invite some measure of participation.
Ultimately, art like Gillick’s and Vitale’s hopes to nudge art-goers away from their passive viewing habits and urges people to re-sensitize themselves to their surroundings and — perhaps most importantly — to each other.
Gillick’s pavilion-like “Raised Laguna Discussion Platform (Job #1073)” occupies a prime place at Laguna Gloria — the base of the stairs that lead down from the historic Driscoll Villa to the lakeside.
Made of powder-coated steel, the piece is a familiar form — a white pergola-like rectangle with brightly colored rafters.
Its design bears a similarity to sleek, classic international modernist architecture, and it makes a terrific stylistic contrast with the ornamental Italianate villa just up the hill.
As a simple shelter, it’s also a contemporary, abstract stand-in for the iconic tribal tent of so many world cultures.
“Raised Laguna Discussion Platform” also frames stunning views of Lake Austin, newly revealed after years of being hidden by overgrowth. (The Contemporary is undertaking a site improvement and environmental preservation project of the Laguna Gloria grounds that includes abating invasive plants species.)
On a recent sunny weekend afternoon, a couple and their dog stood in the shade of the colorful pavilion, transfixed by all the boats and water traffic on the lake. Other visitors simply strolled by.
Down a path and through a wooded stretch stands Vitale’s magnificent “Common Crossings.”
With only a little though profound revisioning, Vitale took nine statuesque railroad common crossings — 1,000-pound solid steel components that are the switches (also known as frogs) responsible for changing the direction of trains — and placed them upright in a neat grid in the Laguna meadow.
The form, line and detail of the crossings make them ready-made sculptural works, and Vitale did virtually nothing to alter them. And yet they stand like totems in the meadow — a Stonehenge of discarded, rusted tokens of America’s industrial history casting ever-changing shadows on the ground.
As part of its new exhibit plan, museum leaders have said that its new program will link what happens at Laguna Gloria with its Congress Avenue exhibit space, the Jones Center.
For her part, Vitale fills the Jones Center’s second-floor gallery with a monumental sculpture — “Burned Bridge Junction (Congress)” — two wooden bridges that intersect in cross-wise fashion.
Again using hefty materials, Vitale constructed the bridges from sturdy-looking lumber. But then she charred the lumber in a manner similar to the Japanese shou-sugi-ban wood finishing technique. In Vitale’s hands, though, the charred bridges look like the haunting remains of traditional bridges that once dotted the American landscape, the burned bridges just vestiges of once noble parts of the transportation infrastructure.
Gillick offers a 23-minute film at the Jones Center: “Margin Time 2: The Heavenly Lagoon.”
The film’s visuals convey some interest: There’s footage of the Laguna Gloria’s grounds, boats passing on the lake and an interesting upside view of the journey shot from a truck’s dashboard on the drive from the lakeside site to downtown, the big blue Texas sky rolling by lagoon-like.
But the film’s deliberately dislocated soundtrack is a self-consciously obtuse cloud of Gillick’s typically muscular theorizing, the voiceovers, chiefly in untranslated French, leaving it all too precious. An additional ambient soundtrack of sounds recorded at Laguna Gloria plays in Jones Center’s foyer to rather inconsequential effect.
The conversation-craving Austin audience loves to constantly engage with its cultural institutions in casual yet public discussion.
There’s one ticketed picnic event planned for Laguna Gloria this fall and a wine-tasting fundraiser, but the Contemporary currently offers few opportunities for any direct dialogue about its exhibitions, staving off an opportunity for community engagement and feedback.
But there are none of even the most basic types of museum educational programming — the staff or docent-led exhibit tours that nevertheless prove insanely popular at other area institutions.
At 7 p.m. Tuesday, the museum will host a free public lecture at the Jones Center with the director of the University of California-San Diego’s public art program who will be discussing that institution’s long history of commissioning outdoor sculpture.
Still, without multiple, accessible and varied invitations to discuss the art it exhibits, the museum runs the risk of leaving a larger public adrift.
Nevertheless, under new director Louis Grachos, the Contemporary has ambitiously and quickly launched a bold artistic plan. Decisively embracing Laguna Gloria as a nexus for the art it presents already portends much promise.
Liam Gillick and Marianne Vitale
When: Through Jan. 5, 2014
Where: Contemporary Austin, Laguna Gloria, 3809 W. 35th St. and Jones Center, 700 Congress Ave.
Cost: $3-$5 (free on Tuesdays)
Information: 512-453-5312, www.thecontemporaryaustin.org