Monday, February 7, 2011

Richard Saxton's Vernacular Landscapes

from The Research Archive; 5.5” x 8.5”

A number of recent posts have dealt with various concepts of "the vernacular" across the arts of poetry, music and photography; today I'd like to bring into the discussion a visual artist whose body of work is intimately concerned with both the aesthetic questions tied up in vernacular art and as well as the ways in which this kind of art can both challenge and sustain rural communities. 

Richard Saxton is an artist and educator based in Denver. He and his work has traveled across the country and across the world in an effort to present audiences with an art that is, in Mr. Saxton's words, "interdisciplinary, blurring the boundaries of social practice, sculpture, architecture, design, and image-based research." As with previous discussions of Chris Sauter and the rural avant-garde, what we see in much of Mr. Saxton's work is an aesthetic that is deeply contemporary--yet the visual style of these pieces is not an end in itself, not a distant, theoretical veneer.

Instead, when we encounter the "social practice" of this work we are placed on a surprising terrain, and our traditional notions of what it means to be an audience for a piece of art radically changes: a rural gas station, perhaps like one in our own community, is defamiliarized by way of Mr. Saxton's lens. With that spark of recognition, the gas station in the photograph and our  own local gas station, along with our perspective on that building and all the other structures surrounding it, is transformed. We begin to see these structures--physical and social--as works of art constantly in the process of being created. And we realize that all of us are a part of this composition.

In this respect, the term "vernacular art" seems to have many provocative parallels to what many of us would recognize in the folk tradition as how a song--by interacting with an audience--is altered, updated and made local, contemporary. Out of seemingly disparate materials, we're back at a point where the traditional and the modern have a great deal to share with each other.

This phenomenon is present across many of Mr. Saxton's projects. The image above is a representative from The Research Archive, a collection of over 500 photographs the artist has taken of unconventional or improvised architecture in rural America. "The archive is a celebration of freedom and autonomy in building," Mr. Saxton tells us, "and is a testament to chance, resourcefulness, simplicity, unpredictability, and everyday ingenuity."

Also housed on the artist's site is the Models and Drawings collection; these pieces "explore an interest in the poetics of the everyday vernacular landscape," and, in considering local materials and local conditions, they offer a glimpse into the artist's process of composition. In the two selections below, we see how figurative models are linked--through this vernacular, "in-process" quality--to abstract renderings:

It may not surprise folks who remember our previous coverage of The Rural Studio that Mr. Saxton served as an artist-in-residence at the Studio a few years ago. After that residency, Mr. Saxton joined in bringing a "rural renaissance" to the small town of York, Alabama. Here's the Birmingham Black and White reporting on his project:
sculptor Richard Saxton was busy renovating an old bank building to create studios and living quarters for two more artists-in-residence that The Coleman Center will support. He previously worked at [Samuel] Mockbee's Rural Studio and now directs The Municipal Workshop, described as a contemporary public art laboratory that works in conjunction with municipalities and communities to foster a more creative approach to living. One of their recent projects is Utility Now!, in which local artists work to solve the Department of Public Works' lack of transportation by redesigning old tricycles and bicycles to make them useful for routine city maintenance, yet aesthetically interesting.
The Municipal Workshop created public art projects with local communities from 2002-2007, and its work is thoroughly documented on the Workshop website. Their many creations range from a Music Integrated Kiosk Environment (MIKE) produced for the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin to the AutoTour Vehicle built for the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Wendover, Utah. This work led from the Workshop to the formation of the M12, a collective of artists doing some very exciting work in rural America, and beyond. We will conclude this week with a separate article on the M12, as their work deserves ample space.

Until then, we recommend returning to the fantastic Art Lies issue that considered the state of the contemporary arts in rural America; contained within is "Cool Pastoral Splendor," a collaboration between Richard Saxton and Kurt Wagner, a poet and the creative center of the band Lambchop.