As it prepares for what promises to be a memorable 25th anniversary in 2020, Artpace is thoughtfully looking back at its infancy — a period guided by its founder, the late artist, collector and philanthropist Linda Pace. Following in the same reflective vein as the 2018 group show “Then and Now,” which brought together works by local Artpace residency alumni Ken Little, Kathy Vargas, Constance Lowe and Ángel Rodríguez Díaz, the influential institution’s latest offerings turn back the clock to celebrate the work of two somewhat unsung artists whose connections to the organization extend back to the start of its residency program.
Installed in the street-level Main Space in an arrangement that’s sure to spark the curiosity of passersby, a capsule collection of pieces created by former San Antonio resident Elizabeth McGrath is anchored by Broken, a conceptual sculpture she created during her 1996 Artpace residency. Comprised of a weathered wooden chair enveloped in crocheted silk that stretches to the ceiling like a spider’s web, it’s flanked by unrelated but equally curious sculptures — an organic-looking object pieced together from found wood and Bondo putty, and a snakelike coil fashioned from what appears to be a stuffed floral bedsheet. Behaving almost as conversation prompts for anyone who happens upon them in Artpace’s Main Avenue windows, these odd experiments with materials hard and soft may suggest alternate streams of discourse when viewers learn that McGrath long ago shifted her professional focus from art to psychotherapy.
Delivering a poppier, punchier counterpoint to this blast from the past, the work of late Alamo City legend Alex de León lines walls and cases upstairs in Artpace’s Hudson Showroom. Like McGrath, de León represented San Antonio as an International Artist-in-Residence in 1996 and both participated in Artpace’s London Studio Program in 1995, but the similarities seem to end there — and this pairing of exhibitions makes no pretense of connection outside of space and time.
An Edinburg native who studied printmaking at Kansas City Art Institute, de León left bold marks on San Antonio from the 1980s until his passing in 2012. Although ceramics emerged as his strong suit and his signature style got pegged as folk art, he didn’t consider himself a ceramicist or a folk artist. In true pop fashion, his work often relied on the repetition of popular imagery and landed on local T-shirts and Hollywood film sets alike.
Assembled from a number of local collections, his new self-titled exhibition looks and feels like a tight retrospective for a pioneer of the San Antonio aesthetic. Beyond a playful, even cheery color palette that adorns everything from expertly rendered enamel paintings on steel to functional clay vessels and covetable shot glasses, de León’s pieces are tied together with a visual vocabulary punctuated by police cars, hearses, skulls, beer cans, cigarette packs and steaks on the grill. Although the subject matter is often immediately funny, the pieces’ titles paint a clearer picture of his sharp sense of humor: the 1995 painting Surprized Anything Gets Done As Much As He Drinks depicts a mess of tools, car parts and empty beer bottles scattered around a garage; and a classic pink convertible is parked amid a storm of cigarette butts, booze bottles, martini glasses and musical instruments in the 1997 ceramic bowl She Shoulda Tooka Cab.
While it may look like the odd man out, a small cardboard house perched in a corner is taken from the body of work that inspired Artpace Executive Director Riley Robinson to revisit de León’s work in a contemporary context. Taken from his 2004-era “Welcome Home Series,” the ramshackle sculpture was built from materials de León purchased from down-and-out individuals: signs emblazoned with pleas such as “Homeless and Hungry. Please Help If You Can,” “Mother of Three Struggling From Earlier Layoff. Need Help Please” and “Homeless Vet. Please Help. God Bless You.”
Free, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday through Dec. 29, Artpace, 445 N. Main Ave., (210) 212-4900, artpace.org.
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