When fishing, sometimes the fish bite and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you are left sitting there, without any acknowledgement from the fish at all. You wonder, are they all sleeping? Did I use the right bait? Because after all, fishing is about putting something tempting out there, something that will catch their attention, something they will keep coming back for. Buster Graybill’s Recreational Modernism, recently on exhibit at Sala Diaz in San Antonio, Texas, uses fishing, as well as mechanical references to attempt to figuratively reel in his viewers.
When I first met him, he was jokingly introduced as the handyman, and although I do tend to be gullible, I really did believe it at first. He wore boots, jeans, and a plain t-shirt. As I listened to him talk about growing up in Conroe, Texas, his country appearance made a lot more sense. The gallery itself is just a one-story white house with a rural feel, so he didn’t seem out of place. He spoke about how his own family and upbringing influenced his art. His grandfather always insisted on re-purposing materials they already had on hand rather than buying anything new to complete a job around the house. He explained how that ideal transferred into his work now, how he could look around at what he already had and choose to be inspired to create from those objects. As someone raised just a couple of hours from Conroe, and by a father that likes to fish, drive a truck, and work with metal, I was interested to experience this exhibition showcasing those elements. I have to say this show left me wanting more, just not in a positive way.
Once inside, Graybill’s art was in the middle of the floor as well as on the walls of the small rooms. A large, twisted mass of black material with bright accents sat on top of neon green crates and caught my eye quite instantly. At first it honestly had an extraterrestrial look about it. The colors paired with the black mass seemed alien in the whitewash around it. As I got closer to the work though, I realized I was all too familiar with the pieces that made it up. This black mass was actually a manufactured foam material that had been mechanically sprayed with bedliner, the material that coats and protects the bed of trucks. The small, bright objects of different shapes and colors that are stuck in bunches between the twists are fishing bobbers, the floating devices that allow one to see when a fish has been hooked on their line.
The walls hosted Graybill’s two-dimensional works, which unless you are familiar with sitting outside in fold-up chairs, seem like simple striped patterns in simple frames. To those like me, who grew up watching sports or such with tacky lawn chairs made of aluminum and webbed material straps though, it is an easy reference to spot. The straps were cut into small sections, some stripes going downwards and then perpendicularly meeting some going left to right, just like the webbing of the chairs when not cut apart. These pieces are turned into whole works, however, and framed as such. While it was impressive to see these chairs re-purposed into art, they were not necessarily transformed into anything spectacularly new.
A small hallway of the gallery held another work of Graybill’s showcasing his interest in mechanical work as recreation. From floor to ceiling, he stacked new, clean, red, car jacks on top of one another. The work is symmetrical from top to bottom, beginning and ending with the largest pieces. They make a diamond shape, with flat sections between, still possessing their handle to crank and raise or lower the vehicle. There are empty spaces in the diamond shapes as these are actually made of the base, or legs of the jack, which played nicely with negative space and gave more pattern and dimension to the sculpture.
A large part of what I felt was lacking in Graybill’s exhibition came from the last room. I immediately noticed the same materials from the first room being used over again, and although that itself is not unexpected or wrong to do, the way he used them left much to be desired. It was essentially the same works from the first room on top of crates or framed using different cuts of chair. However, one similar work did have a defining feature that separated it from the rest. The twists and turns were still decorated with bright orange, yellow, green, and red bobbers, but cutting through the back-middle, like a scarecrow on a post, was a double-sided rowing paddle. Straight from a kayak and fitting perfectly with the color scheme, black pole with bright orange paddles, it provided standing support and introduced new waters for navigating the art.
Although the term, “man’s man” seems insulting to those who prefer other interests, Graybill’s art seems to hit the nail on the head and exemplify the meaning of the term. If artwork did not seem like it could be manly in the past, clearly this exhibition could call that into question. This is the garage contents of an adventurer or camp counselor, all chewed up and spit back out into a gallery setting. Although the display seems to be lacking in diversity, some works looking like differently twisted versions of other works, they all do show off recreation quite well. It seems that if more types of recreation were included, more personal connections could be made from different viewers, but if Graybill was sticking to his own hobbies of vehicles and fishing then he stuck to them well. This was an art show for dads, brothers, and boyfriends, but the odds of selling this art to them is slim considering quite a few of them own the media themselves and use it for its purpose rather than its visual appeal. As much as I wanted to fall head-over-heels for an exhibition that glorified the rural recreation I, and many others, grew up with, this exhibition just did not do it the justice it deserved.