The Power of Black and White: An Understory of Texas Ink Artists

Ink, often called India Ink or Calligraphy Ink, is a medium whose use first originated in China for writing and printing. Today, however, it is used around the world by contemporary artists for drawing and painting with a focus on value. This fall, MASS Gallery in Austin, TX, presents a unique collection of Texas-based artists all working primarily in this medium. The diverse exhibition features a mixture of drawings, photography, collage, video, and even sculpture and installation that loosely share in common their influence from personal histories.

MASS is a fairly small space consisting of one large room with white walls and concrete floors. A cold, desolate feeling greets visitors as they enter through the large glass doors. An airy whir whistles in the background as indistinguishable voices from a nearby screen chatter over it.

The first thing one may see is the collection of objects hanging from what looks to be fishing line and curved hangers in the center of the room. It could be my biased affinity for 2D art, but my eyes quickly grazed over Alyssa Taylor Wendt’s sculpture despite its centered presence because of its lack of substance. The objects hanging from each line are small, perhaps too small to garner more attention than a quick pass. Various nonobjective metal and paper pieces levitate from above, slowing turning in the still air of the gallery. Each object is perhaps important to the artist’s background, but their randomness lacked connection for me. My eyes passed through them to the large ink paintings staring at me from the surrounding walls. These were what I had really come to see.

Trenton Doyle Hancock’s six works on paper hang framed on the left wall from the entrance. As an artist who used to use body doubles at his openings due to crippling social anxiety, it is no surprise that his artwork reflects a tension of human relations, providing viewers a look into his complicated perspective. The Hiking Trip is the largest piece, split into a diptych with a calendar-like wheel connecting them in the center. The painting feels religious in a way, with panels containing different narratives, some covered in text. The text is central to the images, providing Hancock’s very own narrative to scenes that are playing out. As a whole, the writing creates a single story that unifies all of the different scenes. The story is gruesome and eery with adult characters discussing the death of children and family members. The central ring is framed by human bodies in different stages of decay, circling around a blackhole-like center.

To some viewers, Hancock’s work may come off as dark and uninviting. It is obvious he does not concern himself with the uncomfortable state people may experience, instead encouraging it. Different from the rest of the work in the show, Trenton Doyle Hancock allows his psyche to express deep insecurities and concerns in the safe space of the paper. The strongest aspect is, of course, the unique use of ink, giving the painting a documentation-like feel that reads as old and historic.

Although I was not a fan of Wendt’s standalone sculpture, I appreciate the way in which Hollis Hammonds combined installation with her painting. The ink work is an image of the aftermath of a tornado, separated into multiple panels that create one picture as a whole. Titled Wasteland, the painting is of the devastating wreckage of a natural disaster that hit her hometown in Kentucky. Having spoken with the gallery’s co-owner, Jules Buck Jones, I was informed that it was done entirely with one brush despite all the different variations in mark-making and values. Not only is it done with ink, but is also on Yupo, a newer type of silky paper that is plastic based.

Dismantled chairs and wooden structures painted deep black mimic the black in the paintings. It spans the same length of the wall, and is a dense mass that sits about five feet in front of the paintings. Though I didn’t find anything artistically interesting about the objects, I appreciated the way in which they highlight the rich black of the ink. Table ends and chair stubs jut out at you as you move around the structure.

Lee Baxter Davis is the final artist in the show, also working in the medium of drawing and ink in a way that resembles Hancock. His imagery appears to stem from country life, featuring animals like horses, donkeys, antelopes, and jackrabbits alongside grimy human subjects. Old women weathered from a lifetime of tending to hard labor grimace at the animals in their company while some meet the gaze of the viewer. Burro Rock and Roll is the only Davis piece that is entirely void of color, instead built of values and textures in a way that shows the potential of ink as a painting medium. It looks like a drawing despite being water media. Unlike Hancock, the work appears to be less gruesome, providing a more innocent and real perspective into a particular lifestyle while still remaining dark in nature.

Understory, as a whole, is an intriguing show that does something rare for contemporary art. It is uncommon for artwork done in ink to be exclusively featured, which is what drew me to this show in the first place. While still being able to incorporate other mediums, it showed off what makes ink unique and powerful in painting as a re-appropriated writing tool. I think Understory could have done without the 3D aspects entirely and instead let the ink work standalone, though can appreciate the curators’ effort to be inclusive and diverse in their presentation of historical narratives. Other galleries, especially those run by water media artists like MASS, should look to this show as an example of the potential in providing a platform for this new medium.

Lauren Lerwick

WC: 998