Jeff Austin‘s studio is in the basement of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Columbus Drive building in a windowless high-ceilinged room, segmented into studios for the Advanced Sculpture students by plywood and metal shelving units. His studio is filled with a variety of materials – a stack of sticks, wooden frames, spools of string, plaster, random pieces of pipe standing in the corner, and scraps of rusty metal which protrude beyond the bounds of the cubicle-like studio space.
Jeff’s environment has a large influence on his practice. He spent most of his summer with his time split between urban and natural environments – traveling and camping and then coming back to the city to work construction and installation jobs. While a resident at ACRE, he developed a more intuitive approach to his work, utilizing materials he found around him, like branches, rocks, or pieces of scrap wood, while at the same time falling back on his systematic construction background. Since coming back into the city, he has continued working with found materials and his current work reflects his change in environment: his sculptures are now often made up of metal scraps that he finds around the city. His approach is to respond to whatever it is he’s working with. As he brings materials together, he creates systems and networks in which each found material plays an important part in maintaining the balance of the whole.
There is an inherent tension which runs through the systems that Jeff creates. On the floor to the right of my feet is a sculpture consisting of two large pieces of metal and an L-shaped pipe joined by plain cotton twine which crisscrosses and knots to hold it all together. The systems are precariously balanced, the found materials hold themselves together using the atmospheric power of gravity. Jeff shows us a video of him setting up one of his sculptures, the parts of which are lying on the floor of his studio. The video is less than three minutes long and in a series of simple steps, the piece has been erected and left suspended in the middle of the frame as the artist walks away. He is learning that the process of setting up these pieces is actually an important part of the work itself.
The materials that make up the sculptures are also rife with tension: in the tautness of string as it is stretched between metal objects as well as in its soft pliability contrasting to the cold hard material around which it is twinned. With environment being such an important aspect of the work, being consistently in an urban setting causes even more tension, both in material choices – the ingenuity in pairing natural elements with industrial objects – and within the artist himself. While he is finding subject matter in his surroundings, Jeff feels the city is stagnant and that he needs to find a way to work outside of the urban environment as well.
A less materially apparent tension soon comes up when Jeff states that recently, he has been wanting to create forms that have a more genuine sense of beauty. Behind him, a drawing is tacked to the wall with the words “BEAUTY IS OLD NEWS” written across it in chalk. He explains that this was the response from one his classmates when Jeff brought up the subject of beauty in a recent critique. This is a topic that has been on my mind since the beginning of the summer when my roommate declared that whatever it is, art “has to be beautiful.” Will beauty ever be irrelevant? We all agree that the sentiment is old news, the statement negates itself – if beauty was old news, we wouldn’t be talking about it. Rather than deterring Jeff from focusing on beauty, the comment has and pushed him to try harder to incorporate beauty in his sculptures, to find the balance in his work between both beauty and technical challenge.