Okay Mountain makes a big art-world splash

Okay Moutain makes a big art-world splash

By Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, austin 360.com

An enormous television made of wood dominates the small back gallery at the Austin Museum of Art. On its larger-than-life screen runs a 28-minute continuous video loop that resembles inveterate channel surfing. Snippets of footage flash by: low-budget infomercials, self-serious history programs, blundering local news reports, didactic educational cartoons, exploitative reality shows.

Titled ‘Water, Water Everywhere, So Let’s All Have a Drink,’ the video

Okay Mountain Collective members at work on "It's Going to Be Re- Everything," a 2008 installation at Paragraph Gallery in Kansas City.

installation is by Austin collective Okay Mountain. And like the other incessantly elaborate artwork the group creates, it’s equal parts handmade and high-tech, campy and endearing. It simultaneously pays an affectionate homage to pop culture and also satirizes our media-saturated zeitgeist.

After its Austin exhibit, “Water, Water” heads to New Orleans’ Prospect 1.5, a biennial of international contemporary art, and then to the Bradley University’s Heuser Art Center Gallery in Illinois.

The installation’s travels represent just the latest in a veritable blitz of national exposure for the group of 10 artists in the past year — the kind of buzz any emerging artist would dream of.

But the Okay Mountain Collective disrupts the conventional notions of what characterizes an artist, scrambling the boundaries between the individual and the group. In Okay Mountain’s case, a singular style has emerged from the creative minds of Sterling Allen, Tim Brown, Peat Duggins, Justin Goldwater, Nathan Green, Ryan Hennessee, Josh Rios, Carlos Rosales-Silva, Michael Sieben and Corkey Sinks.

The Okay Mountain Collective creates "Food Fight," a mural commissioned by Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Last month the collective exhibited its installation “Benefit Plate” at New York’s trendy Freight and Volume Gallery, picking up positive reviews from the typically temperamental critics of The New York Times and the Village Voice. Vanderbilt University commissioned a mural from the group in February, and in the same month, the collective created a sprawling immersive exhibition at Texas State University. Their projects have been exhibited in Mexico City and Kansas City, Mo., and next year are headed to San Antonio’s McNay Art Museum and the University of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum.

In December, the gang of 10 — who range in age from their late 20s to late 30s — made a huge splash at the Miami art fairs, arguably the contemporary arts world’s biggest, buzziest annual gathering in the United States. With a commission from Arthouse, the Austin-based contemporary arts center, the collective made “Corner Store,” an ersatz down-market convenience store completely stocked with artist-made versions of cheap products that were actually for sale. “Corner Store” netted the Pulse Miami Prize and the Viewer’s Choice Award, burning up the Twitter streams and chatter of the fairs’ A-list of collectors and curators. Kentucky hotelier Steve Wilson and his wife, Laura Lee Brown, major contemporary art collectors who opened the edgy, posh 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville largely to showcase their collection, bought “Corner Store” — remarkable given that the installation was only the fourth project the collective produced. (The same collectors have announced preliminary plans to open a hotel in Austin.)

“I think what makes Okay Mountain Collective different from other artist collectives is that we didn’t start because we wanted to make art together,” says Allen. “The whole reason we are a team is because we were already doing this whole other thing together.”

That other thing is not insignificantly Okay Mountain Gallery. One of the first indie galleries to stake out East Austin as an arts destination, it’s also one of the East Austin venues that’s had the farthest reach, racking up collaborations with the Blanton Museum of Art, coverage in national art journals and exhibits by international artists since opening in 2006.

That’s probably because, unlike many artist-run galleries, the Okay group didn’t want a place to merely show their own work, but rather the work of other young artists from around the world. (The gallery’s current show features the work of Dutch artist Ruth van Beek.) And forget declaring nonprofit status or relying on grants and donations. Okay Mountain is self-funded with members pooling their resources to pay rent and expenses that art sales don’t. (Costs run upward of $3,000 per month.)