The Throwback Artists: Two Texas Mega Talents From Small Towns Shatter Expectations With Oft-Dismissed Skills
Keri Oldham with "Evil Eye Warrior," 2015
Anthony Sonnenberg is not averse to donning costumes.
A signature crown by Sonnenberg.
TWO SEMINAL ARTISTS SHOWING IN DALLAS AND HOUSTON THIS SPRING MERIT A PLACE ON THE COLLECTORS’ WATCH LIST. BOTH SHATTER EXPECTATIONS VIA THROWBACK MEDIA THAT COULD BE CONSIDERED SLEEPERS — FOR ANTHONY SONNENBERG, IT IS CERAMICS WITH A SIDE OF NEEDLEWORK, WHILE KERI OLDHAM HAS HER WAY WITH WATERCOLOR. READ ON FOR THE TALE OF HOW THESE SMALL TOWN-REARED TEXANS ARE REMAPPING THE ART WORLD, HERE AND BEYOND. AND HOW IT ALL BEGAN.
FROM COPPELL, TEXAS TO WARRIOR PRINCESSES
Out-of-the-box artist Keri Oldham cross-pollinates myth, feminism, fashion and high-art illustration to make her mark. Reared in suburban Coppell, Texas, she mined the most from her upbringing by trekking to Dallas for shows at the DMA or a bit of theater. Still starved for inspiration, she sought cultural solace at the local mall’s Barnes & Noble.
A major mentor was her mom, Suzanne Oldham, a former Hockaday School art teacher who once hosted classes at home and created travel excursions to Greece and Italy to teach drawing and painting, with a young Keri in tow.
After graduating high school, Oldham decamped to New Orleans — her kind of creative town — for college (B.A., Loyola University in philosophy). Grad school yielded an M.A. in museum curatorial studies from San Francisco State University. She moved back to Dallas to serve as assistant director at the avant-garde (now shuttered) And/Or Gallery (operating on hiatus in Pasadena, California). In 2009, she took the leap to New York City, because, she says, “I have a slightly morbid fascination with survivalist stories and thought I would give it a go for a while.”
She bonded with the city immediately. Within a year, she was juggling a dual career as curator at Field Projects Gallery in Chelsea (with her pal artist Jacob Rhodes) and as a painter herself.
Painting has (mostly) won out. Her current watercolor practice is informed by constructs of feminism, sprinkled with childhood reading fondly recalled. “I was a very nerdy child obsessed with fantasy fiction,” she says. “Any kind of story where there was a peddler or street urchin girl journeying medieval or mystic lands, I’m sold! These early stories and images really resonated with me about what adult life would hold and the adventure of life … I often feel that the work I make is about explaining to my childhood, teen or 20-year-old self what adulthood is by using the symbols I loved from that time.”
About her signature media, Oldham says, “I love how watercolor brings unexpected texture and movement to a painting … Also, it’s a medium that was side-tabled as hobbyist for a while by the fine arts community, though it has certainly made a comeback. It’s a fun medium to play with in terms of its history and symbolism. Watercolor paintings by Francisco Clemente and Barnaby Furnas have always inspired me. However, I also love illustration, and lots of illustrators also work in watercolor.”
Then there’s the ardent espousal of feminism in her practice, with women in the roles of warriors, paradoxically alongside an examination of fashion. The latter first surfaced in 2009, at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary in a group show, “Tigerspring: Obscure Couture.
A CentralTrak resident in 2011, since then she’s returned to Dallas almost annually to show and occasionally curate. Represented by Kirk Hopper Fine Art — where she had pride of place at the gallery’s recent booth at Dallas Art Fair — Oldham has been impressively active in KHFA’s exhibition lineup for the past five years. The painter has participated in everything from edgy little group shows like 2011’s “Sex/Twist” to last fall’s critically reviewed solo “Labyrinth” which was paired with her feminist-focused curatorial project, “The Devil Within and Without,” both at Hopper’s Deep Ellum space. Also watch for more on the aforementioned fashion front, with Oldham reprising a series of flags worn as scarves, first introduced last fall in Dallas.
DENTAL WAX, GARDENS AND LESSONS IN PASTEL
Also probing the boundaries of a traditional medium and dipping into fashion and costume is a talent who chooses to remain in Texas: Houston-based Anthony Sonnenberg. We ventured into the Holy Grail of his practice, a studio in a prime and enviable spot facing Main Street at the Lawndale Art Center, where he’s completing a year-long residency.
Entering the space, it feels like a 19th-century lace factory has exploded. There are scraps of lace piled high, a work table strewn with enough beads to drive anyone to distraction, an embroidered handkerchief bearing a pithy text phrase pinned to the wall, and a gilded crown and cape, the latter which the artist freely dons. Sonnenberg himself alludes to the idea of toiling in a “mad doge’s palace,” channeling a hurricane frenzy of the Baroque colliding with the Rococo, all in preparation for his current solo at Art Palace and this month’s Lawndale exhibit.
How did this Texas-raised talent — who grew up in Graham, a 19th-century cattle, oil and railroad hamlet of 8,800 inhabitants, 90 minutes northwest of Fort Worth — get to where he is today? Over a telephone conversation, between teaching classes (drawing, ceramics, art appreciation) at Lone Star College in Kingwood, Sonnenberg shared his three-fold childhood inspirations: gardening, playing in his dad’s dental lab with wax molds, and taking pastel art classes with other local kids from a little old lady. Also instrumental was a turn in high-school theater. Being a zaftig fellow, he tired of being typecast as the old man, so he explored the realm of costumes and props. Also seminal were visits to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth — better than going to a Friday-night football game for the young Anthony.
Sonnenberg earned an undergrad degree at UT Austin before spending time in the land of craft (University of Washington, Seattle, to get his master’s). Higher education only fueled his mad take on ceramics, spiced by performance art and an avid interest in theater. Nonetheless, the artist will be the first to say, “I have a love/hate relationship with craft.” If ever there ever was a high-low creative literally prepared to take a broad stage, this is Sonnenberg. His is the world of big ideas and intriguing plans, backed up by the talent and fearless curiosity to forge a magnum opus, equal parts Bernini, Boucher and Harwin Street in Houston.
Visit Art Palace gallery now for his melding of Apollonian and Dionysian elements — a nice bow to the Greco-Roman world’s duality. The dramatic exhibition, minimally lit at the request of the artist, is inspired by a van Dyck show in Milan that Sonnenberg visited during his student days. A chandelier, altar, crown and cape are some of the tropes reductively installed that signal one of the sculptor’s most sublime exhibitions to date, smart and profound at the same time, a difficult balancing act to pull off.
Keri Oldham’s pop-up solo show at Lazy Susan Gallery, Manhattan, July 16 – 31. In September, One Mile Gallery in Kingston, New York, debuts her illustrations for Richard Saja’s children’s book Monsters in America. Represented by Kirk Hopper Fine Art, Dallas, and work available through David Shelton Gallery, Houston.
“Anthony Sonnenberg: Apollonian & Dionysian,” at Art Palace, Houston, through May 14; in the group show “How2Magpie” at Lawndale Art Center, Houston, May 6 – June 11, opening night Friday, May 6; in the Conduit Gallery booth at Art New York, May 3 – 8, at Pier 94 in Manhattan during Frieze week. Represented by Art Palace, Houston, and Conduit Gallery, Dallas.