Andy Coolquitt's House
Reviewed by Kelly Baum
Upon moving to Austin four months ago, one of the first things I did was ask everyone I met where I should go to look at art. Numerous individuals told me to visit, along with the usual suspects, Andy Coolquitt's house. I was immediately intrigued because not a single person was able to provide a precise description of the house. From what I could tell, it was either a home, a studio, or an art project, and if it was an art project, it was either an installation, an activity, or a performance. The house would turn out to be all of these things and more, which is precisely what makes it so interesting. I have always been fascinated by art that exceeds my ability to categorize it: Coolquitt's house is art of exactly this kind. It deliberately courts confusion, at the level of genre as well as medium, aesthetic as well as function. No matter how many conversations you have with Coolquitt about it, you will never, ever get to the bottom of the house.
In 1993 Coolquitt entered the MFA program at the University of Texas at Austin. His area of specialty was sculpture, but sculpture already understood in the broadest sense possible. In January 1995 (at exactly the same moment, it should be remembered, that Austin was falling victim to gentrification), Coolquitt used his university scholarship to purchase a house and the sizable lot on which it was located. He intended the housemore specifically, what he did to and at the house-to serve as his master's thesis.
First, Coolquitt tore down the garage and constructed an addition onto the main house that functioned first as an apartment and then as a studio. Economy, financial as well as environmental, was key. Coolquitt used primarily recycled materials and, instead of hiring a contractor, did much of the work himself. Yet he also enlisted the help of friends, most importantly Faith Gay, and at least one city inspector, collaboration too being an essential component of the house. Together they laid the foundation, built the frame, installed the sewer pipes, and so on. Coolquitt characterizes this aspect of the house-that is, the monumental effort it took to construct it-as an ongoing, long-term performance. Installing the plumbing, for example, involved not only learning how to install plumbing, it involved adopting the persona of the plumber. As work on the house progressed, Coolquitt became adept at a variety of trades, collecting a multitude of alter-egos, from the electrician to the pipe fitter, along the way.
The house caused consternation among many of the faculty members at UT, and Coolquitt's thesis proposal was rejected. (The reasons are too numerous to list here, although it seems to have been the house's undecidability that raised the most alarms.) Coolquitt left the program in 1996 without having received a degree. Yet he resumed work on the house almost immediately, building a free-standing kitchen in 1997 and another studio in 1998. Even to this day, the house continues to change and evolve, not unlike a living organism: it is and always will be under-construction. Insofar as he privileges the act of creating the house as much as he does the house itself, moreover, Coolquitt looks back to artists such as Robert Morris and Eva Hesse, who too emphasized process as well as product.
Coolquitt has described the house as a "filing cabinet" for his ideas, which are many. First and foremost, it was part of an effort to make "art politically" as opposed to making "political art." To do so required positioning the house, physically as well as conceptually, beyond both the gallery and the university. The house also represented a desire on Coolquitt's part to create something that one experienced with the body (an environment) instead of something that one simply appreciated with the eye (an object). Coolquitt thus continued a long tradition of site-specific and installation art, such as that by Kurt Schwitters, Allan Kaprow, and Thomas Hirschhorn. Coolquitt's house equally strove to integrate comfort with community. Typically, houses are designed to provide comfort by erecting barriers between individual and community. Coolquitt's house, however, does the exact opposite. Taking its inspiration, at least in part, from the philosopher Walter Benjamin, it offers comfort precisely by nurturing a relationship between individual and community. Coolquitt sponsors a variety of activities at the house, for example, such as parties, workshops, and, most recently, "salons" dubbed "Think-n- Drink," whose explicit purpose is to facilitate congregation, sociability, and creative exchange.
For all of these reasons and more, Coolquitt's house is as much an alternative art-space as it is a home. It has assumed the function of an alternative art-space, moreover, at a time when an increasing number are being absorbed into-and, even more disturbingly, are deliberately launching themselves into-the mainstream. Several years from now, Coolquitt's house could very well be one of the few alternative art-spaces still standing.
gallery links: www.lisa-cooley.com