Austin Power, a South Carolina native who ventured to New York to pursue a career in fashion design, quickly discovered painting as his true craft while studying at Parsons: The New School of Design. Since graduation, Austin has hustled his way into various independent shows at spots around the city as well as abroad, such as Rabbithole Studios in Brooklyn and Secondhome Projects in Berlin. His solo exhibitions at popular SoHo bar and restaurant, Satsko, have been entirely of his own making. The full-time artist and part-time bartender often sells pieces right off the wall while serving a sake bomb or two. Honored with the Philips de Pury Emerging Artist Profile feature in 2009, Austin has primarily been a large scale oil painter with a concentration in portraiture.
Tell me about the first good painting you ever made.
I had a teacher at Parsons Paris that gave us an assignment: just make a painting larger than four feet in at least one dimension and paint until you finish it — that was the only timeline which was really freeing in a school context. So, I picked 6 foot by 5 foot oil painting, and those were kind of my dimensions, my height and my arm span. I stuck with that format for awhile afterwards but that painting I made in 2007 was called, “Bodies of Work.” I worked on it for about three months until I finished it.
I understand that a lot of your earlier work is primarily self-portraiture. Tell me more about that.
Most of the oil paintings, I’m the primary subject. There is a painting from the same time called, “Head To Head,” and it’s kind of a room with all these holes in the back of the wall and all these little birds are peeping through and watching. There is a board that is blank and out of it are coming five of my head and then there are five lower holes, and four of the holes have my penis, and then one of them has a friend’s vagina. It’s not really sexual; it’s the idea of my most personal and most private body parts — the intensely private and intensely public.
Do you still create large paintings?
I took a break from the large paintings about a year and a half ago. And two years ago I started doing the watercolors. I actually got really sick with mono and I was really ill. I couldn’t leave the house and I was awake for about three hours a day for two months. I couldn’t physically work on my large paintings. It was just too much to take on. I couldn’t hang out or enjoy the company of my loved ones and it was really getting to me so I started painting these weird little watercolors of all the people I missed. And that ended up being the first collection I did, called, “Twenty-One Portraits of People I Miss.” I painted them purely for me which was a big turning point in my work. I wasn’t preoccupied with an audience or critique which allowed me to be exquisitely honest. At the same time, oil painting has such a vast art historical canon one has to answer to. Watercolor doesn’t carry as much historical pressure.
Do you know in which direction your work is going right now?
I think that our hands are good at one thing each day and it is our duty to discover what that one thing is. I often fail, but the pleasure is in the search. It’s not enough to say that my portraits are who the subject was at the time I painted them. I can’t deny, if we are saying that a portrait is who the person was at that given time period, that each portrait I paint is shaped by how I felt at the time I painted them. Some of my paintings touch on severe sadness, sometimes because the subject is experiencing trauma, sometimes because I am. More often I feel a sadness for all the things I will never know about the people I paint, as well as a loss for all of the things they will never know or experience about me. That is truly “the difficulty and discomfort in fully understanding a person.” My original anxiety, to know in earnest how other people perceive me, eventually revealed itself to be an impossible task. I cannot know how anyone else, with their entire lives behind them, experiences Austin Power. What I can know is how I experience others, no matter how limited my scope, and that is what I paint. This is my one honest truth no matter how personal I know how I feel about you on this day of our lives.
Where can Daily BR!NK readers find your work?
A lot of my shows so far have been me hustling and trying to get pieces in anywhere I can. I’ve done a couple of shows at the venue Satsko in the Lower East Side. It’s a really great experience for me because I’m the resident artist there. They don’t show anyone else’s work and I have free creative control over what I hang because they believe in the work. It’s phenomenal support to have. I’ve shown through Trilok Fusion arts which is a private arts preschool in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. They did a solo show for me during their preview weeks when they were finishing up their summer camps and bringing in prospective new clients. I’ve had two group shows with friends through Leonard Tourne Gallery in Soho which were fantastic. They were three-day pop-up shows.
How can readers contribute to your success?
My goal for this coming year is to get gallery representation. I think that if I could just have a home base, it would make it so much easier to have the work seen elsewhere and to also have someone else’s promotional machine behind me because it is not impossible, but a little difficult to do it all yourself. Ultimately I want to share my work with as many people as possible, and I welcome any opportunity that comes my way.