5Q’s with Ahren Hertel + Austin Pratt

5Q’s with Ahren Hertel + Austin Pratt

Ahren Hertel and Austin Pratt’s solo exhibitions Match and A Gate, Wild, Breathing are now on view at Oat Parks Art Center in Fallon, Nevada. In this edition of 5Q’s, we wanted to catch up and learn more about their relationship to this space, to each other’s works, and new explorations in their practices. You can see the shows through April 2020 as well as join the celebration hosted by Churchill Arts Council Saturday, February 1 from 5-7PM. A panel discussion with the artists moderated by fellow Reno artist, educator, and poet Jared Stanley begins at 5:30PM that day. Learn more at churchillarts.org.

1. First, congratulations on the solo shows! We are always elated to see Holland friends showing at Oats Parks, one of our favorite art centers anywhere. The galleries are gorgeous and the collection holds works by so many of Nevada’s most treasured artists. Any thoughts or feelings you want to share about showing there as a Nevada artist?

AH: I’ve gone to several exhibitions at the Oats Park Art Center over the years and have always been impressed by the building, the community that they have grown and all of the phenomenal artists that they have shown. It is easily one of the most exciting art spaces in our area. As a Nevada artist it really feels like an important milestone to have an exhibition there and to be listed among all the artists that I have looked up to for so long.

AP: Thank you! Yeah it’s such a wonderful institution. The quality and caliber of artist exhibitions is unparalleled in the State, for their largely regional focus. The permanent collection is a veritable Who’s Who of significant artists in the Intermountain West, and on top of that they have a stunning theatre hosting excellent music, film, and literary events. I’ve always loved going out there, and the honor of being invited to show there isn’t lost on me. I have so much respect for the Directors Valerie Serpa and the late Kirk Robertson, and what they’ve built out there. It’s like a great big roundtable for the prominent voices in the visual and literary arts in the region, and I feel like I’ve been offered a seat at a table of legends.

2. Churchill Arts Council has a knack for coupling exhibitions and artists that play well off each other. Match and A Gate, Wild, Breathing certainly feel like a perfect pair in many ways. Where do you see overlaps in themes, intentions, or philosophies in each others’ exhibitions?

AH: A lot of Austin and my conversations about painting have revolved around the idea of space. Whether talking about the process of painting or how we relate to being artists living and working within a specific region. I think one of the most notable similarities is an interest in how the layering of paint can inform the overall perception of a piece. Austin is doing it in a more pronounced way than I am, but certainly we are both thinking about the visual and physical depth of a painting. How the application of marks can create illusion of space or draw a background forward as a way of contradicting that when observed closer.

AP: I’m just so psyched, as a viewer of both shows, to see two painting shows at the same time. It’s not as if painting is an underrepresented field in any way, but as a lover and practitioner it never loses interest to me to look and think and talk about paintings and making them. Ahren and I have so many paralleled studio interests, and because we work together at UNR and frequent the same watering hole we geek out about the inside baseball or perfume talk of painting all the time. Our work moves and lands in differing directions, which is cool to see, because we share a lot of the same inquiries. A kind of self-mythologizing of Northern Nevada, of the relationship between the land and us. Perhaps a lower-case political argument that the desert isn’t a void, but is saturated in nuance and texture. A thousand types of grey. Desaturated color, deep space. There were so many times working on this show where I thought of a move, or a place, or was mixing a color, and thought “ah, this is too Ahren”, and many times where it didn’t matter anyway, although someone else might not ever pick up on any of that and see two radically different artists. In my work I try to obfuscate the process or order of operations—I like to confuse what happened when in a painting, breaking up expectations about figure and ground, back and front, etc. But I always like to hold on to the crass physical aspect of paint, and keeps marks and brushstrokes that point back to me; that I’ve touched and touched and touched the painting. We see the object first before an image. Similarly Ahren’s careful rendering obfuscates how the work was made in the illusionistic sense—we see the image first, and then get to remember that it’s a magic trick (in the best sense) and that someone made this image out of earthen pigment and oil.


3. Ahren, many Reno locals started following your work when there was an emphasis on portraiture and depictions of humans/animals in the landscape. While landscape absent of figures is not a brand new departure in your work, Match will certainly be the first landscape heavy solo exhibition most of us have seen from you. Could you speak about this departure a bit and what you’re exploring in landscape painting that is uniquely you –or maybe uniquely Nevadan– and important in contemporary art today?

AH: Landscape has always been present in my work but took a bit of a back seat. It was there to serve as a setting or relate to the narrative. I think that landscape is very powerful in forming our identity and setting the stage for our relationship with nature. I’ve always had a fondness for landscape painting, particularly the Hudson River School artists who were able to infuse their paintings with so much meaning, tap into our awe of nature and create an emotional experience. I had always used landscape in an illusionistic manner, but I became interested in approaching it from more of a subjective place. To use it as a means of exploring approaches in techniques and mark making. In Northern Nevada we have so many days of blue skies that the days that are different really stick with me. The days that are smoke filled, dusty or foggy are able to shift our perception of our surroundings just slightly, but enough to feel a little unfamiliar. That change in feeling was important to how I developed my palette and how I looked at the relationship between the sky, ground and features in a lot of this work.

4. Austin, in A Gate, Wild, Breathing, elements and imagery repeat themselves throughout the work, even across different media. Could you elaborate on some of this imagery – the hourglass, the fingerprints, hexagons, iron gates, or anything we might be missing/not seeing clearly?

AP: There is so much. In this show there are a lot images thrown together in one space, and asked to communicate. In the past, my work has existed in between abstraction and representation, where recognizable forms appear to be coming in or out of focus. In this work, I’ve trusted familiar images to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Symbols and images arise, and then are permitted to take leaps in formal association without question. Fingerprints have a similar shape as tombstones, what happens if I make that connection? These are hypotheses, not solutions. Flowers mutate to holes in a shot-up metal sign, etc.

A few of them came early. I had this experience meditating where I became aware that consciousness was like a grain of sand moving through an hourglass, yet awareness remains present, but time and space move by. The sand grain stays and the hourglass is what moves. It’s such a familiar and loaded symbol, but I thought I could introduce it and see what it wants to do. It can speak about time, about death, about black widow markings, about geometric abstraction…

I started thinking about an ornate wrought-iron metal gate as a subject, as an image, and as a compositional device. A gate is something that demarcates inside and outside (abstraction and representation, +++), describes an actual place (cemetery, garden, front yard, +++), and is also a kind of 2D line-drawing in the 3D world, so it can become a drawing or design or pattern, which is endless. I had to think about what forms they could take in my world, what patterns, what demarcations, what locations, which flowers, which graves.

The fingerprint, the tombstone, the arch, the eyes, the retina, labyrinth, pear, moon, snake, thorn, the hourglass, the road, the keyhole, the gate, the opening, the flower, the line, the dot. Everything is mutable, fungible, changing. It’s a game of cranking up our already extraordinary pattern recognition ability, and asking what it means to do so?

5. Also Austin, “Some Openings” is a collection of a 192 tapes each with an individual song selected by you, a sort of ultimate “end of the year” list, but for songs that made their mark throughout your life. Now that we’ve entered a new decade and we’re looking at this list you compiled in 2018, is there anything you would change? Songs or artists you would exclude? Include?

AP: It’s strange. Putting together such a big and ranging list gives itself a sense of gravity, completion, and authority; it’s so wide, yet so specific as to create significant importance to every selection. Yet on the other hand, making a list like this will always feel incomplete, and reasonable ground for removal, addition, or substitution. There is even a level of embarrassment I feel putting it out in the world; sharing other people’s music is strangely a more vulnerable gesture than sharing my own paintings for example.

BUT none of these are the point. The songs aren’t just my favorite. This isn’t an all encompassing list. It’s A list. A selection. Not THE openings, but SOME openings. And as a whole, now these songs aren’t many, they are one. How do they relate? What is missing?  What’s the space in between them feel like? In twenty years I’ll surely feel embarrassed by this project, as strongly as I’ll feel proud to have done it. These aren’t mutually exclusive. I already feel embarrassed by that project, and by the whole show. Just as I feel so excited to have made it. There will always be changing feelings.

I think of art exhibitions as mile markers, and that’s so much of what this particular show is about. They will never feel all-encompassing and world-defining, but a place to check in. A stopping point. A freeze frame. The point is to put a flag in the ground, to leave some breadcrumbs, a stack of rocks at the crossroads, a manifesto nailed to the wooden door. Looking back at these things, you will feel changed. You are not the same person you were twenty miles back. Draw an X on the wall. Leave a fingerprint.

Interview conducted by Alana-lynn Berglund for The Holland Project.

Ahren Hertel was born in Ft. Collins, Colorado. His father’s job as an exploration geologist moved the family between Chile, Bolivia and Reno, Nevada. Hertel attended the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia where he received his BFA in Illustration in 2002. He later received his MFA from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2009. Interested largely in environmental issues, his work consists of both landscape and figurative work. He has displayed his paintings in solo and group exhibitions across the United States and in Italy, most recently in Tilting the Basin at the Nevada Museum of Art. He received the Nevada Arts Council 2012 Visual Arts Fellowship Grant, among other awards. Currently, he is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Art at the University of Nevada, Reno and a working artist. www.ahrenhertelart.com

Austin Pratt is an artist based in Reno, Nevada. His work exists primarily through a painting and drawing practice and as the frontman for the collective psych/punk outfit Spitting Image, which he cofounded in 2010. Not wholly dissimilar, Pratt’s music, poetic writing, and paintings often reprocess fragmented images, textures, and patterns, and advocate for nuance and meaningful ambiguity. Pratt received an MFA in Painting+Drawing from The University of Tennessee. His work is featured in New American Paintings publication #144, forthcoming. He is the recent recipient of the 2019 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship, and currently has a solo exhibition of painting, audio, and sculpture at the Oats Park Art Center in Fallon, Nevada through April 2020. He teaches Drawing at The University of Nevada. www.austinjpratt.com