The votes are in on the inaugural CultureMap People's Choice Award for the 2011 Lawndale Art Center Big Show. We're giving an online ovation to artist Britt Ragsdale, whose video work, "Duet," was chosen by Lawndale visitors who voted by scanning caption QR codes with their smartphones.
A graduate of the MFA program in photography and digital media at University of Houston, Ragsdale has enjoyed solo exhibitions at Lawndale in 2009 and Galveston's Wagner Sousa Modern Art Gallery in 2008. She has participated in exhibitions alongside other artists at Skydive Art Space, Blaffer Art Museum and San Antonio's Blue Star Contemporary Art Center.
In "Duet," a seemingly perky blonde is seated beside a man whispering into her ear as he lightly holds her shoulders with both hands. At times the girl smiles, but the man's commanding posture and the video's eerie silence lends a sinister tone. Their pink ensembles set before a mauve floral backdrop evoke an early 1990s teen television program like Blossom or the cover of a volume from Sweet Valley High.
"When you spend more time looking at 'Duet,' you realize that it's extremely awkward," says the artist.
"I've been reading a lot of romance novels lately, so I really wanted to do up the romance in this work," Ragsdale tells CultureMap. "I took these two people who looked exactly the same — same skin, strawberry blond hair — and put them in a completely over the top, gaudy romance."
Prolonged consideration of the video provides rewards. "When you spend more time looking at 'Duet,' you realize that it's extremely awkward," Ragsdale says. "It's this seemingly real romantic portrait, but these people were hired models. They didn't know each other. The girl even had a boyfriend, and told the male model, 'Don't get too close.' "
Perhaps the man is simply whispering sweet nothings in her ear. The answer remains unclear, but that's Ragsdale's intention. "I embrace subjectivity in art making, allowing my provincial upbringing and existing cultural and sociological influences to pervade my research and artwork," Ragsdale wrote in an artist statement. Surely it was this engrossing ambiguity that seduced the award's voters.
She describes the hyper-real "Duet" as a tableau vivant based on celebrated American modern dance choreographer Paul Taylor's piece of the same title. In the original 1957 "Duet," Taylor stands next to a reclining woman in street clothes. Neither moves in this minimalist distillation of dance that underscores the interconnectedness of people. Taylor himself was riffing on a John Cage performance in which the artist entered a stage, sat next to a piano for 43 seconds, and then exited.
Essentially, Ragsdale (who minored in dance history) has composed a compelling meta-squared narrative.
Coming in as People's Choice second place is Josh Urban Davis' "The Buried Orchestra (op. 1 no. 4)," a 2009 whimsical watercolor on paper depicting a traditional blue house floating on a green octopus, with yellow birds rigged on pulleys flapping above. Lawndale visitors also saluted third-place winner Ya La Ford, whose mixed media on weathered canvas piece, "La Genesi Del 10," successfully melded metallic maze-like Pre-Colombian patterning.