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Waste Not

It may be junk to you, but to eccentric and renowned regional artist Coolquitt, hitting the Blaffer this month, “found objects” are both a medium and a mission.

Coolquitt, who actually added the extra “o” to his given surname of Colquitt, searches the streets of Austin and New York in search of bits of garbage and debris to make into art.

Coolquitt, who actually added the extra “o” to his given surname of Colquitt, searches the streets of Austin and New York in search of bits of garbage and debris to make into art.

What is to be made of the work of Texas artist Andy Coolquitt, who famously turns other people’s garbage into elegantly colorful sculpture? It’s a question asked by the world’s top art critics, as far away as the vaunted halls of the Manhattan art set. Now Houstonians can answer for themselves. The Austin-based Coolquitt’s work hits the Blaffer Art Museum (at UH, 713.743.9521), in a self-titled exhibit running May 18 to Aug. 24, and whose new Andy Coolquitt monograph by Rachel Hooper is now available on Amazon.

His rugged country-style beard and deep Texas drawl may, to some, belie his edginess. Born in Mesquite in 1964, Coolquitt’s East Texas roots span generations. On the surface, the artist, who watches basketball as a favorite pastime, seems uncomplicated and laid-back. But he’s actually quite guarded and, subjectively speaking, quirky.

His girlfriend—whom he declines to name—is a fellow artist. He’s known to don shorts and canvas shoes and scavenge “found objects” from aboard his bicycle, on the roadsides and alleys of Austin and New York, between which he divides his time. He added the extra “o” to his original surname of Colquitt, and he writes almost exclusively without capitalization or punctuation, not only in emails but also in published works.

Eccentricities aside, his sculpture is a one-of-a-kind portal to the streets, a reintroduction to treasures and conversation pieces from the recent past, once hidden in plain sight. Coolquitt seems to see himself, in fact, as sort of an historian. “I am deeply interested in the history of art,” he says, “of communicating within the history of modernity.” In his hands, rusted planks of metal might translate as abstract wall-hangings, for example, and bits of pipes interconnect to become rather chic-looking lighting fixtures.

And don’t dare suggest, just because his medium is the stuff society discards, that Coolquitt is anti-establishment. “All of the ideas that I work with are part of our culture, so therefore, part of an established understanding of the way we perceive objects, and the way we carry baggage into the museum,” he says. “I am pro-establishment, pro-museum and pro-art.”

According to Coolquitt, his mission is to be interactive, requiring the beholder to make judgements. He often simply displays objects in the condition in which they were found, alongside his meticulous assemblages. He insists upon asking, just what do you think of all of this? “The viewer completes the work.”

This perspective follows suit for a man who, for his masters project at UT, created a live-work space for himself and other artists. “Yes, my thesis was to create a place,” he says. “A place where art can happen, or a place where experience can happen.”

Nineteen years later, Coolquitt still lives and works on the premises. It’s there where he created the new Blaffer series, which might just tempt art fans to see street junk with new eyes.