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Alters of My Ancestors


Reading the title of Austin artist Julie Speed's exhibit, Alters of My Ancestors, at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas through March 30, 2003, most people think they are looking at an embarrassing typo. "Alters" should read "Altars," right?

Wrong. In a Joycean play on words, the ever-irreverent Speed plays upon both meanings of altar/alter. A set of "ancestor" portraits would suggest a sense of reverence; therefore the word would be "altar". However, these works of art are assemblages Speed has crafted fiom hundreds of images and subsequently "altered" by Speed's hand and imagination. (left: Julie Speed, Cabbagehead, 2000, brush and gouache, collage and engraving, 7 x 5 1/2 inches)

Speed's playfulness does not end with the exhibition's title. The artist spends hours scouring flea markets and antique stores, on the prowl for vintage prints and images. She then changes them entirely: the famous Noah Webster, surrounded by tiny, horned imps, becomes a troubled, three-eyed figure with blazing hair.

These 36 images are a collection of altered characters from the past. At once hilarious and disturbing, many of the Alters collages feature Speed's trademark -- an unsettling third eye painted below one of the subject's normally placed eyes. The effect is almost dizzying for the viewer.

Speed told the Austin Chronicle, "Sometimes one (eye) will be looking at you and the other two will be lookng at what's going on. I like the way it works because your brain assumes there's only supposed to be one eye on either side of your face, so when you put two on one side, that's why you get that headachy feeling."

Speed has a penchant for making bizarre alterations to her subjects' heads. In a tribute to famed surrealist painter Rene Magritte (famous for his painting of bowler-wearing man, his face obscured by an apple), Speed paints a suited businessman with a flesh pear for a head. In another work, Napoleon wears a tall hat made of a flaming Eiffel Tower.

Speed's work is familiar to many people, even if they don't know it. Her best-known work is the cover of Shawn Colvin's Grammy award-winning album A Few Small Repairs. The.title for the album references another of Speed's works as well. (right: Julie Speed, Uncle Lester, 2000, brush and gouache, collage and engraving, 8 x 5 1/2 inches)

This is not Speed's only connection to the music industry. Her husband, Fran Christina, is best known as a drummer for the Texas blues band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

Born in Chicago in 1951, Speed has been drawing as long as she can remember. Her love of Renaissance-era artists such as Jan van Eyck put her at odds with her art school teachers. One teacher, angry with her refusal to embrace abstract painting, said, "Speed, you belong in the 16th century." The teacher thought he was insulting the young artist, but she wholeheartedly agreed.

A full-color catalogue for Alters is available at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas.

Alters of My Ancestors is funded in part by the City of Beaumont, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Dorothy Anne and C.W. Conn, Rob Clark and Jerry Thacker and Kim and Roy Steinhagen. This project is supported by a grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts.


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