Jeffrey Michael Austin is an artist and musician from Chicago who specializes in the art of mud puddles. And that doesn’t mean he paints or draws dirty pools of water; no, he uses the physical structure of the puddle to capture reflections he can turn into actual structures. Austin started with a fascination for the reflected images one often sees in the puddle. He took photographs of these reflections, capturing things like clouds and sky, tree branches, buildings, and even people, all hovering just above the pools of water.
But that wasn’t enough for Austin. He used the puddles themselves to create works of art. Using resin and printed photographs, Austin physically covers the puddles and makes new art. Sometimes this means adding pieces of trash to add realism. He then removes his actual puddle-structure and displays them in the wild, in exactly the kind of places one would expect to find them. Austin said he was fascinated by the mundane aspects of puddles, and how they could evolve to reflect the environment, and even transcend reality.
The puddle collection was produced at the Say Uncle artist residency at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in early 2017. Austin then toured the works, along with Say Uncle, across a variety of public sites in Urbana-Champaign. They also appeared outside opening receptions at several Midwest galleries. Participating venues included the University Galleries at Illinois State University, DEMO Project, Sidecar Gallery and Enos Park for the 2017 Terrain Biennial.
Although many of the puddles reflect real life, Austin also took them into the realm of sci-fi, and there are some which use space scenes and other surrealism to take the puddle into another realm. One of the reasons Austin likes to place the puddles in the natural world is so that viewers do not initially perceive them as art. He wants to provoke curiosity by the people who stumble upon them, hopefully making people think critically about the world around them.
Austin’s work often combines the natural world with the objects humans place in it. One of his projects, called Stay Alive, uses, in his words, “carefully tended plants dare us to question whether they belong. This space is for them, we see. An assiduous steward has furnished light, water, and humidity to address their needs; such is their authority that it feels likely we’ve wandered in on accident.”
Stay Alive transformed the gallery space into something new, deliberately debunking the audience’s expectations of what belonged in an art space. The plants created an atmosphere suitable for a greenhouse, yet suggesting something new, stimulating the imagination and the senses.
This exhibition was displayed at the Chicago Artists Coalition project space. The multitalented Austin also participates in the Growing Concerns Poetry Collective. He is also a musician who experiments with sound and rhythm. His music is available on bandcamp.