On a recent trip to Dallas, I checked into the DoubleTree Hotel and was promptly offered a warm chocolate chip cookie. The service was excellent from the cookie onward but as I wheeled my suitcase through the lobby, I couldn’t help but to notice that the interior décor felt standardized; I could just as easily have been in any other city in the United States or staying at another chain. There was a Starbucks in the lobby, a gift shop selling postcards and forgotten toiletries, an ATM and vending machine near the elevator, and the requisite outdated beige hall carpeting with a diamond pattern likely chosen to hide stains. But my favorite detail was the rack card display hawking local attractions: as much a staple of certain hotels as the buffet breakfast.
We just acquired Okay Mountain’s Roadside Attractions at the Blanton, a work that playfully riffs on these rack card stands. Okay Mountain’s nod to these stands is filled with irreverent humor, but what struck me in the hotel lobby is how funny the “real” rack cards often are. Some advertise the customary attractions—the zoo, local museums, outlet shopping malls, and in Dallas’s case, competing JFK Tours—while others offer somewhat eccentric activities: for example, Ripley’s Enchanted Mirror Maze in Grand Prairie, where “The Selfie Possibilities are Endless.” Competing for the tourist’s attention, the flyers are busily designed and zealously overuse exclamation points. Cheesy slogans are embraced without any of the irony that Okay Mountain brings to its counterpart.
For their work, the members of Okay Mountain designed 100 different rack cards that mimic and mock the campy tone and dense mishmash of styles often found in brochures. The cards—all of which are available for museum visitors to take—hawk activities that range from obscure and irreverent to the absurd: “Quiltin’ the Colorado!” (quilting and rafting tours); “Enjoy the Majesty of Mt. Rushmore without leaving the state!” (a half-scale version of the monument); “Visit the Second Largest Night Court Museum!” Other brochures possess a more biting humor that hints at the kind of ignorance and prejudice that can also be found in every state: for example, “The Vaguely African Museum” or “Crew Cut Clan” (haircuts designed like Klansmen hoods.) A few of the flyers refer to actual, offbeat local attractions. The Tabernacle of Trash, for example, depicts the Cathedral of Junk, an installation where a man has turned castoffs into a castle in his backyard.
Although the work is unapologetically humorous and at times even deliberately crude, it also captures a distinctly American spirit—a combination of brazen self-promotion, local pride, and a do-it-yourself attitude. Like other works by the group, Roadside Attractions plays on the conventions and absurdities of contemporary consumer culture. In the digital age we live in, where ads are tailored to consumers in sophisticated ways, these rack cards feel decidedly old-fashioned, even a little sweet, in spite of their low-cost look. They belong somewhere along a continuum of vernacular roadside attractions that includes billboards, misspelled menus, door-to-door solicitations, and funny local business signs (my personal Austin favorite: El Arroyo on West 5th Street).
From 2006-2010, the artist-run, alternative gallery space OKAY MOUNTAIN, presented several exhibitions each year highlighting local, national and international artists. What began as weekly collaborative drawing sessions during staff meetings, developed into a wide range of aesthetic projects and the formation of an artist collective—Okay Mountain. The nine members—who are now spread out across seven different cities in the US—only spend time all together when they are on the road, traveling to install and de-install shows. The hotels they stayed in became their de facto studios, in the case of Roadside Attractions, a source of inspiration.
All nine members will be at the Blanton Museum’s auditorium on Saturday, April 4 at 2pm to speak with me about their work and practice. This is the first time that all nine of them will speak together about their work in Austin.
The collective will also create a mural in downtown Austin. The Blanton has commissioned Okay Mountain to paint a mural as part of the Frank Public Art Wall. Installation will take place March 29-30 and will culminate with an opening reception at Frank (4th & Colorado) on Wednesday, April 15 from 6-9pm.
In the spirit of Roadside Attractions: Join us for any and all events! Good times and fun guaranteed!!!!!!
Veronica Roberts is the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Blanton.