Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Best of Pan: Dallas Is a Jewel

[In 2012, I took a big road trip across Texas, visiting museums and srt spaces in San Antonio, Marfa, Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin. The upshot was a series of posts, including this three-part post on Dallas (here are part 2 and part 3). The post comes off as quite critical of Dallas, but the fact is that I loved Dallas and its art, and have been back several times and encountered more of the vibrant alternative scene there.]

Robert Boyd

Did you ever see Dallas from a DC 9 at night
Well Dallas is a jewel oh Dallas is a beautiful sight
But Dallas is a jungle but Dallas gives a beautiful light
Did you ever see Dallas from a DC 9 at night

Dallas is a woman who will walk on you when you're down
But when you are up she's the kind you want to take around
And Dallas ain't a woman who will help you get your feet on the ground
Dallas is a woman who will walk on you when you're down

I came into Dallas with the bright lights on my mind
I came into Dallas with a dollar and a dime

Well Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes
A steel and concrete soul in a warm heart and love disguise
A rich man who tends to believe in his own lies
Yeah Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes
"Dallas" by Jimmie Dale Gilmore

I arrived in Dallas not by DC-9 but after a non-stop drive from Odessa. My hotel, The Belmont, was on top of a hill overlooking some warehouses, a dollar store, and, off in the distance, downtown Dallas. The Belmont is an old moderne-style hotel built in the 40s and rehabbed fairly recently into hipness. And the neighborhood it's in, Oak Cliff, has undergone a similar transformation. When I arrived in Dallas, I went to a superb restaurant in Oak Cliff called Gloria's with my friend, Todd Ramsell. Todd gave me a tour of the Bishop Street Arts District, a part of Oak Cliff. From what I can tell, Oak Cliff's story is similar to that of the Heights in Houston. A charming neighborhood that became a slum, which made it cheap enough for some artists to movie in, which gave it some hip cache, which caused it to gentrify. The Belmont Hotel is an example of this and is a beautiful reuse of already existing architecture. Driving around, Oak Cliff felt a little like South Congress in Austin. Hip but commercial.

Ramsell told me that some Oak Cliff residents are so loyal to their hood that they try to get the city on their drivers licenses to be shown as "Oak Cliff" instead of "Dallas." (Oak Cliff tried and failed to secede from Dallas in 1990.) But trying to put Oak Cliff on your driver's license is not just an expression of Oak Cliff pride--it's an expression of being ashamed to be from Dallas. As hard as it is to believe about a city that swaggers and wears its self-importance on its sleeve, there are people who cringe at being from Dallas. And for good reason--people from other places really dislike Dallas. Ramsell related to me that occasionally when he tells someone he's from Dallas--especially someone from Austin--their first response will be to say with false solicitousness, "Oh, I'm sorry." I mentioned this to my sister who lives in Austin, and she sent me the phone photo below, which proves Ramsell right.

How Austin views Dallas

So what is Dallas? A self-confident art colossus with huge museums (and malls and football stadiums) housing fantastic art collections? Or a place of meek, embarrassed artists who might prefer to be from somewhere else, even if that somewhere else is only Oak Cliff? I think it's both. Dallas has a bit of an inferiority complex, and this manifests itself simultaneously in grandiosity and "cultural cringe." (And look, lest anyone think I am picking on Dallas, I think this is a common complex for provincial art towns, including Houston. I have an artist friend here who is constantly comparing Houston's art scene unfavorably to San Francisco's, for example.)

I was in Dallas for a few days. This was my first extended trip to the city since I was in college. Recognizing that there is something dubious about a critic parachuting in for a few days and then pronouncing judgment, I offer the following disclaimer: this post represents my first impression of the Dallas art scene, but hopefully not my last.

One thing that struck me as weird about Dallas was the way that everything is a "district." The city (or someone) seemed desperate to brand any given part of Dallas as this or that "district". There is the Arts District downtown, the Design District west of downtown, and in Oak Cliff, the Bishop Arts District. (Never could find the Hobo District, though.) In terms of visual arts, the Bishop Arts District seems largely aspirational. According to this gallery map created by Douglas D. Martin, there are only four galleries in this district, compared to a bunch over in the Design District and a large number scattered in other neighborhoods like Deep Ellum. (BAP offers plenty of places to shop, though.)

I started off in Deep Ellum. I wanted to see Kirk Hopper's gallery in particular because I had corresponded  with him briefly about Forest Bess (he runs the big Forrest Bess website, an invaluable resource). He wasn't at the gallery, but I was pretty impressed by the space itself. It was late sumer and late summer is a time for more eccentric art shows. Kirk Hopper was showing Amerwarpornica, a two-person show featuring the work of Kara Maria and Eurydice (yes, she has a one-word name, just like Cher or Sting). Both of them incorporated pin-up/porn images in their work. Eurydice's was notable because it was embroidered.

Eurydice, George (Washington) Gets Hot, 2010, hand-stitched with silk thread on hand-dyed silk, 52: x 43"

The centerpiece of the exhibit was a massive embroidery by Eurydice called Bathers. Here, she provides her take on a classical erotic subject. The bathers are, as far as I can tell, taken from pornographic sources and "collaged" together. They don't quite seem to be occupying the same space as one another, even though they are layered and recede n the distance. This strange "collage" effect may remind viewers of another artist who copied mass-produced female images to create vast populated landscapes--Henry Darger. Even the color of the underlying canvas recalls the somewhat yellowed paper of Darger's original art.

Eurydice, Bathers, 2012, hand stitched embroidery on unprimed canvas and vintage silks, 8' x 28'

I'm interested in the work, but when I walk into a gallery like this, I often wonder who the theoretical buyer is? (Assuming there is one, of course.) Who would hang a 28-foot wide tapestry of porn girls in their home? I'm almost more interested in the potential owner of this work than the work itself. Given the time of year, Hopper may have been assuming that no one would spend $60,000 for Bathers, but that it might draw attention to his gallery. And that seems like a pretty reasonable late-summer strategy.

Barry Whistler Gallery is right around the corner from Kirk Hopper Fine Art, but it was closed when I went by. But I did find something that was to characterize my Dallas trip.

I saw this sign for Health Care Art Consulting and felt instant cognitive dissonance. How do these words go together? But apparently, this is a company that supplies hospitals and other health care facilities with art. And thinking about it, I am not surprised such a business exists. But think about the art you see in hospitals and doctors offices. It is so unmemorable, so staggeringly banal, that it barely exists. And yet here is a business devoted to providing it. I'm sure this service is available in Houston and elsewhere. But until I came to Dallas, I never saw someone advertising this service. And in Dallas, it turns out, such advertisements are common.

Art for every occasion

In fact, Dallas has a whole part of town devoted to this kind of thing. It's called the Design District, and it's where you go to buy furniture, decor and art. As you can see in the gallery window above, you can buy art for your corporate offices, your medical clinics, your hotels, and for your home--one-stop shopping! This whole district was confusing to me. There's nothing like it in Houston. No doubt we have retailers of business furniture and interior designers who work to fill hotels and corporate offices with eye-pleasing decor. We just don't have a neighborhood devoted to it.

The Design District has its own sign

I spoke to Danette Dufilho at the Conduit Gallery (a very good gallery in the heart of the Design District), and she told me that at one time, this had been a strictly B2B area. Interior designers, acting on behalf of corporate and individual clients, would buy the furniture and decor they needed here. Apparently, vendors here realized there was money to be made by opening up to the public.

Corporate decoration or art? You decide!

The problem I see is that there's no clear demarcation between the galleries that sell corporate decorations by the square yard and the galleries that sell art qua art. Indeed, having such a district where these distinctions are blurred helps remind one that all art in art galleries, no matter how cutting edge it is, is merchandise.

Still, as I noted, there are galleries in the Design District selling interesting work which would be unlikely to be bought by an interior decorator for a corporate office. Conduit Gallery is one of those, and when I visited them, their front gallery was full of beautiful, dangerous-looking objects by Gabriel Dawe (who had a very cool installation last year at Peel).

Gabriel Dawe, Pain Series no. 23, 2012, deconstructed shirts and pins, 22" x 11" x 9"

Gabriel Dawe, Pain Series no. 28, 2012, shirt collars, sequins and pins, 11" x 8" x 6"

These sculptures, made of pins and fabric, make one think of iron maidens and other medeival torture devices. Or dangerous S&M devices, or things used by the bad guys in a horror movie. Pain Series No. 28 made me also think of primitive carnivorous creatures with maws filled with razor-sharp teeth, waiting for you to swim too close. In short, there is no way someone would put one of these elegant, deadly things in a hospital or corporate office. And in this way, Coduit Gallery separates itself from some of its peers in the Design District.

piece by Rex Ray, oil, acrylic and mixed media on linen

On the other hand, they were also showing colorful, pretty work by Rex Ray in the back, so perhaps they hedge their bets.

Other work I saw in the Design District that struck me as more than mere corporate decoration were the paintings of Benjamin Terry and painting/photos of Bonny Leibowitz at Cohn Drennan Contemporary.

Bonny Leibowitz, Streaming Consciousness, 2011, photography, encaustic, monotype on kozo and and pigment on cradled board, 30" x 30"

The two artists seem strikingly dissimilar, and I wonder why they were paired for this show, Blurr. But I liked Leibowitz's quasi abstract pieces, and while it took me a few minutes to get past my feelings of "ugh--paintings of hipsters," I warmed to Benjamin Terry's paintings as well.

Benjamin Terry, Over and Over Again, 2012, mixed media on panel, 75" x 74.5"

And over at Holly Johnson Gallery, there was a very likable show of Al Held-like abstractions by Tommy Fitzpatrick.

Tommy Fitzpatrick, Close-up (left) and Structural Components (right), 2012, acrylic on canvas, 13" x 17" each

Tommy Fitzpatrick, Techtonic, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 48" x 40"

Tommy Fitzpatrick, Unbuild, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 30" x 45"

So while there is something bizarre about having these high-quality galleries crowded in among the generic corporate art galleries, it's no surprise that there are plenty of good galleries in Dallas. (And let's face it--corporate decoration art galleries exist in Houston--they just don't advertise themselves so nakedly. Dallas's corporate galleries should be given points for their honesty.)

But what about more alternative offerings? I saw none and I attribute this primarily to my unfamiliarity with the scene and briefness of my visit. I plan to search that stuff out the next time I'm in Dallas, and I invite any Dallasites to school me about what I missed. But one problem I can see for the grass roots is that the best art school in the area is in Denton. The University of North Texas, like many colleges with large, high quality art departments, spins off a lot of artistic energy. It's like the University of Houston in that regard. The big difference is that UH is inside the Loop--it's near where artists live and work and exhibit. UNT is 40 miles from Dallas and about the same from Fort Worth. Does this inhibit the artistic interaction between Denton and Dallas? It must.

Christina Rees recently wrote an article for Glasstire that dared young Dallas artists to use their very marginality as a license to go crazy without worrying about what anyone thinks. She wrote:
[...]There is no real economy for your art being made here in DFW. Almost none. Not enough to make a living. And there isn’t a mainstream press, like there is in NYC and London, to cover your career if you made a commercial leap anyway. And that’s okay. Because this kind of vacuum is when it’s time to fuck things up. This is a magic hour, a once-in-a-lifetime chance when you have nothing to lose, and the place that you’re in—your neighborhood, your city, your region—if you get busy, can get really interesting.
I’m picking on you lot because you aren’t painters (another breed entirely), and you aren’t makers of pretty things and decorative objects. Your brains are wired the right way to fuck shit up. And I’m not writing about Houston or Brooklyn or Silver Lake either. I’m writing about here. ["Dear Young DFW Whippersnapper Artists," Christina Rees, Glasstire, July 27, 2012]
This got a huge number of responses, many defensive or dismissive (or both at the same time). The article and the responses suggested that there was something wrong with the local scene as far as young and/or cutting edge artists go. The comments were very interesting. I especially liked one by Douglas Martin, who provided a capsule view of the art scene (nice to have for an outsider like me):
What is made obvious in this passionate tirade is that our art scene is currently segmented: You’ve got your old artists that did not go to art school that are either bitter or not, depending on their interpretation of their own status in the scene they are still passionate about being included in (yes, I sometimes take the time to Google the names of commenters I don’t recognize). You’ve got your old artists that went to art school here and maybe got their MFA’s. Of these, some of them stuck around to teach and some left Dallas and maybe returned disenfranchised by the uninviting art scenes of NYC, LA, Chicago, etc. You’ve got the new generation of art students (the whippersnappers) who are blessed with a seemingly unequaled set of passionate and educated teachers who either cut their teeth locally or brought their MFA’s or PhD’s here. There’re the (gutter)punks that think they can make art, the street artists, and the life-time art students who befriend these whippersnappers. Professionally, there’re the gallerists that somehow survived the passage of time selling their abstract glass and brass sculptures and 2-inch thick oil paintings and the gallerists who encourage challenging, often local contemporary artists. And then there’re the staff of the local art institutions, the independent curators, and the journalists and art critics–all of which most people don’t know. What remains are the collectors, the casual buyers, and the simple fans of art (and/or free wine). Maybe I missed some subgroup, but that seems to be the scene. [comment by Douglas D. Martin, "Dear Young DFW Whippersnapper Artists," Christina Rees, Glasstire, July 27, 2012]
And he followed this Dallas taxonomy with a diagnosis of the problem that Rees was addressing.
With maybe the exception of visits during the Art Fair, upper level staff and trustees of the art institutions and collectors rarely make it to see any emerging art shows. And, as I mentioned in my comments on The State of the Arts and on the “research results” of Creative Time, neither do the competing gallerists. This disconnect from the scene is important to note. Older teachers and writers may hang with whippersnappers and wax philosophically over drinks at Amsterdam or Meridian, but because of their institutional ties, they are afraid, as Jenn Gooch mentioned above, to criticize in print, and often they miss shows.  [comment by Douglas D. Martin, "Dear Young DFW Whippersnapper Artists," Christina Rees, Glasstire, July 27, 2012]
Rees's article, in light of Martin's comment, seems almost nihilistic. It's as if she's saying, "Since no one cares anyway, do whatever you want." Is it any better in Houston? I think a lot of big time collectors are very hesitant to buy from local artists (unless they have the sufficient cultural capital, as bestowed by museum shows, blue chip gallery representation, and out-of-town critical recognition) or even to slum in the scene. But some young Houston collectors I know are willing to engage with the work of younger or more difficult artists. It's far from perfect, but if what Rees and Martin are saying is true, it's a lot better in Houston than in Dallas for young whippersnappers.

Indeed, it's not artists one thinks of at all when one thinks of Dallas and art. (And this despite having an interesting art history that goes back at least to the 30s, including two of my favorite Texas artists, Alexandre Hogue and Jerry Bywaters.) One thinks of big institutions and big collectors. I can't remember where I read it, but the statement "In Dallas, the man who owns the art is more highly regarded than the artist" is something that has always stuck with me.

That's the next part of my Dallas trip--viewing the mega-collections.

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