Dallas is a mythical concept. It is America in ways that New York, Chicago or Los Angeles are no longer. It is further from convention, and wrapped within its locality and character in a manner that causes other cities to seem timid in their skins. Dallas embodies its country’s most dynamic hallmarks—economic growth, technological advancement and unceasing civic development—while remaining refreshingly unshackled from predictable European aestheticism. If America is the engine of the new world, so is Dallas the diamond tip of that machinery. There is a boldness of thought for what can be done, and a vastness to the scope of possibility that seems a reflection of the towering Texan landscape it is built on. These aspects both set Dallas within, and off-kilter from, the rest of the United States. It has a shimmering sense of frontier-ship and unabashed grandeur, of alternative logic and audacity that are its own.
These ideals are reflected in the merging of art and sport at the AT&T stadium, where enormous crowds are introduced to ambitious contemporary art commissions. It is heartening to consider those who might be inspired for whom exposure to art may not otherwise easily occur. Similarly, Northpark Center, a grand shopping mall, houses pieces from the collection of its founder, Raymond D. Nasher, so that the work of Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Jim Dine and others are set within the retail experience of over 26 million annual visitors. It is an act of display marvelously disquieting to staid tropes of where we expect to encounter art.
Within the art scene itself, venues include The Power Station, which was once what the name suggests and presents exhibitions that often respond to its impressive industrial architecture; that exquisite, secret garden of text-based innovation, The Reading Room; the minimalist stylings of The Box Company, a pristine, white cube within a larger, dirtier one; Beefhaus, a gritty artist-led initiative; and the Wilcox Space, which is one of the quietest, most reverential rooms dedicated to art anywhere, in this case that of late Texan painter, John Wilcox. Institutions include the Nasher Sculpture Center, The Mac, and the Dallas Museum of Art, along with commercial stalwarts, Conduit ,Talley Dunn, Liliana Bloch, and Barry Whistler galleries.
Some spaces however, list toward the city’s brasher elements of showy excess and glitzy consumerism. It’s an addictive tendency that impacts artistic efficacy and perhaps accounts for the common complaint that Dallas isn’t taken as seriously as it might be, or that political or stereotypical attitudes about Texas on the West and East Coasts limit perceptions of what is happening here.
The Warehouse, for example, is home to works from the collections of Howard Rachofsky and Vernon Faulconer. While the compound is a staggering achievement, its educational program is dismaying. A recent tour of the Warehouse became a demoralizing exercise in institutional paranoia. It began with an interminable lecture on what was not permitted while on the premises, before our guide corralled and worried the group through the building, indicating precisely when and how we should look at or even think about the work. The implication was that the objects were far more valuable than our experience of them, and that it was our immense privilege to be there. It could have been a conducive experience had the educator approached the visitors from the opposite sentiment, or as potential emissaries for the foundation’s aims after they had left. The Warehouse is a great asset to Dallas, but one’s engagement with it, ought not to be subjugated beneath the brilliance of its material horde.
Dallas Contemporary states an intention to present “new and challenging ideas”. While it occasionally presses salient issues—”Black Sheep Feminism: The Art of Sexual Politics” (2016) seems even more pertinent today—the glut of recent, moribund exhibitions is deeply concerning. These range from “Burry“ (2016), by fashion designer Helmut Lang, whose black and gold, screened opulences are no more than sinister extensions of a howling ego, to “Ma’am“ (2016) which subjected its audience to the vapid musings of Paola Pivi. Her facile, expensive trifles included large, brightly colored, furry bears; spinning, feathered wheels; a muskox sunk into a pile of coffee beans; and an upside-down fighter jet. The work hopscotched from Duchamp to Rauschenberg, with no more gravitas than a toy store clearance sale. The grandiose contrivances behind Pedro Reyes onerous, stone sentinels in “For Future Reference“ (2016) claimed an authority befitting the antiquity of Easter Island’s moai. They were “not dissimilar in function to an oracle or Magic 8 Ball—predicting futures and answering both life’s most elusive and banal questions.” If that is so we need them to run for office, instead of idling in a gallery. Even a pleasant show by Ross Bleckner (2017) doesn’t heal the sensorial trauma of Dan Colen’s “Oil Painting“ (2016), a dithering, three-part exhibition consisting of chewing gum constructs, Disney-esque paintings of explosive glitter, and literally, and without irony, combines made from garbage.
The wall texts that accompanied photographer Bruce Weber’s “Far From Home“ (2016/17), contained stories of fame and luxury with a dangerously high sugar content. Images of stunning models, fading aristocrats, and exotic shores might induce fantasies of such lives, but the pages of magazines are a more appropriate showcase, not the city’s foremost contemporary space. Nor are they new or challenging pictorial expressions. They are indulgent lifestyle pornography. Bowing to desultory efforts by trendy artists and the fashion world’s bloviated titans doesn’t seed local talent or help to position Dallas as an incisive and relevant commentator.
Despite sensitive projects such as, “Giuseppe Penone: Being the River, Repeating the Forest“ (2016), “First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone” (2018), and its wonderful series of lectures, even the stellar Nasher Sculpture Center too often recycles the husks of redundant names. Foremost among them is Richard Serra. Along with one of his tyrannical carcasses lowering in the sculpture garden, 2017 saw “Richard Serra: Prints“ and the concurrent, Serra-inspired “Foundations” series installation. The press release sighed that “critical thinking is crucial to his process”. But this is surely the case for any serious artist, and for rethinking press release cliches. Considering that Fort Worth must contend with the harassment of Serra’s rusting, mechanical phallus permanently menacing the skies above its modern art museum, the critically-bankrupt global industry of retrospectives and exhibitions roiling about him, and the ample public holdings of his output nationally, The Nasher could be daring, and look across the street to the Dallas Museum of Art. There, likely unwittingly, is an exquisite response to the suffocating ubiquity of Serra’s work; its removal. Only a few marks on the ground remain to toast such restorative absence. That prominent DMA location could now be offered to less canonical choices.
The Nasher’s “Sightings” series, hosted in the downstairs gallery, doesn’t often thrill. Michael Dean’s (2016/17) concrete totems were described as “beings”, but the objects did not, as the Nasher claimed, “project an extraordinary humanity”. The twisted, alphabetized chunks were redolent of a torn up parking lot and read as mute syllabary, unaware of what they were supposed to be saying. Similarly turgid, were the store-front figures developed from Mai-Thu Perret’s (2016) imagined art-feminist commune, “The Crystal Frontier” whose members “live” in the New Mexican desert. Their lifelessness denied these pseudo-militaristic mannequins the bravery or strength that the artist presumably admires in her real-world inspirations; groups such as YPJ, fighting and protecting, in the Middle East. Their very imaginariness strips them of any potency. Despite these missteps the Sightings initiative could be reformatted to support compelling international artists and rising Texans. San Antonio’s Artpace, which insists on each iteration including a state, a national and an international resident, is a solid example of such connective thinking.
Finally, the new Nasher Prize, seems a cynical apparatus for the museums’s status rather than authentic acknowledgment of worthy achievements. It bestows glittering accolades, and money on accomplished and famous artists—Doris Salcedo (2016), Pierre Huyghe (2017), Theaster Gates (2018)—who require the support far less than countless artists of sparer means but, given the chance, equal import. If the Contemporary, and the Nasher more often risked getting out in front of history, instead of meekly regurgitating its chiseled names, then how immense and meaningful their contributions could be as leaders.
In terms of critical writing, Dallas requires more vigorous exchange to exorcise curatorial sloth and redundancy in artists’ and institutional practices. There is a comfortability with primary-colored simplicity, middling painterliness and sleepy conceptuality, and while decoratively appealing, these directives don’t link Dallas to meaningful discourse or necessary experimentation. Glasstire, the principle publication, can seem trepidatious, stymied perhaps by having to be everything to everyone. It must be taxing for one title to be the city’s only critical platform, both midwife and mortician. One senses the struggle in its pages. Dallas has plentiful, generalized arts coverage but it tends to praise overtly rather than seriously contemplate. There are dextrous, razor-sharp writers in Dallas, Caleb Mathern among them. Perceptiveness and humor such as his are qualities to be fomented and utilized.
The city is home to, or represents, fascinating artists whose careers could, with support, alter the bathymetric perception of what is happening here. Jeff Gibbons’ eye for the nuances of emotional damage is lightened by his wit, imbuing quotidian items with heartbreaking depth, whether a a fifties diner-waitress gingham dress, with “Jeff” italicized on the name tag, or a hanging punch-bag, clothed in the artist’s jeans, belt and shoes, feebly waiting to take whatever the world has to throw at it. His work’s forlornness brings a wicked breath of despair to the brightest countenance. For his solo show “Clown Ambulance” (2016) at Conduit Gallery, he imbued discarded things with high-romanticism, mirth and a macabre sensibility. A video of an aged, electric, reclining chair repeatedly trying to throw off its burdensome cushions, was exemplary. Sarah Williams’ paintings, “Area Codes” (2016) at Talley Dunn, of rural homes set against dark foliage, sumptuously gloomy skies, and warmed by the nostalgic glow of decorative Christmas lights are cheerfully uncomfortable. They blend longing for simpler pasts with unease at human absence and its implications of foreboding or isolationism. And Cassandra Emswiler Burd’s show at Erin Cluley Gallery “Flowers of War” (2015) employed the tiled surface of a farmhouse kitchen table to corroborate parallels between the seemingly oppositional pursuits of garden design and war planning.
Dallas has an eager and absorbing cultural fabric, municipal vitality and preponderous wealth. There is hard-won creative momentum and the spaces to initiate it through a committed network of local artists and a loyal structure of dealers and collectors. But until art workers of all types decide that they want to address fundamental issues and engage robustly in celebrating the unique traits of the region’s characteristics within self-scrutiny, and outward vision, it will not become the nexus of artistic analysis and production that it could be. Dallas has all that it needs to achieve this, but it doesn’t need all that it has.
Darren Jones is an art critic and artist, from Scotland, based in the United States.
Volume 32 no 3 Jan/Feb 2018 pp 21- 23