Dallas is a mythical place. It is America in ways that New York, Chicago or Los Angeles cannot be, and it is further from convention than those cities. It embodies many of its country’s most thrusting hallmarks—economic growth, technological advancement and unceasing civic development—while remaining refreshingly unshackled from predictable European aesthetical mores. As America is the engine of the new world, so is Dallas the diamond tip of that machinery. There is a willingness, and boldness of thought for what can be done, rather than what has been done; and a vastness to the scope of possibility that seems a reflection of the Texan landscape it is built on. Like its state, these characteristics both set Dallas within, and off-kilter from, the rest of the United States. Dallas has a shimmering sense of frontier-ship and unabashed grandeur, of alternative logic and audacity that is its own.
Such ideals are reflected in the merging of art and sport at the AT&T stadium, where enormous crowds are introduced to contemporary art commissions. It is heartening to consider those who might be inspired, for whom exposure to art may not otherwise occur. Similarly, Northpark Center mall displays modernist works from the collection of its founder, Raymond D. Nasher, so that a stroll through its avenues of shops brings the work of Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Jim Dine and others, within the retail experience of over 26 million annual visitors, knocking staid tropes of how art ought to be seen or interacted with.
Venues within the art scene include, The Power Station, which develops varied projects, often in response to its impressive industrial architecture; 500X, a large warehouse gallery run by a rolling committee of artists; that exquisite, secret garden of text based innovation, The Reading Room; The Box Company, and Beefhaus, another gritty, artist-led initiative. Major institutions include the Nasher Sculpture Center, The Mac, and the Dallas Museum of Art, along with commercial spaces such as Conduit ,Talley Dunn, Liliana Bloch, and Barry Whistler galleries. Mention ought to be made of the recently shuttered CentralTrak Artist Residence Program, managed by respected, longtime director, and artist, Heyd Fontenot. This seismic blow hit the scene hard, and it is to be hoped that the endeavor will be resurrected. The Dallas Art Fair is another credit to the city, an enjoyable aspect being its contrariness to the adage that “everything is bigger in Texas” through its maintenance of a boutique sensibility and a limited roster. It is pleasing to see that last year’s insulting and risible sleepwalk by Gagosian, isn’t to be repeated.
But there are also ventures that list toward the city’s brasher characteristics of showy excess, and glitzy consumerism. It’s a 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 on the west and east coasts, limit perceptions of its art world.
The Warehouse is home to works from the collections of Howard Rachofsky and Vernon Faulconer, and is a testament to the ability of private wealth and personal vision in assembling art for informative perpetuity. While the collection and its compound are staggering, unfortunately the educational aspects of this remarkable space are disappointing.
A tour of the Warehouse—precisely arranged in advance—was a demoralizing exercise in dictatorial stringency and institutional paranoia. Our guide dispensed an interminable lecture on what was not permitted while on the premises before our group was corralled, scolded, and worried through the building, as hapless dolts who could not be trusted with the art. We were told specifically when and how we ought to look at, consider, or interact with it. The implication was that the stuff housed therein was so much more valuable than our experience of it, when in fact the opposite is true, and that it must have been our immense privilege to be there, when in fact it was the Warehouse’s privilege that we had come. The experience was disastrous as a way of inspiring or learning through art. This is not to say that the Warehouse is not a great asset to Dallas, but that one’s engagement with it, ought not to be subjugated beneath the brilliance of its material horde.
Dallas Contemporary claims to offer “new and challenging ideas”. Alas, while it occasionally finds an artist capable of wrestling its preposterously large halls into begrudging collaboration, or puts out a relevant message—“Black Sheep Feminism: The Art of Sexual Politics“ (2016) seems even more topical and potent today—many recent shows have been artistically worthless. These range from “Burry“ (2016), by fashion designer Helmut Lang, who does not make art, but sinister extensions of his howling ego, to, “Ma’am“ (2016) which comprised the idiotic musings of Paola Pivi, whose facile, ridiculous, clutter isn’t fit for the shelves of Toys “R” Us. Pedro Reyes philosophically bloated, pompous, sculptural nonsenses in “For Future Reference“ (2016) apparently 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, those sculptures should be running for office instead of idling in a gallery. Even a pleasant show by Ross Bleckner (2017) doesn’t scrub the festering ick of monstrosities like Dan Colen’s “Oil Painting“ (2016).
The wall texts that accompanied the pictures of fashion photographer Bruce Weber in, “Far From Home“ (2016/17), contained stories of famous friends and fabulous parties, with a sugar content high enough to initiate diabetic seizure. Images were lush and erotic, portraying models, wealthy aristocrats, and exotic shores. Some might fantasize of such lives but they are not art, nor are they “new or challenging”. They are vapid, lifestyle pornography. What could be Dallas’s approximate equivalent to New York’s PS1—itself imperfect—should be steering clear of such empty calories. Suckling the teats of celebrities and importing the fashion world’s Norma Desmonds doesn’t seed local talent or position the city as a serious commentator. As a contemporary site, The Power Station, has a more condusive outlook, from the tenor of its website to the consistency of its programing; Although “Meaning and Difference” (2017) by Darren Bader—an artist who can makes the emperor’s new clothes seem thick with quilted brocade—was a misstep.
Despite super projects such as, “Giuseppe Penone: Being the River, Repeating the Forest“ (2016) and their marvelous series of lectures, even the stellar Nasher Sculpture Center falls prey to recycling the irrelevant husks of redundant names, and promoting bland ideas. Of the former—along with one of his sanctimonious carcasses littering the grounds—there was the chronically pointless, “Richard Serra: Prints“ (2017) and the concurrent, Serra-inspired “Foundations“ installation, which declared in its literature; “Critical thinking is crucial to his process”. Such cloying drivel. For what serious artist is this not the case? Isn’t it enough that Fort Worth has to contend with the sexual harassment of Serra’s bone-dry, mechanical penis menacing the skies above its stunning museum? The Nasher might look across the street and take note of the Dallas Museum of Art which, perhaps unwittingly, has the most appropriate response to a Serra product anywhere; Its removal. Only a few marks on the ground remain to toast such perfect absence.
The downstairs exhibition space hosted—as part of the Nasher’s Sightings series—an exhibition by British artist, Michael Dean (2016/17) of spiritless, concrete totems. Described as “beings” the objects did not, as the Nasher ludicrously claimed, “project an extraordinary humanity”. The twisted, vaguely alphabetized chunks were redolent of a torn up parking lot and read merely as saddened, literary dunces. The series also offered figurative store-front drop-outs developed from Mai-Thu Perret’s (2016) imagined art-feminist commune, “The Crystal Frontier”, whose members “live” in the New Mexican desert. Their static poses and lifeless presences, deny these pseudo-militaristic mannequins of empowered women any sense of bravery or strength 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.
If the Contemporary, and the Nasher could more often get out in front of history, instead of meekly regurgitating its tired follies, then how immense and meaningful their contributions could be.
In terms of criticality, Dallas requires more vigorous exchange than it has, to highlight curatorial sloth and exorcise superfluity in artists’ and institutional practices. This might lead it toward more agile, socially incisive art, conversant with what is happening nationally, and internationally. There is a comfortability with primary-colored simplicity, middling painterliness and sleepy conceptuality which dogs the scene. While these can be decoratively appealing—exemplified in local presentations over the past two years by Zeke Williams, Natasha Bowdoin, and Gabriel Dawe—it doesn’t fulfill art’s purpose as a progressive societal vehicle. It would behoove Dallas, to get over the rainbow.
It is important for critics to discuss work—or institutional commentary—that is egregious, because merely describing, or feebly praising, perpetuates the blight. An artwork’s failings may be tough to swallow, but lopping off excess, sometimes harshly, is vital in pressing the vanguard. Glasstire is the dominant publication, but it can seem trepidatious, drowning perhaps in its isolation, while having to balance all roles of encouraging, reproaching, questioning and elucidating. It must be taxing for one magazine to be both call and response, the city’s midwife and mortician. One senses the struggle, and the risk of positional blunting. But there are dextrous, razor-sharp writers in Dallas, Caleb Mathern among them. Incisiveness and humor such as his are literary qualities to be utilized, capable as they are of sorting the wheat from the chaff.
Such contentions are highlighted as artists showing in Dallas, gain prominence, and become barometers of what is going on, for good or ill. Of the former, Jeff Gibbons’ eye for the nuances of human damage is lightened by his wit, imbuing everyday items with heartbreaking depth. At its best, his work’s forlornness brings a breath of despair to the brightest countenance. His Conduit Gallery exhibition, “Clown Ambulance” (2016) wonderfully combined high-romanticism, mirth and a funerary sensibility; Sarah Williams’ paintings—shown in “Area Codes” (2016) at Talley Dunn Gallery—of rural homes set against dark foliage, sumptuously gloomy skies, and warmed by the nostalgic glow of decorative Christmas lights are cheerfully uncomfortable. Their potency in blending longing for simpler pasts with unease at human absence and its implications of the foreboding or isolationist—discomfiture sharpened under current political discourse—is spellbinding; Cassandra Emswiler Burd’s show at Erin Cluley Gallery “Flowers of War” (2015) was an innovative, tiled intrigue using the domestic simplicity of a table to corroborate parallels between the seemingly oppositional pursuits of garden design and war planning. While, again at Conduit, in “Kindred” (2017) English artist Sarah Ball presented watery, intensely intimate portraits from two groups of work, documenting 20th century immigrants to the United States, and Romanian life during the Soviet Occupation. Fantastically interesting artists are at work, but the balance of attention seems tilted towards the mediocre, with too many unserious write-ups in general interest publications, heaping undeserved praise hither and thither.
New York is as parochial an art scene as it gets, with artists obsessed about making it in Manhattan, but have Dallas artists the opposite problem, in wanting to make it elsewhere? Dallas could look to Glasgow’s recent history. Even lacking a collector base, or many commercial galleries, that city was transformed from an industrial-era hulk of the British Empire into one of Europe’s leading dynamos of contemporary art production. This was achieved through fierce criticality, innovative programming at Glasgow School of Art—which gained international attention—forward-looking institutional players, and a loyal community of artists and curators who resisted the lure of London or Berlin in favor of building a local network of colleagues, exhibition spaces, and studios. Until art workers of all kinds in Dallas decide that they want to progress, and engage robustly with these issues, invest more strategically in local creativity, and find ways to celebrate the unique traits of the region’s rightly proud characteristics within self-scrutiny, it will not become the global hub of artistic excellence 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, curator and artist, from Scotland, based in the United States.
Volume 32 no 3 Jan/Feb 2018 pp 21- 23