By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
When the Conduit Gallery invited Good/Bad Art Collective to stage the first show in its new annex, the union evoked a list of strange but workable partnerships. A shot of whiskey in a beer. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. CBGB's and early punk rock. The common thread? Each of these unlikely marriages worked because the mismatched characters played off one another in surprising harmony.
Good/Bad, Denton's own enfants terribles with a penchant for perverse conceptual art, rarely invades conservative Dallas. When it does, it's relegated to an alternative-space gig: 500X, or the still-new Angstrom. Conversely, Deep Ellum's Conduit Gallery has made its impressive reputation by representing mid- to late-career regional artists of solid standing, rarely delving into untried territory.
The new Annex, a satellite space to the Conduit proper, is where these two forces recently met and fell in love, as captured in Good/Bad's incisive show, Welcome to Important Town. The result: The Conduit has sharpened its edge and challenged the expectations of longtime patrons, while Good/Bad has pushed its own professional boundaries and landed its highest-profile show in North Texas.
"We wanted a place to make other, new things happen," says Nancy Whitenack, the Conduit's owner-director. "Our storage space down the hall was cramped and not doing us much good as storage, so we decided to make something useful from the room. So with no regard for money pressure, the new space could be used to explore raw ideas, experimental and riskier work."
Thus, the Annex was born. "I think the size and shape of the space is its character," says Marty Walker, gallery assistant for the Conduit and the Annex curator. "It's not the room. It's what you put into it. It's about small, power-packed shows."
See, the Annex is--ahem--kinda small. Only 14 feet by 7.5 feet, in fact. And L-shaped, with a bulging concrete pillar interrupting one wall. In other words, about the size of the master bathroom in a middle-class house. Its dimensions--narrow, bent, and high-ceilinged--would challenge any artist. More so, one might think, a group of fledglings used to dealing with their modest whitewashed building in Denton's industrial boonies, where noise and objects and inflammables spilling outside or onto the roof are the norm.
But Walker was determined to have this controversial, fast-evolving collective take first shot at the Annex. Her interest in Good/Bad started a few years ago when she was a graduate student at the University of North Texas; Good/Bad was founded in 1993 by UNT art students bent on exploring ideas outside the school's tired curriculum. "I was so impressed with how resourceful they are," Walker says. "The spirit, the freshness. They never take themselves too seriously, yet they take their presentation very seriously."
Good/Bad's antics, based on the assertions of conceptual art--idea over content, concept over technique--have been as diverse as they've been constant. The Collective stages a new event nearly every week in Denton, some far more cohesive than others, given the ricochet pace. Members explore every possible mode of expression; they blow things up, tread water in barrel tanks, create sculptures you have to mess with to understand, stage ambitious video and live-music events. No night is the same, and each show swims in its own quirky theory. Yet, no matter how much time, energy, or money is poured into any given show, Good/Bad prefers to present these for one evening only--the members thrill in the immediacy, in making viewers experience art while it's fresh, and then get off on tearing it all down the following morning.
The Conduit show, in forcing Good/Bad to leave its show up for a 30-day run, proves the exception. Walker admits, "At the proposal meetings, some of the members kept saying, 'Do we have to leave it up?'" Granted, prolonged exposure poses greater critical risk. But keeping Welcome to Important Town up for a month wasn't Good/Bad's primary concern.
"The size of the Annex was addressed immediately; it was a good leaping-off point," says Martin Iles, the collective's director-of-sorts. (Careful. Good/Bad's members resent the "leader" concept.) "It works well as a metaphor for our deficiencies, which we like to play with anyway. Everything we created for this show had size in mind. If we had been doing a show for any other space, it would have been completely different."
While its individual members often create individually intriguing works, Good/Bad's group forte has always been installation and site-specific work. And the weird Annex space forces site-specific planning; if anyone could christen the Annex properly, Good/Bad is it. With a dumpster, a jukebox, a snow ski, and Titanic, no less.
"One of the points of the Annex is to polarize," Walker says. "What's happening there should be completely different from what's happening in the gallery."
What's happening in Welcome to Important Town is different from what's happening anywhere in Dallas, and thank God for it. When you enter the Annex through its still-new glassy door, you're immediately confronted with a Good/Bad mascot: a green dumpster. Everything about it is rigidly normal--its heavy metal lid propped open with steel rods, its sharp welded corners, the parking-zone decals across the front. "Satellite Dumpster" is, in fact, a replica of the one that sits in front of Good/Bad's Denton building. But instead of a huge thing overwhelming the claustrophobic space, it sits politely in smaller scale--about the size of a washer/dryer combo. Inside it: the discarded plastic cups and beer cans from the opening-night party. If Good/Bad can't have its one-night stand in Dallas, it will at least reference a single-night event. On the crowded opening night, those familiar with Good/Bad sensibilities didn't hesitate to toss in their trash. The uninitiated weren't so sure.