By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The phenomenon of suburban spread has, despite its tendency to homogenize everything in its steamroller path, sparked at least one enriching trend. Buried deep in the hearts of some of the pseudo-cities--Plano, Arlington, even North Richland Hills--are unexpected slices of *real art, almost as though the urban core of the art scene has, under the weight of population influx, shattered into little pieces that land in suburbia and take root. The Arlington Museum of Art, the Plano Art Center, and other like venues have evolved over the past few years and proved their stake in the high-aesthetics game. Solid shows, knowing curators, thoughtful viewers, and all outside the market hubs of Dallas and Fort Worth.
But really, these spaces have emerged not as bastard offspring of big-city venues but rather as independent forces: People resent having to commute into the dense downtown grid for all things cultural, and while the suburbs enthusiastically sprout their own pithy vines of "arts" and "entertainment" (if we can call megaplex movie theaters and chain restaurants such), the great anomaly is these art venues. Who'd have guessed that a frustrated Irvingite could walk down his own street to see an impressive installation by a pair of noted artists?
The Irving Arts Center, a dozen-year-old entity smack in the middle of Dallas' northwestern shadow, has dug itself a respectable niche in this decade, beginning as a single, humble lobby sporting works by earnest high school students and growing into a dual-galleried, tri-theater force that boasts a constant onslaught of music, drama, and visual arts by respected and emerging artists. Looking at its monthly calendar listings, you get a picture of a place that's mastered a balance between pleasing its suburban crowd with "safer" fare and taking the kinds of risks that force an unexpected education on its more complacent viewers. Granted, a space as edgy as Gray Matters would starve to death in Irving. But handfuls of the art-informed living in Texas Stadium territory would waste away if all they were fed was an endless diet of "Southwestern" paintings and Neil Simon plays.
Right now, the Irving Arts Center boasts this safe yet cutting compromise from the visual art contingent--the large gallery holding giant installations by Dallas favorites Frances Bagley and Tom Orr, the smaller gallery showcasing the unsettling drawings of newer talent Mike Hill.
Bagley and Orr, a sort of "power team" from the region's contemporary art scene (they're married), have enjoyed critical acclaim for years; she's known for her breathtaking figural works out of natural materials, he for his elegant wood and wire sculptures. Both enjoy representation by Dallas' more moneyed galleries. Maybe it's the vast size of the Irving Art Center's main gallery (more than 130 feet long, and the ceiling tops out around 30 feet) that seduced the duo; their two separate installations fill and bisect the whole bright room, his on one side, hers on the other.
The title of the show, To Float, fits well enough; Bagley references the term with air, Orr with water metaphors. Bagley's piece, "Cloud," is inspired by Japanese Shinto shrines, where pilgrims write their hopes or wishes on rice paper or cloth and tie them to the shrine. The man-to-spirit communication comes from the collective force of such desire. Bagley adopts the concept to her aesthetic with mixed results.
Three massive ellipses--umbrella-like tiers of wire--are suspended from the ceiling by a surprisingly graceful system of pale ropes and pulleys, and are likewise anchored to the floor by ropes bolted to sandy boulders. To each umbrella, or cloud, are tied hundreds of strips of rice paper that, densely packed, give each concave wire cage a solid shape, and on each strip is written the wishes of individuals--people invited to the gallery a few weeks ago to compose them. You can walk around and underneath the giant forms--they subtly sway and rotate in the air-conditioning draft. You can crane your neck and try to read the phrases on the thin strips, though the scrunching of the paper with wire twists (what secures them to the wire frame) obscures the messages: "I wish for a...life"; "I wish to have a...to travel thru..."; "The ultimate wish would be...of one another and get along...beings shooting at one another..."
So many read much the same: desire for world peace, desire for long life, desire for a "global shift in consciousness." Reading their heavy, interrupted messages gets comical after a bit, like the bathtub scene in Steve Martin's The Jerk, when the hapless hero sputters and slurs through his girlfriend's breakup letter because the ink is smeared by bathwater. Still, Bagley writes in her official statement that the wishes aren't meant to be read (ah, well); really, the strength of the piece comes not from its "message" but from its ethereal, serene form--Bagley's forte in the first place.
Smartly, she's added two extra elements to the scene, one boulder tied to its pulley without a massive cloud in between, and another big rock bound to the ground under a trap-like net. These almost creepy add-ons stave off the sense that the piece is naively earnest, and inject it with a needed mystery, if not cynicism.