By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Despite dozens of travel shows and guide books--namely the homogenized promos covering transatlantic journey--we have little media that give us the real skinny on what it's like to traverse another continent. Michael Palin's PBS series Pole to
Pole comes closer than most. The intrepid Monty Pythoner braves the fringes and shadows of non Western Russia and the Middle East and such, and unearths some incredible gems like getting obliterated on homemade potato vodka with real Russian farmers. But man, do we see the droll Brit hit rock bottom a few times: bedraggled, suburned, hung-over, hungry, confused, and sidelined by language barriers and immigration officers. That's real travel, the ups and downs of it. You can see a bit of it on Lonely Planet, or read about it in the Irreverent Guide series, but for the most part, modern travel is depicted as some shiny, happy production--Frank Capra Does Budapest.
Rick Steves' pervasive Travels in Europe series, also on PBS, is especially guilty of showing its on-the-move host wearing impossibly clean clothes and a chirpy façade. Surely he must get pissed when Parisian gypsy punks steal his wallet. It's just edited out. For those of us who have hit those parts with nothing more than a passport and a dwindling wad of cash, we've seen way more than the comfortable middle ground. Delayed trains and blistered feet and warm beer are only the tip of the foreign-tongued iceberg.
Frank X. Tolbert2, the dynamic and prolific Galveston artist, has a double show in Dallas that's really a visual travelogue--in a sense it's the illustrated cousin of Pole to Pole. The lowdown and dirty, the singular and magnificent, the anxiety-causing elements of travel are all there in crisp and scratchy graphite, and the result makes for one of the funniest and gut-honest accounts of what it's like to traipse through Europe. Titled Berlin/Paris/Texas, it spans the walls of both the Mulcahy Modern on State Street, and the MAC, down the road off McKinney Avenue.
Tolbert's wife, artist Ann Stautberg, won a travel grant from the DMA, and in early 1996 the couple spent several weeks hanging out and looking at art in France and Germany. Tolbert's dad, the late Dallas Morning News columnist Frank Tolbert Sr., was a sometime travel writer, and here Tolbert Jr. picks up that line--not in words, but in spontaneous and folky visuals--from the thumbnail-type sketches he started while on his trip to the full-blown drawings and paintings he fleshed out once he got home and had time to process the experience.
While the works are personal, playfully abstracted, and symbolic, many of the images are portraits of the artist on his various gritty forays. There's an unmistakable familiarity about them, that crucial universality that we can all (travelers or not) glean from the whole. His style is dense with lines and expression and movement, and he captures moments and intangibles rather than solid scenarios. This is primarily a drawing show, with the sizes ranging from hand-width to monumental, and while some of the imagery makes it to painted form, most of these retain the punchy, jagged nature of the drawings. But there's nothing off-putting or obtuse about the work. Tolbert is about as pretentious as Matt Groening and as instinctively gifted as any noted illustrator, a combo that makes for a refreshing change of exhibition. Often such out-front humor undermines a subject--an easy way to charm the masses--but in this case it sharpens the appeal.
His journey begins, as it does for many of us, at the airport. In "DFW Airport," a guy with squinting eyes and a clenched jaw drags his way through the overcrowded terminal ("12 hours later," says his attached ball-and-chain, "we are going to Europe--can we please leave Texas?"). Wouldn't you know his flight leaves from Gate 10,000? Tolbert nails it: All the anticipation and excitement and frustration are packed into a single 30" x 22" square. Various studies of this piece show up in both spaces, and no wonder. The kick-off of a big trip makes a powerful impression. American Airlines would do well to commission Tolbert to do murals on its walls. At least we travelers could see it and smile our way through the nerves and chaos.
Then onto Berlin and Paris, his main points of stay. In Germany, he conjures the art bear, or "Kunst Bear," a menacing, subverted giant red mammal that sums up all the mongering and schmoozing of the Berlin art scene. The bear shows up in plenty of Tolbert's drawings; he and Stautberg rubbed shoulders with a lot of artists and collectors and gallerists while there. The art bear--looming fat and furry with its tubular penis smoking like a fired-off gun barrel--speaks: "Blah blah blah." So much self-indulgence, so much spew. Sound familiar? Stateside, we get it all the time.
In fact, it's the repeat imagery that powers the show. Nazi-like border patrol, bad parties and bad liquor, the incredible architecture. Trips like this punch lasting holes in your consciousness, and every step informs every following step: He eats one meal of fried eggs and ham, and then every meal after tastes a bit like eggs and ham.