By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
One of least gratifying things about being an arts writer is taking the piss out of someone who has good intentions. Don't get me wrong; there's something oddly exhilarating about kneecapping any contingent that really deserves it, and there are always a few floating to the top in this town, like dead guppies in an underpopulated fishbowl. They're obvious and they reek. When the Florence Art Gallery on Cedar Springs masquerades as a legit space then insists on showcasing novelties--a child painter, a blind painter--rather than any real vision (pun intended) from a real artist, I'll be first to snap. And terribly misguided acts by those in positions of power--as in, a big Fort Worth bank selling off its longstanding Caulder sculpture, one of the city's few and most beloved public works, in order to raise funds to redecorate its bank lobby--is certainly worth a good angry poke. Hustles, scams, and superficial plans abound in a region obsessed with cosmetic profile, sports, and cash flow. It's no wonder Dallas will see the opening of a new gargantuan sports arena years before it sees the opening of a much-needed opera house.
But Dallas can't afford relentless criticism about its visual arts front without suffering an overall undermining effect. The city just isn't culturally developed to the point of withstanding blows right and left; it's like tripping up a toddler just as he's learning to walk. Leave that kind of brutal and numbing press to New York, Chicago, London, etc., cities with hundreds of galleries lining their well-established streets, thousands of artists and collectors and dealers, and dozens of publications committed solely to that end. In one of those metropolises, if you're a critic and you demolish a gallery or artist in your art pages, you're merely adding to the already-in-progress melodrama, to the spirit of competition and the survival of the fittest. The herds are dense; the weak should be weeded out. Year-round, it's open season.
But here, if you take one gallery or artist down, you're unwittingly scoring one for the doubters, for all the folks out there who suspect that this region has little to offer, art-wise, in the first place. And you're potentially disconcerting those ever-optimistic art hounds who consider any contribution to Dallas culture, however weak, as another happy brick in the scene's burgeoning foundation. It's the built-in glitch of a relatively new urban landscape. Tread lightly, or else you're stomping the fledgling to death. (Not that Dallas is brand-new, but it's pretty new to the higher arts.)
We do have a healthy little scene here, packed with scrappers and underdogs and eccentrics and a bulging handful of spectacular artists and reps. But what do you do when a gallery (or four) opens that just doesn't measure up to any respectable standard other than the fact that the proprietors are sincere in their efforts? I mean, how do you tell the new, eager kid on the block that the new shoes he sports so proudly are actually cheap knockoffs and are bound to fall apart within weeks? It boils down to an invisible boundary line that he can't see, though others sense it: There's good art and there's bad art. Granted, sometimes our most venerable galleries will show an artist whose work we don't particularly like, but you can still sense the validity and thoughtfulness behind the gallery's choice to show that artist.
What is it with the new kid? Why can't he tell the difference between the good and the bad?
There are a few galleries that have cropped up in the Exposition Park area recently--entirely well-meaning new kids with shiny, suspect shoes. As a critic, I could choose to ignore them entirely and hope no one notices; dig into them with the gleeful ire of a strung-out New York critic after three sleepless nights; or address the problem of writing about weak galleries in a city in dire need of galleries. I'm obviously going for route three.
So, while Dallas can't afford to lose any of its better spaces, I'm not sure it needs what's breeding in Fair Park either, and my worst fear is that out-of-towners visiting the area will assume that this is what Dallas means when it says "art space," or even worse, that Planoites and Grand Prairians will traipse in from their nether regions some sunny weekend afternoon, looking for actual culture, only to conclude at the end of the day that the Dallas visual-arts scene consists of Celtic pottery and shoulder bags made of rabbit fur and mass-produced T-shirts.
That's what these Expo Park art spaces are: storefronts for dubiously trained crafts makers, not real galleries showing artists who transcend the profane in their search for meaning or irony or beauty. These are art spaces for Dungeons & Dragons dorks, for people who spend too much time exalting Riverdance, for naive graphic designers who have come to believe an icon of a stuffed animal belongs on everyone's back.
There are four of them lining the Exposition side of the block. Not the Parry Avenue side: We all know by now that Angstrom and gallery:untitled are real-deal venues. And certainly 500X, down the street a quarter mile, has carved its place in Scene history. But along one short block across from Fair Park, Expo 825 (formerly the Space Gallery), Gallery O, the Independent Particle Gallery, and Sock Monkey have all quite by tragic coincidence fallen through the cracks of good taste and discriminating artist rosters. Not that every piece in every one of these galleries is god-awful, or that every one of this quartet has nothing to recommend in it. After all, Independent Particle is also a frame shop (smart that they didn't give up their day job), and Sock Monkey can get pretty ambitious at times and organize music events featuring some of the city's more notable musicians.