Déjà view

Among some genuine talent at the Dallas Visual Arts Center, too many copycats abound

Another healthy handful of pieces work well, and like them or not, many would agree that some talent is behind them. But some raise the prickly issue of looking both great and derivative; they would work better if you hadn't seen them before. The most connective thread of familiarity was the woman's aesthetic. A mere glance and I'd know the piece was by a woman -- a smart, cynical woman who needed to express women's issues, blah, blah, blah. I've never seen so much Kiki Smith and Louise Bourgeois in my life, not even at a Kiki Smith show.

The aforementioned Helslander combines tape, electrical wire, and paint to create a low floor sculpture so womb-like and stark and evocative of Budd's piece in an Arlington show two years back that upon approach I was pretty sure the name card would read "Budd, 1997." Lily Hanson puts a blue plaster tit-genital in a gauze frame, and Jill Judson Singletary makes a doll's bed out of rusty barbed wire, and I'm wondering which edition of the Bourgeois catalog these artists keep on their bedside tables.

One piece that nearly transcends its own creepy-gorgeous, "womyn"-art legacy is Katherine Taylor's "Object of Waste," a clay piece that looks like smooth, heavy bronze. Its flaccid, disembodied breasts sag on a table, anchored by a loose trail of spinal column. The lines are perfect -- totally pristine yet breathing and organic. A sad, abandoned chunk of gender. I'd guess breast cancer was in its emotional foundation, but the cliché makes me wince.

Jill Judson Singletary does her take on feminist art -- ooh, a doll's bed of barbed wire -- at DVAC's group show.
Jill Judson Singletary does her take on feminist art -- ooh, a doll's bed of barbed wire -- at DVAC's group show.

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The women aren't the only lifters. Jim Bowman attempts Rauschenberg's pop-meets-gay-meets-3D-ramble with his "Glass Garden with Cat in the Hat Hat." But the glass is an incoherent jumble except for the multiple phalluses and bloody sword and striped top hat -- anyone for literal? Jonathan Miller does Rauschenberg a bit better, what with his silk-screen collage of fish and such, though Rauschenberg's canny sense of multilevel, optical entertainment is missing.

The harder I looked, the more I saw the homage-cum-copies. Heather Murray has her way with Salle, circa 1984, albeit with an unprovocative flatness, and Kay Ford Ellis does a shrill Kiki with a cylinder of dripping mesh and some orange crochet flounces denoting erogenous and fecund zones. These works made Lynda Bottom's large aluminum drawing of flora and fauna -- a cheerful, satisfying piece of meticulous decoration -- look downright pioneering.

Still, I came away in a positive mood -- these artists are certainly capable craftsmen, and they have intelligent, universal concerns. Perhaps with time, they'll cultivate their own individual style. I'm still wondering how to respond to them right now, if at all. Maybe in the name of continuity and homage, I should suspend judgment, let these artists find their voice by practicing other voices (after all, most rock bands learn to play and write by covering other groups' songs). Fair enough -- just as long as these artists don't linger forever on others' terrain. Striking out for new aesthetic land is nearly a fool's journey -- as with music, it's hard to believe there's anything left to discover or cultivate.

My non-art brother wouldn't lose sleep over this issue. He could study Taylor's spinal-bound boobs and simply say -- "Hey, that's amazing. It makes me uncomfortable, and I'm not sure I'd want it in my house, but I appreciate where it's coming from." I envy that.

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