By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
One evening last week, a local news broadcast let loose a disturbing bit of information. This past year's crime statistics show that while violent crime is down all over the nation, it's up in North Texas. By 12 percent. Let's repeat that: The rest of the United States is (miraculously) growing more civilized, but this region has grown more barbaric. Sure, there are plenty of variables and qualifiers, but still, here at the end of the 20th century, this Lone Star State is something of a, uh, maverick.
You could chalk it up to the fact that this is one of the fastest-growing centers of the nation; such burgeoning population begets chaos. That, or around here, mamas still teach their babies to shoot straight. But the most romanticized explanation for Texas remaining an aging Wild West is that, hell, this state has never failed to distinguish itself. Unfortunately, it's sometimes for the worse.
Where does our art fall into that posit? Recently, I was struck by another discrepancy between Texas and the rest of the U.S., at least when comparing two sources: the decade-end issue of Art Forum, one of the more consistently well-spoken and lofty of the art rags, and Barry Whistler Gallery's 15th Anniversary show. Art Forum's extended wrap-up summarizes all that's happened in the art world, a good chunk of it American, since the '90s rolled out of an economically anemic recession and into rosy health -- all the most notable and inspired events and artists. Barry Whistler, a respected Dallas gallery owner who champions Texas artists, might be seen as an ambassador of a juicy cross section of regional artwork. How do the two aesthetic factions meet up?
Though in this case, unlike the disturbing crime stats, that may not be such a bad thing. American art continues to be reactive to the last set of trends that were, in the 1980s, about big paintings and making loads of money off of collectible art. Now the artists lean toward the shrill, the intangible, critical of highbrow culture and no longer making such collector-friendly (or even viewer-friendly) stuff. And if the intrepid collector does rush forth with his wad of cash, he might expect to take home something so unwieldy as to make its display next to impossible, or something so materially rank as to require a health inspection and some serious disinfectant.
There's a subtle set of patterns in what Art Forum displays throughout various top-10 lists across its wide, glossy pages. The big-time art this last handful of years has been endowed with, among other things: lots of rambling text (thanks to Sean Landers), lots of appropriation of advertising images, lots of nudity, and lots of political statement, namely about the decay of society in these self-indulgent and technologically excessive times. There's plenty of video (hats tipped to Bill Viola and Doug Aitken) and film (the unstoppably baroque Matthew Barney) and, of course, perverse installation (Chris Burden is still at it, and better than ever). And let's please not forget the "neo-Victorian" or Gothic-grotesque movement, spawned by cheeky young Brits but notably executed by such Americans as Victoria Reynolds (thickly pulsing portraits of raw meat), Alexis Rockman (dense and disturbed homages to old Masters), and in some of Cindy Sherman's more recent psychosexual tableau photographs.
In short, '90s American art has been aggressive, irony-laden, complex in its craftsmanship and rather wider-angled than previously provincial concerns. Yes, it's exciting, intriguing, and demanding. It's as immediately appealing as a baby grizzly bear, and every bit as high-strung and high-maintenance.
Texas has, as we might have guessed, resisted this direction. Why react against '80s superficiality when Texas never really hopped that train in the first place? While it could be that Texas art is still nascent compared to that in the nation's coastal hubs, it's more characteristic that Texas just doesn't care about what's hot outside of Texas.
Thus, Whistler's show.
Barry Whistler, a gallery owner these past 15 years, has always sniffed out a certain kind of talent for his discerning roster. His artists are consistent, smart but visceral, and while not wholly traditional, they don't exactly careen off the aesthetic tracks into confoundingly novel Purgatory. Aside from the work of the Art Guys (Texas' answer to veteran English conceptual artists Gilbert and George), Whistler's artists aren't even especially ironic, not in the overtly disdainful way of much '90s art.
Besides some upstarts from the major regional universities, some anomalous shows that happen in such alternative spaces as Gray Matters and San Antonio's Blue Star and Houston's Diverseworks, not much Texas art is brashly perverse, so Whistler's quieter contemporary bent is a decent representation of Texas art leanings. Which makes the excellent art of such Whistler artists as Ted Kincaid, Lorraine Tady, and Ann Stautberg that much more appropriate as an overview of recent Texas art -- even if they might be reluctant reps. (Show me an artist who enjoys being thus categorized, and I'll show you a tired sell-out, which these artists are not.)
At least four of the 15 artists on display were part of Whistler's first group show in 1985, when he had a space over on Commerce Street. And though John Wilcox, Ed Blackburn, and Michael Miller's work in this show is new, there's a guess-my-age element to their results: Wilcox's unabashedly op-arty "Snowfall For My Mother Departed" is as timeless as it is dizzying, a blizzard of pristine white dots on a black canvas; and Blackburn's "Judas and the Chief Priest," a monumental depiction of proverbial treachery, is so flat-line cartoony and acid-test colorful that any art historian would be hard-pressed to name its completion date.