Cheers and tallyho

Your devoted columnist -- the little ingrate -- sails off into the sunset

So I'm leaving. Sitting on the floor of my apartment (which is in pre-move shambles), typing on my laptop (which is seizing up with an irritating little virus), and reflecting on my last two years as an art columnist for the Dallas Observer (which have been amazing), I can't help but call myself an ingrate. In the past 24 months, I've been privy to the region's richest, best-kept secret: its art scene. Not nearly as obvious as its sports obsession, as shrill as its corporate market, or as roiling as its politics, the arts in Dallas have existed within a kind of survivalist garret, translucent on the outside and impressively muscular within. It's the kind of scene that visitors and newcomers could either miss entirely if they blink, or submerge themselves in if they so much as scrape its surface.

I scraped its surface while writing for The Met nearly three years ago. It was a forced scrape. The Met's editors were out of arts writers, and they drafted the new kid who had written nothing but film reviews up to that point. My first assignment: to preview Robert Hughes' American Visions series on PBS. As I plopped down in front of the television with six VCR tapes loaded with the history of American art as told through the eyes of Time magazine's art critic, all I could think was "How can I wrap this up quickly?" I mean, visual art, for God's sake. It was a force I hadn't seriously considered since -- well, since I nearly passed out in the Prado Museum in Madrid one year earlier.

And there's really nothing like watching Carravagios and Goyas and El Grecos swirl around you in a kaleidoscopic, mocking haze. Especially if you're not generally inclined to pass out.

The one that stuck -- Erick Swenson's "Edgar" epitomizes the best of what I've seen these past two years.
The one that stuck -- Erick Swenson's "Edgar" epitomizes the best of what I've seen these past two years.

But I didn't pass out in the Prado that day. I sucked in a heavy lungful of dusty museum air and set my jaw. "This is art, damn it. You studied this in college. You've been gazing at it and reading about it and scrutinizing it for years." So instead of buckling under the onslaught of sensory perfection, I sat down on one of those ubiquitous museum benches and looked straight at the masterpieces. And thought. And looked some more. And made a decision -- one that led me in a serpentine way to Robert Hughes and the Observer and a column called "Framed" and some of the best art anyone could ever hope to witness anywhere, including the hallowed halls of a Spanish institution.

I decided right then and there, in the Prado, that I would dedicate myself to learning more about art and its makers, explore how so much meaning can be packed into a single work, consider why artists are compelled to create even when the world won't applaud. The power seething off the canvases in the Prado could compete with any visceral reaction provoked by any great cathedral, and for me, an agnostic, it was far better. What artists capture in their work is often intangible but felt in the deepest corners of our psyches. Just look a Motherwell or a Michelangelo or a Bacon in the eye and say it ain't so. The messages are as clear and universal as if you've been grabbed round the middle and hugged (or slapped, or winked at, or stroked, depending on the work and artist).

Because as far as I can tell -- and I've written this before -- visual art, like music, is the surest sign we have on earth that humans have souls. And I can't think of a nobler endeavor than to explore that posit, and if given half a chance, to help explain it to those who want to feel more of it. Which is essentially how I've picked up a paycheck these past two years. I get paid for exploring the soul. (Some would argue I get paid for crushing the soul.) Pretty friggin' nice, if you're into that sort of thing.

And plenty of people around here are into that sort of thing, and the massive bonus in this line of work is rubbing shoulders with them. By the time I had recovered from writing my second art piece for The Met, about San Francisco's frenetic and punishing machine-art outfit Survival Research Laboratories, I was hooked and given free rein to cover local art. My first real conversations about local contemporary art were with Talley Dunn (daunting) and Edith Baker (gracious). While they carefully negotiated my questions about the regional art market, the subject of a cover story, I soaked up their words and the art that hung on the walls of their galleries. If Robert Hughes could make the tangled and complex world of visual art accessible and compelling to a huge American public, perhaps I could help make Dallas art the same for Dallasites.

And so it went. Forget film criticism, forget rock-music criticism; what I really wanted to cover was art. (And this is where the film montage would unspool, to the swelling music of Philip Glass or Laurie Anderson or some such arty tones.) I read art books and periodicals voraciously, consulted with the friends who could talk to me about it with clarity and warmth. Todd Ramsell, Martin Iles, David Quadrini -- these were my post-college cronies who received the odd late-night phone call: "So what's up with painting in Los Angeles right now?" Oh, their patience. I moved from contributor and then arts editor at The Met to blessed freedom as visual-art columnist for the Observer.

And I shot from the hip. Not always straight, apparently, but at least honestly. I might have found myself on a first-name basis with artists, dealers, and curators, but I strove like hell not to let politics muddy my writing. I'm not a failed or bitter visual artist. If something smelled rotten or looked suspect, I called it out. And if it thrilled me -- which more often than not it did -- I said so, loudly and clearly. And the Observer gave me the room to stretch and fumble, like an indulgent parent who lets his 3-year-old tear her clothes off at the beach and run around.

I'd like to say I've seen nothing but progress in the local art scene these last couple of years. I have, mostly. Suzanne Weaver and Charlie Wylie have brought nothing but amazing contemporary art to the previously muddled Dallas Museum of Art. The McKinney Avenue Contemporary finally found its footing. Talley Dunn started her own gallery. The Modern in Fort Worth is readying itself for a grand new era in a new building. Denton's Good/Bad Art Collective now boasts a thriving New York satellite. The Arlington Museum of Art gave new meaning to the term "suburban venue." Fewer artists are compelled to leave the area, and, get this -- there are nine Texans in this year's Whitney Biennial.

But just as I sat down to write this farewell column, I received a sobering phone call: Turner and Runyon Gallery, always a first to bring national and international young art to these parts, is closing. Immediately. Too much overhead, too few sales. It's a reminder that in the art world, including wealthy and growing Dallas, the fragile dynamic between art and commerce doesn't always balance.

It's a dynamic that El Greco and Goya don't have to worry about anymore. But Tom Sale does, and Tony Schraufnagel does, and Patrick Faulhaber does. And I hope that in the two years I've been here I've helped smooth the crevices between the artistic impulse and audience (and their cash) and drafted new supporters to the scene. It's a good one. I'll miss it.

Now, after my two-year stint, I'm off to England to write a novel about transatlantic pop culture after the American Revolution or some such convoluted drivel. I'm compelled to do it, perhaps the way an artist is compelled to pick up a paintbrush.

So if -- as the door smacks my ass on the way out -- I hear a collective whisper, "What an ingrate," I don't blame you.

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