Believing the Hype

Former Dallas artist Dan Rizzie disappears out East, then re-emerges as the real thing

But I'm getting ahead of the story.

The First Act is all there, lining the walls of two galleries of the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, in a Rizzie retrospective that runs through October 8.

Like an archaeological refuse pit filled with bones from some ancient bacchanalian feast, the MAC's show is interesting chiefly for its record of that long-gone time. As for the art, well, it's what it always was: great, if derivative, and fun.

"Tobacco" (2000) typifies Rizzie's new act: This time around, the work is spare, subtle, and elegant.
"Tobacco" (2000) typifies Rizzie's new act: This time around, the work is spare, subtle, and elegant.
Dan Rizzie's late-'80s canvases, such as "Heart" (1987), became fitting symbols of Eighties Dallas excess.
Dan Rizzie's late-'80s canvases, such as "Heart" (1987), became fitting symbols of Eighties Dallas excess.


Runs through October 8 (214) 953-1212

Dan Rizzie: Rhythms of Nature continues through October 21 at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art (214)969-9410

McKinney Avenue Contemporary

Rizzie's territory has always been the border between image and abstraction, and his preferred medium is the painterly collage. He's fascinated with shorthand, with symbols of all sorts, and has spent much of his 20-plus-year career working out a personal iconography. The works on display at the MAC are not necessarily Rizzie's best, but they are well chosen in that they give an inkling of the breadth of his oeuvre, as well as how Rizzie works. In the first gallery in the MAC are small collages, where Rizzie experiments with the motifs and images that appear in his big oils and constructions. And it is in the big oils and constructions that we see him trying on styles, taking what he likes, then trying on another. Thus, we see Rizzie move from Neo-Constructivism ("Two Songs," 1980, and "Untitled," 1981) to Matisse-does-Constructivism ("Two Sisters," 1982), to Matisse-does-cubism ("Rokko Oroshi," 1986), on to Rizzie's pure cubist period ("Heart," 1987).

A hundred years after Cézanne and the cubists, however, this is well-plowed territory. And in the morning-after light of the MAC, Rizzie's central artistic problem jumps out: He doesn't have anything particularly compelling to add. His art is not in any way political. Nor is it particularly regional. Oh, sure, Rizzie sometimes incorporates symbols from his surroundings--"Southern Moon," for example--yet the early work was not concerned with witnessing a people, an area, a local tradition.

Rizzie, in fact, was never really a provincial painter. The son of a career diplomat, Rizzie spent his formative years in exotic locales: Egypt, India, Jordan. Even his family can't quite remember why he selected Dallas for grad school after attending a tiny liberal arts college in Arkansas. And while Rizzie spent 16 years here, it's hard to see exactly how it influenced his painting. Rizzie himself has suggested that the hard, angular forms of this period were somehow associated with Dallas, but it's a mystery why Dallas is to blame. Instead, his sights were set on formal, painterly issues, on manipulating basic shapes and forms, cones and spheres, triangles and rectangles, and clefts, using these simple, universal symbols to publicly express private experiences and emotions. (How much more private can you get than a painting titled "Heart"?)

In this sense, the MAC show reveals him to be a profoundly traditional, conservative artist. It also hints at one of the paradoxes of Rizzie's rise to unwarranted fame: He was feted precisely because he was working in an art-world backwater. Only in a place as rich and unsophisticated as Dallas in the '80s could this work be considered controversial, even cutting-edge. It had a patina of sophistication, a cosmopolitan air. But at the core, it was deeply conventional stuff. It was the perfect art for its place and time. This remains Rizzie's most notable achievement: His late '80s works, big, busy and brightly colored, mock-modern, viewer-friendly, and wildly optimistic, seem the ultimate symbol for late-'80s Dallas.

When Rizzie left Dallas in 1990, it looked like the second shrewdest career move possible. The first, of course, would have been death. Dallas' real estate and banking sectors had begun to melt down, and the gallery system supporting contemporary Texas artists wasn't far behind. Rizzie, perhaps the biggest fish in the Dallas contemporary art pond, made his leap to the big pond of New York, to make his fame and fortune in the greater art world.

And the greater art world yawned.

He decamped for the weekend playground of the art-world elite, where, under the very noses of Manhattan's most powerful dealers, he became invisible.

It should have been no surprise. Manhattan's contemporary art world thrives on exhibitionism and ephemera and The Newest Thing, not Rizzie's recycled modernism. Next to Cindy Sherman, Damien Hirst, and videotape, and rocks piled on the gallery floor, Rizzie's work was decidedly stodgy. To Rizzie's everlasting credit, and despite his penchant for whoring after celebrity, his work has always been about painting, not clever careerism. He's never been relevant or current. He's never been, in short, likely to make a splash in that lake.

Whether it came as a surprise to Rizzie is another matter. It could be that Rizzie thought fickle fame would see him through; it could be that he wanted to drop out. Or it could be that, as Ted Pillsbury puts it, Rizzie "perhaps didn't manage his career as well as some other [local] artists." Whatever the reason, the '90s became a kind of Lost Period for Rizzie. During the first half of the decade, he floated from now-defunct dealer to now-defunct dealer, never finding one with the cash or cachet to catapult him into the big-time. While his promoters say he continued to produce as many major pieces as ever, the work became nearly impossible to find, perhaps because no one cared enough to lock him in the studio and make him produce a show.

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