By Jim Schutze
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My handmade "Exorcism Kit" is still teetering on top of a stack of opened, scanned, mostly yawn-inducing art mail on the left side of my desk as I ponder the past year's events, shortcomings, highlights, and surprises in Dallas and Fort Worth visual arts as 2000 is about to bite the dust. Eddie Ruiz, artist and proprietor of Expo 825, one of the last holdouts in the little string of struggling galleries along Exposition Avenue, made the kit and assembled its mildly hilarious contents. I haven't drunk the wine, or burned the incense, or sprinkled myself with the "holy" water Ruiz proffered in a cross-encrusted, found-object glass bottle, but I probably will.
Along with the kit came a scolding. Ruiz, who's been showing his own art and that of friends and some promising local art students in his Latino-focused gallery, thinks I'm sounding meaner, burning bridges, and in general stuck in a negative rant about Dallas art. He's right. Not even the raging hormones of pregnancy, or the euphoria induced by the birth of my precious son this year, could change that. I'm utterly skeptical, cynical, but not quite disillusioned after another year of looking at countless works of art; meeting countless earnest, eager, and, in some cases, truly talented artists; and talking with dozens of art buyers and sellers. They all do their best to put a positive spin on the state of the local art scene. This year especially, with more galleries hiring public relations people, the constant flow of superlatives is about to drown me. I consider, cynically, that the art hypesters are the only ones who ever get excited about art. And someone's paying them to do it. Why, I ask myself week after week, doesn't Dallas wallow in its creative juices, splash around in its talent pool, and come out dripping wet from the kind of cultural baptism not just anyone gets to experience? Hell, they do it in Houston. And we hate Houston.
Also in my art pile are hand-painted matchboxes filled with hand-painted dog tags from an artist called Sasso who runs Art to Go on Routh Street. The gallery's slogan, apparently, is "No Gimmicks! Just Art!" Along with the art was another in-your-face note, challenging me to come by if I wanted to see some "new" art, and, of course, write about it. I cringe again as I think of it. Hand-painted dog tags, in this artist's estimation, are not gimmicks? Little cat faces and abstract swirls of yellow, red, and black paint are examples of new art? It's enough to make a lesser woman cry. Still, I'm not about to give up on the visual arts and the real promise some of the local talent may hold for the future. That's why I keep going out, week after week, talking to artists and seeing what they make. After this year in particular, I'm optimistic about the North Texas scene, even as some of the unavoidable schlock assails the pinkish tint in my astigmatism-correcting lenses. Eddie Ruiz may be right on one level, but he's also wrong.
It's the people behind the art that keep me whining, tattling, scrutinizing, ranting, and even judiciously raving about it. People like Brian Fridge, whom I've chosen as the poster child for the DFW wide world of art this year. See Brian? See his tall, lanky self, bespectacled and boyish in khakis, white shirt, and blue blazer, guarding the art at Fort Worth's Modern Art Museum? See the Whitney Biennial 2000-selected artist still plugging away at his day job? Fridge is like hundreds of artists around here, who gamely make art as consistently as they can around their jobs and family schedules. They hope for critical and commercial success and recognition, but they'll keep making art whether they get it or not. Maybe that's why most of Dallas doesn't do anything to support contemporary art. Serious artists make it easy for them not to. They don't wail and scream; they don't market themselves to galleries; they don't do self-promotion; they don't actually play the game. They don't want to; they just want to make art.
Fridge says his life hasn't changed much since getting tapped for the Whitney. His family gave him the money to go to New York City for the opening last June. The Modern gave him the days off. Being in the Whitney did give the Fort Worth native more exposure than he's ever had, and he's been selling more art. He snagged Dunn and Brown Contemporary for commercial gallery representation, and he's been in shows in Kansas, Louisiana, and Houston as a result. Houston's Museum of Fine Arts bought one of three editions of his winning piece, "Vault Sequence," a water vapor-and-ice crystals video filmed in the freezer, and he says a Dallas collector and a Houston collector bought the other two. "The Whitney didn't guarantee that people are going to like my work," he says, taking a break at the museum. "But that's been my experience. People automatically are going to be very critical of you when something big like this occurs. So to come out of it where people like your work is what you would hope for." Plus, he says, his peer group isn't giving him too much crap about it. "I have the same set of friends and fellow artists," he says. "In reality, it's just another show." See Brian Fridge downplay what could and should be the biggest moment in the life of an artist so far? See hardly anyone notice? See what I mean?
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