Look Back in Annoyance

A year of capital-city pretensions and "Untitled Turkeys"

And so, adieu to 2001. The critic is older and crankier, a bit more gray but essentially the same, still given to muttering about "standards" and premature curmudgeonhood. The world, on the other hand, seems to have changed.

We are embarking on a new century, finally, by the calendar and in most other ways. Gone is our standoffishness, our sense of being apart and inviolable, a city on a hill removed from the squabbles and hatreds of the Old World. Art and music have returned to Afghanistan, a country most citizens (including, one suspects, the First Citizen) couldn't have found on the map a year ago, and foreign news coverage is back in our newspapers, an item most Yanks couldn't have located, either.

Some of the finest art to be seen in 2001 was in photojournalism from the mountains and villages of Afghanistan. But not all. Third World art was a theme back home as well; it was, in fact, the focus of the very best and very worst museum and gallery offerings of 2001.

Meyer Vaisman's "Untitled Turkey XXII" satirizes European misunderstandings about the New World. It also summarizes most of 2001's museum offerings.
Meyer Vaisman's "Untitled Turkey XXII" satirizes European misunderstandings about the New World. It also summarizes most of 2001's museum offerings.

The high point of the year came early, in the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth's Latin American show, rather unfortunately titled Ultrabaroque: Aspects of Post-Latin American Art. Despite the jargony subtitle, it was a spectacular coup for MAMFW, a truly great little museum that almost--almost--never misses. (For a rare MAMFW misstep, see Trenton Doyle Hancock below, under "worst.") Ultrabaroque was something all too rare in these parts, a serious examination of an art-historical topic, namely the influence of the European baroque on contemporary art from Latin and South America, a show with real intellectual substance that never for a minute condescended to its audience. Plus, it was just plain fun. The art itself was fascinating, a flamboyant and colorful exploration of themes ranging from colonial subjugation to teen culture, and of influences from conceptual art to folk art to academic history painting. The show featured the work of well-known art figures such as Meyer Vaisman, whose "Untitled Turkeys" and pink rendition of his analyst, Barbara Fischer, were unforgettable. But it was the relative unknowns who stole the show. Brazilian artist Adriana Varejo married paint with wall reliefs and trompe l'oeil technique with sharp commentary, creating some arresting images. Miguel Caldern's hilarious and huge Kodachrome "Employee of the Month" stills made norteamericanos like Cindy Sherman look shallow and shrill by comparison.

Locally, photography was a bright spot. I speak, of course, not of art photography--which, despite its vogue as an artistic medium, remains an oxymoron--but of its low-rent cousins, photojournalism and documentary efforts. Photographs Do Not Bend, which may be Dallas' best commercial gallery per square foot, put on a series of outstanding shows throughout 2001. But its best was its first, Parallel Journeys, a show that featured the work of Flor Garduno, Mariana Yampolsky and Cristina Garcia Rodero, women who capture lives and rituals of peasants in Spain and Latin America. The selections were spellbinding, not only for their subject matter but also for their neat presentation of ethical and artistic issues. Basically, photojournalists and documentarians come in two flavors: those who attempt to hide the truth and those who tell it like it is. Garduno represented the former and Garcia Rodero the latter, with Yampolsky falling somewhere in between. For this reason and others, Garcia Rodero emerged as the star. Her work documenting the medieval folk rituals of modern Spain stands out, thanks both to her eye for arresting juxtapositions and to her ability to capture Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment," a gift far more rare among photographers than is generally appreciated.

The low point of 2001 came late, in the form of the Dallas Museum of Art's Great Masters of Modern Folk Art show, which just ended. The problem was not the subject; "folk," "naïve" and "outsider" art are all worthy artistic genres, vitally important to the history of 20th-century art. In this case, the execution was the rub. The DMA made little or no effort to apply a rigorous connoisseurship, and the result was a bewildering mixture of legitimate art and tourist-trade tchotchkes, a Neiman Marcus fortnight masquerading as a major museum show, a corporate PR job that raised the commodification of folk art to new heights.

The worst part is that the DMA knew better. It reportedly turned down this lemon when first approached, only to reverse itself after being leaned on by community leaders. Presumably, the museum justifies this as some sort of outreach to the Hispanic community, but the road to hell is paved with such rationales, and in the DMA's case, the road to hell is more like an autobahn. It is painful to watch an institution with values so bass-ackwards, a museum that cares more about promoting an image and tourism than about intellectual inquiry. Even the DMA's big Henry Moore show suffered from this syndrome. Henry Moore: Sculpting the 20th Century was a mind-bogglingly ambitious effort, an effort that included 104 pieces of sculpture and 95 drawings, a show organized by the DMA and the Henry Moore Foundation, with a 323-page catalog published by Yale University Press and a prestigious list of venues. It was a show, in short, with everything except a legitimate reason for being. Naturally, a rationale was attempted: The show claimed to be about resuscitating Moore's mixed critical rep. But the real purpose was self-promotion, an agenda museum officials didn't even try to hide. Indeed, they bragged about it, right up front, in remarks to the press and in the exhibition catalog, mentioning the "imminent" Nasher sculpture garden and public-private partnerships, sounding more like real estate promoters than Ph.D.s.

One of my goals for 2002 is to write a positive review of a show at the DMA. To manage this, I'll need some help; the DMA must abandon its current ostrich act and come to terms with its legacy. It must pick up where former DMA director Rick Brettell left off in Now/Then/Again, the DMA's 1988 show, which attempted to make sense of the museum's permanent collection. As Brettell noted, the DMA has "consciously followed the leads set in the cultural capital of America. This decision was clearly made to communicate to the world that Dallas, Texas, was not a provincial place..." Current administration policy seems to be to continue in this vein, to serve up received art-world wisdom with a distasteful combination of reverence and pedantry. The result, too often, is a wild careening among contradictory goals, now pandering to public tastes (e.g., Mexican folk art), now educating the rubes (e.g., Joseph Beuys), now advertising Dallas' elan (e.g., Henry Moore, Wolfgang Laib). The DMA must stop condescending to its audience, must jettison the timid, jargon-laden scholarship, must make its shows and publications smart, accessible and provocative. It should go over to MAMFW for a course in remedial exhibition-mounting.

Alas, even MAMFW was not perfect. Although its Ed Ruscha show was a runner-up for best museum exhibition, and its Ruscha catalog takes the year's top honors, it gets a big raspberry and a runner-up worst for devoting half its exhibition space to the work of Trenton Doyle Hancock. Despite his status as the art world's hot young exotic, Hancock remains a true visual lightweight, and MAMFW does him no favors by refusing to acknowledge this bit of affirmative action or to evaluate him as what he is: a very young, very green artist working in time-honored black aesthetic traditions.

In between the best and worst was a spate of missed opportunities. Chief among these was the McKinney Avenue Contemporary's Frank Reaugh show, a well-intentioned effort that, contrary to the organizer's claims, demonstrated the weakness of Texas' artistic past. Another disappointment came from the Kimbell Museum, whose blockbuster, European Masterpieces: Six Centuries of Paintings From the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, was rich in robber-baron booty, especially portraits, but very poor at fitting the mugs into a coherent art-historical narrative. The result was an exhibition desperately seeking Sister Wendy. But the biggest purveyor of missed ops was the new Meadows Museum, both for its unimaginative design and for its inaugural exhibition of Santiago Calatrava's architectural models.

The Calatrava exhibit was yet another promotional job masquerading as an exhibition, only this time the soap flakes took the form of Calatrava's vaguely surrealist visions, Calatrava being, of course, the architect from whom Dallas' Powers That Be have all but commissioned a series of bridges to span the Trinity. And too bad, for there were plenty of legitimate art-historical excuses to do a Calatrava show, and the Meadows, with its rich trove of Spanish old masters, was uniquely positioned to analyze Calatrava's architecture in terms of Spanish art and intellectual history.

And so to 2002, when I hope to make it to a wider range of venues and to write more positive reviews--within reason--and to see more homeywork, venturing into regionalism beyond the confines of the MAC and Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art. I intend to tackle a few big fish as well, ex-pats made good and homeboys gone bad and all manner of others in between. Until then, to old acquaintance and all that rot.

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