Light in Cowtown

How a crawl through Dallas galleries prompted some very strange nightmares

Forget sex and eating. As anyone who ever stared down a deadline can tell you, the strongest human drive is the urge to plagiarize. If you're honest, you limit the lifting to ideas, motifs, the occasional metaphor or turn of phrase. To borrowing from yourself and, on occasion, your dreams.

Which is why, I believe, I had the day-of-the-locust dream again the other night. A bit of background. As a woman of a certain age--not old, mind you, but no ingenue--I have reached the point where dreams tend to recycle themes and images. There's the one where I swoop through the air at will (mastery or confidence, the books say). There's the one where I suddenly remember the foreign-language class I signed up for and then forgot, and now the semester is over and the test is tomorrow and it's too late to drop and there's no way to cram for an upper-level German exam (classic anxiety). But every so often, a new, totally original one breaks into the lineup, like a month ago when I had the one about killing baby spiders.

I don't know whether they were poisonous or not. But they kept crawling up my body and leaping on me, and I wasn't about to take the chance to find out. Someone close to me who spent years on the psychoanalytic couch pointed out the obvious: I am undergoing an FBI check (another story altogether, which has nothing to do with terrorism), and the spiders represent little pieces of my past I'm scared may bite. But for some reason, slightly altered versions of this dream keep showing up on my nightly REM schedule, and I don't think these new versions are about my fear the feds will find out I palmed a piece of Dubble Bubble from the 7-Eleven when I was 6. The last one featured grasshoppers--locusts, if you will, swarming in the back yard. I kept crunching them, and swatting, and even dismembering, but they turned into mosquitoes and just kept coming.

Skeet McAuley's "Navajo Window Washer, Monument Valley Tribal Park, Arizona," from 1984
Skeet McAuley's "Navajo Window Washer, Monument Valley Tribal Park, Arizona," from 1984

It is no accident that my subconscious spewed out this one after two days spent scouring the metroplex, traipsing through galleries looking for something, anything, I could turn into a column. Yeah, I know it's summer, and everyone's on vacation and all that; even so, the pickings are appallingly slim, and what's out there is a virtual plague of derivative ideas, offerings of latex chips in the corner and bad '30s/WPA sculpture. At such times, the best bet is to contemplate the permanent collection at area museums, particularly the Amon Carter's permanent exhibition, titled Masterworks of American Photography.

The Carter likes to brag that it houses "one of the preeminent collections of American photography." Certainly, with more than 300,000 individual pieces in the collection, it is one of the nation's most comprehensive. In some ways, it is an odd coupling; Amon G. Carter never collected photographs, and one rather doubts he would consider them art. Amon G. Carter was an ad man, promoter and entrepreneur turned publisher, who made his fortune off oil and real estate and radio and, of course, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He possessed little formal education and cornpone tastes that ran to Remington and Russell and Will Rogers. After Carter's death in 1955, one of the men closest to him, C.R. Smith, wrote that he "very much doubt[ed] that Amon was interested in art per se." Rather, Smith believed, Carter's collecting impulse sprang from the wish to perpetuate a nostalgic view of himself and his story--literally, of history, "the history of a time...with which he was acquainted and for which he had lasting affection." The photography collection was begun in the early '60s by Mitchell Wilder, the museum's founding director, with the encouragement of Ruth Carter Stevenson, Amon's daughter. Today, it contains examples from every genre, from anonymous 1840s daguerreotype portraits to contemporary masterpieces like Robert Glenn Ketchum's surreally colored landscapes.

It is a neat bit of postmodern irony that a throwback museum like the Amon Carter is in many ways the institution most relevant to what's taking place in art today. This is not to say that the Carter's collection is exactly cutting-edge; although photography has emerged as the dominant artistic medium of today, the Carter's collection is in many ways old-fashioned, even stodgy stuff. Part of this is because of the Carter's approach, which is historical, rather than formalist. In an introduction to a massive, 700-page catalog of the collection, the Carter's curators acknowledge it "has developed the dual character of being an extensive historical archive as well as a selective fine art collection representing some of the greatest American achievements in photographic art." And in that order.

Yet the Carter's photographic collection functions much like a dream, as a metaphor showing us what's really going on in contemporary art. The revelations begin in the main gallery, labeled "Masterworks of American Photography," currently hung with selections that represent photography's original use to document and to preserve--children, the West, Native Americans, expeditions. (Although the Carter's exhibition is permanent, the selections rotate.) A side gallery labeled "Focus on Photography" shows subsequent uses: to investigate natural phenomena, as in the animal locomotion studies of Eadweard Muybridge, to subtly alter history, as in Edward Sheriff Curtis' "documentary" project involving the Native American tribes of North America, and to experiment artistically.

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