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

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runs through August 11 at the Amon Carter Museum. Call 817-738-1933.

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.

Fairly or not, the show suggests that the documentary impulse has been one of the two most important motifs in photography's 150-year history and has taken many forms. To the left of the initial gallery space is "The Extended View," a long, rectangular room hung with long rectangular photographs, panoramic views of American land- and cityscapes. From there, visitors can wander into "Photography as Personal Expression," the room that will feel most familiar to the average museumgoer. It is here that the second motif emerges. Adorned with masterpieces by photographers as disparate as Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz, Walker Evans and Nell Dorr, this section suggests that, by the mid-20th century, the primary function of photography had become expression, as artists began showing how they felt about subjects and manipulating viewers to feel the same. Other rooms contain sections on particular photographers whose archives the Carter has acquired, including Laura Gilpin and Eliot Porter.

At least one type of contemporary photography is conspicuous by its absence: the photographic record of the Art Event. Art is increasingly something that takes place outside museum walls, or is temporarily installed, or wastes away. The Museum has become art's Evidence Room, and the photograph the only record of the impermanent art in vogue. Increasingly, these records of Art Events function less like the photographs displayed on the Carter's second floor and more like Carter's beloved Remingtons and Russells--as little bits of propaganda, as promotional pieces for lost moments that may or may not have existed, as arguments for writing history a certain way.

Part of the difference between the Carter's collection of photography and its collection of Western art lies in the choice of what history to record. It is here that the Carter's photography collection is decidedly old-fashioned. Unlike many contemporary collections, the Carter's selections are un-self-conscious, focused outwardly rather than on the mechanics of art and illusion. The Carter exhibition suggests that photography has come full circle, used to recording the brief existence of precious little creations much as it did in 1850, when the infant mortality rates soared. In this regard, the show hints at the bathetic nature of much contemporary art. If every life is art and everyone an artist, art is by definition banal. By way of contrast, the artistic values embodied in Carter's selections are downright outré: grandeur, a hankering to speak to the ages, to transcend mortal limits.

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