Inner-City Kul

It's too cool for school, but can we call it art?

Sometimes a retail store is more social institution than Mecca of mammon. In the case of Dallas, there exists a causal relationship: the more mammon in the Mecca, the greater the social institution. Here retail provides ballast for the community in the most abstract ways, by giving it a sense of identity through its consumerist aplomb. Flowing generously from Neiman Marcus on Main Street downtown, that pillar of the community, is a flamboyant culture of fashion, art and high-price value that Dallasites know to be their own. North of downtown there's that other beacon of society, Ray Nasher's NorthPark Center. Talk about one-stop shopping. Once a humble 97-acre cotton field on the outskirts of town, NorthPark is a civic center today where shopping takes on a sense of public pride--a lesson in artistic rumination and cultural Bildung, or what the Germans know to be "personal development." With its gamut of artful offerings, NorthPark collapses all distinction between high and low culture, giving it something of a perverse cutting-edge effect. Little did you realize how truly avant-garde you could be, that perusing a sculpture by Jonathan Borofksy, Henry Moore or Frank Stella while sipping on a frothy Starbucks and holding a Foley's bag was an act of transgression almost on par with the Happenings and performance art of the 1960s.

But that's just Dallas. It's a city that unwittingly holds such garish and baroque transgressions of tradition in high esteem.

A retail pioneer in its own right, the storefront design atelier-cum-art space Kül has positioned itself to become the next retail social institution in town. Described by proprietor LaRue Thornton as something of a hybrid, Kül is a "life style store, art gallery and design studio" all wrapped in one. It is located at 1303 Main St. --no, not in Deep Ellum but on the other side of that forever gentrifying street, downtown in the business district. Nestled at ground level in the Davis Building, a 1920s neo-classical tower that once housed the Republic Bank, Kül hopes to generate street life in an area vowing economic and social renaissance in the form of a youthful loft culture. Beneficiary of the Main Street Retail Incentive Grant Program, Thornton is unflinching in the face of the recently failed strong-mayor proposal. Many viewed the proposal as a catalyst for growth and economic development necessary for future retail life downtown. Thornton, however, is confident about survival nonetheless, viewing the arrival of a winery next door as proof of capitalism's unyielding invisible hand.

Shane Pennington's Download is in the basement (above), but cooler stuff can be found in Kül's retail store.
Mike Simmons
Shane Pennington's Download is in the basement (above), but cooler stuff can be found in Kül's retail store.

If its location brings with it a sense of social promise, that it might breath swank life into the ruins of the business district, the art gallery situated in the basement provides little assurance for serious gallery-goers. If we are to judge the art gallery downstairs by the work currently showing--Download,works by Shane Pennington--it doesn't hold a candle to the city's finest venues. The loft-like feel of its burnished brick walls and revealed piers and beams creates a stylish and hip ambience in the subterranean gallery space. But that's as much as you'll get. This gallery offers atmosphere with little conceptual mooring.

On view until June 1, the paintings of Download are a hodgepodge of style and hopeful panache. The figural pieces are a throwback to album cover art of the 1980s, while the large-scale abstract and brightly colored splatter-painted canvases are Pollock redux. A large monochromatic canvas in acrylic and charcoal, "48 Seconds of Secure and Insecure Laura Lee," shows a messily delineated knee-high boot-footed anonymous white woman, assumedly "Laura Lee," clad in a black dress. She appears in multiple form walking sideways across the canvas. Perhaps more sexually piquant but intellectually flat all the same, "Upload" shows a faceless beefy man, slouching naked with his almost erect member in hand. In the upper right corner of the canvas, Pennington has painted the pull-down menu of a computer's desktop. The monochromatic canvas pays homage to the malaise of self-absorption and pornographic strolling online. In terms of lackluster 1980s painting, the pièces de résistance are on the back wall. There one finds the "Blog" series, 20 or so 2 feet-by-2 feet works of acrylic, tape and plastic on board. With usernames for titles ("M4M," "Candice0865," etc.), each square has a pixelated face at center framed by industrial-grade tape and blobby paint scrawls of the word "blog." The overall aesthetic effect is somewhere between the Cars and Cyndi Lauper. Especially in light of the current right-of-center political tenor, you might find yourself pondering if this quasi-electronic universe is really the version of the past, much less the '80s, that we want to resuscitate. (That said, what version of that buttoned-up and reactionary decade could one possibly wish to revive?)

Slightly more successful are the prettily decorative canvases of the "Above the Clouds" series. Along the side wall and hanging mid-room, "The Answer" and "Eatable Blue" are shiny large surfaces of splattered acrylic paint, one in shades of burnt umber and the other sapphire. Their paint-splashed surfaces are more geode-like than gestural, glistening and precious rather than records of action on the ground plane.

The odd thing about Kül is that you might find yourself questioning "is it art?" And "it" in this instance is, in a counterintuitive turn, the art installed in the gallery space down below, not the trendy and high-design tchotchkes upstairs. If you're looking for good form and valuable aesthetic experience at Kül, you are, in fact, better off spending your time upstairs, where you'll find a passel of designy pleasure in the form of interior accoutrements--everything from dog bowls embedded in bent-wood pedestals to low-slung wire-frame Danish modern chairs. Upstairs you'll indeed find more elegance. Formal satisfaction is guaranteed. Moreover you can actually touch the objects--rub a soft-fuzzy purse or pillow or take a mod swivel chair for a test spin.

It's funny how the double gesture of naming and installation can be cause for confusion. While calling the space downstairs a "gallery" and hanging flat work on the wall may signify authenticity and art in name, the better form is upstairs--the mass-produced industrial furniture and functional objects located in the retail space opening out onto Main Street. If we are to gauge exactly where Kül falls in the greater tradition of art spaces, it is more in keeping with the economy of Bauhaus assembly-line production-consumption than Leo Castelli art-house exceptionalism. Kül offers not the imprimatur of historically significant artistic form but rather the rejuvenation of Dallas' downtown business district. And that's worth something--perhaps more than "art" in name.

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