Wild Life and Industrial Chic

Vibrant gallery life flourishes in the Design District

A white heron pops forth from an opalescent blue sky. The bird's head, long, curving gullet and lithe body create a moving ergonomic display that is in stark contrast to the ramshackle, ground-hugging landscape of Industrial Boulevard below. Tension heightens as the two travel at once, a diesel semi bustling southward in the direction of the giant lollipop-shaped Reunion Tower and the streamlined bird soaring west to an estuary of the Trinity River. So bewildered by the odd adjacencies, I ask myself, "What's that pterodactyl doing here?" And then I remember: Just over the verdant and foliated bluff at the end of Cole Street lies a bed of vitality, the wilds of flora and fauna thriving so differently from the human life in the Design District to the east. There's wildlife both natural and artificial in Dallas' Design District.

It is an energy and hum that will only grow stronger and be felt more keenly with the changes to the area accompanying the Trinity River project. The district has been spilling over for the last several years, swallowing up Dragon, Slocum and Cole streets and Industrial Avenue to the west. Its expansion beyond the Decorative Center, the original low-rise red-brick collection of showrooms designed by Jacob Anderson in 1954, is proof of its ascending vigor. Such growth has been characterized by increasing publicness, as the more recent additions to the west--the art galleries and antique dealers--are open storefronts. Moving beyond the limited access and manufacturers-only policy of the Decorative Center, retail coupled with new live-work zoning in the area hints at a stylish street life in a neighborhood so freakishly bombed-out in its industrial pallor that it's hip.

Conduit Gallery, the modish maverick in the area, is one of the older storefront galleries in the enclave. While it has been there only three years, the gallery has a long history of cool and daring inhabitation. Before coming to the Design District, Conduit spent 18 years storefront-hopping in Deep Ellum, occupying spaces on Main and Elm streets. Now located at Hi Line Drive, Conduit has become a steadfast light in the greater Dallas art community, with owner-proprietor Nancy Whitenack hosting salon gatherings and roundtable discussions both at the gallery and in her à la mode loft digs at South Side on Lamar. Whitenack was lured to the Design District because of its space: There's more of it, both for exhibiting and parking.

Holly Johnson Gallery and Craighead-Green Gallery are more recent arrivals to the area, having opened up just this year in April on Dragon Street. Owned by Holly Johnson and Jim Martin, Holly Johnson Gallery is remarkable because it is a live-work space. While the space is horizontal rather than vertical, with residential space extending into the back, camouflaged behind the white walls of the enormous exhibition space, the architectural type takes its cue from an age-old precedent--the upright live-work spaces of the traditional marketplace that go back to ancient Rome. The live-work market space may have a long history, but it is only a recent zoning provision in the Design District, one that, along with broad unfettered warehouse space, brought Johnson and Martin to the area.

While Holly Johnson Gallery is a burgeoning art space, Craighead-Green, like Conduit, has something of a past, having alighted Uptown with its presence since the early 1990s. The ever-encroaching palm trees and pink stucco of Uptown, along with an option to own their space in the Design District, drove Kenneth Craighead and Steve Green, owners of the gallery, out and happily into the district.

Though not always the case, the three galleries are host to artists working in a figural vocabulary. Showing in the second room at Conduit is the work of Robert Jessup. While consistently a distiller of human life in its most intensely bizarre appearance, the work now showing at Conduit reveals a transformation in recent years in Jessup's style of rendering human form. Whereas in the late '90s Jessup painted topsy-turvy vignettes of vaguely bulbous human figures, scenes of a young man running through a landscape of floating pies as in "Halloween Tree" (1998), he has been painting flatter-surfaced portraits of thinner-faced off-kilter what-if subjects for the last two years. He has gone from Van Gogh-esque heavily impastoed surfaces and bloated Botero form to a vocabulary of human types suggestive of Expressionism and reminiscent of the work by German New Objectivity painters such as Otto Dix and Max Beckmann. Paintings such as "Bank Teller" (2004), depicting a googly-eyed blond woman with a dollar in her hand, seem equally influenced by the contemporary painter who is so bad that he's good, John Currin. Jessup's paintings are harmoniously odd and wry, but he seems more of a mimicker than an inventor as his are all painterly tropes deployed by other artists to greater effect.

Paintings by Kendall Stallings, also figural with depictions of people and landscapes, are showing at Craighead-Green Gallery. His midsize paintings of the backsides of nuns and fallen businessmen are striking because of their frankness and flatness. A series of paintings titled "Suits #1-3" shows an anonymous suited man posed in Mantegna-cum-Ruscha foreshortened fashion. As with Ruscha's high-lit anamorphic Standard Stations, these paintings are proof of Stalling's dexterity in giving form to three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional plane. More profound is how we might begin to read their subject matter. Like Mantegna's "Dead Christ" in the High Renaissance, they are images for a late-Christian world wrought by a religious war meant to distract the public as money is made. As figures of anonymous big business, the prostrate "suits" are symbols that cut like a knife.

The large, almost-abstract canvases showing at Holly Johnson Gallery--Casey Williams: Winter Light--are prismatic in effect and intellectually complex. These large canvases in pink, mauve and gray are photographic prints reproduced on canvas then stretched on wooden stretcher bars. Though almost non-objective in their pixelation and wet undulating line, they are photos of freighters taken on the Houston Ship Channel. Williams' photos capture the play of form and light similar to the way Monet did in paintings made more than a century ago. As with Monet's "Impressionist Sunrise" or "Rouen Cathedral" series, Williams' permutation of form results in an abstraction wholly in keeping with the new medium awareness of Impressionism. Williams photographs everyday objects not so much for the sake of their specificity but for the way in which his 35 mm renders light on form through chemical on film. He increases the watery abstraction of objects by blowing up the prints and stretching them out in space.

Productive and progressive galleries might make community, but they don't make for a convenient neighborhood trot. What these galleries share in no way eliminates the need for a car. While they are all in the Design District, you'll need your wheels to ambulate from place to place. Street life may be livening up a bit, but it's still Dallas. Crossing Industrial Boulevard feels more like a game of run-quick-before-the-truck-hits-you than a neighborly pedestrian thoroughfare.

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