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A fair question

Some of the fair's best art isn't fair art at all. Circa 1930s WPA artists built one of Fair Park's current showstoppers, one of the statues along the esplanade.
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You'd think that the biggest annual fair in the nation's biggest state would pack some genuine art. Not only crafts -- quilts, pottery, and such -- which a fair seems obligated to showcase, but some indication of the region's artistic leanings. If the State Fair of Texas is supposed to represent the best of the state, then shouldn't it include some painting, some sculpture, some film? I figured this was a "fair" question, so for the first time in 15 years, I visited the festivities, lured by the promise of a creative arts pavilion, a 700-pound sculpture made entirely of butter, and a Fletcher's corny dog. In a three-hour search, I was starting to worry that the fair's best artwork was the corny dog, until I tweaked my perspective and started looking beyond the expected.

I started out along the "TXU Extravaganza" esplanade and ducked into the "Futurevisions" show to see some car design. Some big car shows include all kinds of imaginative vehicles -- prototypes for cars too fanciful to ever hit the production line -- but all this one showcased were a few cruddy Pontiac propositions. The Batmobile-meets-sedan "Rageous" was about as inventive as its standard six-cylinder engine. The historic cars next door were better: the '47 Oldsmobile and '37 Packard were shiny and huge, their front grills big enough to swallow a teenager. When did car design get so homogenized? If anything, the fair's car show just amplified the dip in design, which was a pretty depressing kick-off, art-wise.

On to the creative arts pavilion, by way of the Embarcadero selling booths -- a guy was doing standard caricatures of celebrities, plenty of vendors were selling cheap-looking turquoise belt buckles. In the pavilion, painters painted, quilters quilted, and cooks cooked. Cooking? Anyone who has ever watched a soufflé collapse in the oven understands that cooking is a tricky art, but it was odd to see a home-economics demonstration happening among limp watercolors.

It all started to come together when I finally came across the butter sculpture -- a life-size cowgirl cleaning her life-size horse, all of it made from pale, creamy yellow Land O'Lakes. It was housed on a spinning pedestal behind a glass wall (so much for approaching the thing with a slice of toast and a knife) and refrigerated to 43 degrees. It was quite a hit. People crowded up to it and said things like "Well that is certainly unique," Peggy Hill-style. It would've been really charming were it not a bit creepy. Made by Sharon BuMann, the piece evokes some of Matthew Barney's early petroleum jelly installations and John Bock's pus-goo obstacle courses, which rely on heavy irony. The sincerity of the butter piece was too clear, if not winsome. A corner of the horse's ear had been lopped off to keep it from rubbing the glass when it came around on its revolution, and you could see the heavy wire frame poking out. The baby birds in the tree (this was more diorama than anything) were so crudely carved, I had to strain to make sense of them, though the cowgirl wore an appropriately focused expression. This is Texas art? Yup. You have to give it points for oddness.

Most of the painting was acrylic landscape, of the bluebonnet-and-waterfall variety. Not bad as a record of idyllic Texas settings, but not pioneering either. Surprise -- not an abstract or conceptual piece in the building. The prizewinning quilt, a dense masterpiece of tiny squares forming a building's façade, nearly made up for the painting contingent's lack of inventiveness.

On to the animal shows -- not so much for artistic purpose, but just to quell my inner kid who demanded to see the lone giraffe and stinky goats. In the adjoining arena, sheepdogs were ripping through various obstacle courses and leaping to catch balls and Frisbees -- arguably arty in a choreographed way, but hardly high art.

Discouraged, I headed to the crafts tent, finding even worse fare than expected: clumsy blown glass, a decorative ribbon seminar, more landscapes. Who selects the entrants? Surely better craftsmen than these could use a booth at the State Fair -- the crafts in the city's annual Art Walk look like Michelangelo in comparison. I considered getting another corny dog to make up for the disappointment.

Thinking the art search terminated, my definition of "art" stretched to its painful limits, I loped past the watchful Big Tex. Slightly wrinkled, sagging, swaying -- he could practically be a Claes Oldenburg piece, if Oldenburg checked his politics and humor at the door and embraced clichéd Texas iconography. But Tex isn't so much art as a giant advertisement for Dan Post and a great place for lost kids to convene. I continued toward the midway, which I remember loathing as an adolescent. Smelly, loud, crowded, it is the depraved heart of the fair.

But wait: The permanent midway entrance is excellent: a deco-borne arch of color and blinking lights, it's actually quite satisfying and graceful, lending historic presence to what lay beyond: a long corridor of con games; whizzing, thumping park rides; and an endless sea of food booths. Seedy is still the operative atmosphere here, although there were more cops on patrol and the freak sideshows were (finally) gone. Barkers called out to passers-by, trying to lure them into various money traps, and everything was airbrushed, circa 1977. T-shirts, ride entrances, booth signs, all covered in fuzzy, swirling pastel paint -- images of long-tressed girls and muscle cars and planets. As nostalgia, this was disarming, in a Fast Times at Ridgemont High kind of way, but the historic context wasn't intentional. The fair's leaders just haven't bothered to revamp. But if it's between this aesthetic and a badly updated one, I'll take the old style. There was something unnerving about walking through such a static time tunnel, though if you've been to the fair every year, you might not notice the grim details: Rides such as Chaos and Avalanche have been here forever, looking worse for the wear. Ride operators lounged, glaze-eyed, in front of empty ride entrances. Game and food sellers couldn't scrape up any interest from the pithy Tuesday-afternoon crowd.

Which is what made the Texas Star so spectacular in comparison. A testament to the age of industry, the Ferris wheel is monstrous, spider-like, perfect. All iron and engine and lights, it's the younger sibling of the Eiffel Tower, and gazing up at it, I had to marvel at its design. It didn't look at all rickety, but instead a bit menacing, daring you to climb on. When you do, you may have to share a bucket cage with a few strangers, but the view from the top is stunning, spanning countless miles of Dallas County. Ride the art.

Halfway through the Texas Star spin, my gaze fell on the expanse of Fair Park, which led me to my final realization. The best art at the fair is structural -- and not necessarily connected to the fair at all. The fair is most people's only chance to experience Fair Park's ubiquitous art deco: some of it crumbling, some of it restored, some of it gleaming and perfect. The buildings along the esplanade are pale and majestic, and the statues at their corners are carved pillars of noble character. The Cotton Bowl is sweeping and curved, the fountains generous and serene. Fair Park's board of directors has bounced between taking great care with these designs and neglecting them, and with the park so sparsely inhabited much of the year, you can't blame them for wondering what the hell to do with this historic area. Why pour millions into restoration if no one's around to appreciate it? Thing is, there's no other collection like it in the U.S., and even if these buildings' viewers only come around fair time, or to Dallas Burn games at the Cotton Bowl, or for a rare visit to the IMAX theater, then that's reason and audience enough to preserve such an important legacy. If only the fair itself didn't mess with the purity: garish banners, balloon wrap-arounds, and announcement boards don't exactly complement beveled limestone and delicate inlay.

Then again, most people don't hit the fair in search of art, and they shouldn't start now.


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