All's well that ends well
One evening last week, a local news broadcast let loose a disturbing bit of information. This past year's crime statistics show that while violent crime is down all over the nation, it's up in North Texas. By 12 percent. Let's repeat that: The rest of the United States is (miraculously) growing more civilized, but this region has grown more barbaric. Sure, there are plenty of variables and qualifiers, but still, here at the end of the 20th century, this Lone Star State is something of a, uh, maverick.
You could chalk it up to the fact that this is one of the fastest-growing centers of the nation; such burgeoning population begets chaos. That, or around here, mamas still teach their babies to shoot straight. But the most romanticized explanation for Texas remaining an aging Wild West is that, hell, this state has never failed to distinguish itself. Unfortunately, it's sometimes for the worse.
Where does our art fall into that posit? Recently, I was struck by another discrepancy between Texas and the rest of the U.S., at least when comparing two sources: the decade-end issue of Art Forum, one of the more consistently well-spoken and lofty of the art rags, and Barry Whistler Gallery's 15th Anniversary show. Art Forum's extended wrap-up summarizes all that's happened in the art world, a good chunk of it American, since the '90s rolled out of an economically anemic recession and into rosy health -- all the most notable and inspired events and artists. Barry Whistler, a respected Dallas gallery owner who champions Texas artists, might be seen as an ambassador of a juicy cross section of regional artwork. How do the two aesthetic factions meet up?
Though in this case, unlike the disturbing crime stats, that may not be such a bad thing. American art continues to be reactive to the last set of trends that were, in the 1980s, about big paintings and making loads of money off of collectible art. Now the artists lean toward the shrill, the intangible, critical of highbrow culture and no longer making such collector-friendly (or even viewer-friendly) stuff. And if the intrepid collector does rush forth with his wad of cash, he might expect to take home something so unwieldy as to make its display next to impossible, or something so materially rank as to require a health inspection and some serious disinfectant.
There's a subtle set of patterns in what Art Forum displays throughout various top-10 lists across its wide, glossy pages. The big-time art this last handful of years has been endowed with, among other things: lots of rambling text (thanks to Sean Landers), lots of appropriation of advertising images, lots of nudity, and lots of political statement, namely about the decay of society in these self-indulgent and technologically excessive times. There's plenty of video (hats tipped to Bill Viola and Doug Aitken) and film (the unstoppably baroque Matthew Barney) and, of course, perverse installation (Chris Burden is still at it, and better than ever). And let's please not forget the "neo-Victorian" or Gothic-grotesque movement, spawned by cheeky young Brits but notably executed by such Americans as Victoria Reynolds (thickly pulsing portraits of raw meat), Alexis Rockman (dense and disturbed homages to old Masters), and in some of Cindy Sherman's more recent psychosexual tableau photographs.
In short, '90s American art has been aggressive, irony-laden, complex in its craftsmanship and rather wider-angled than previously provincial concerns. Yes, it's exciting, intriguing, and demanding. It's as immediately appealing as a baby grizzly bear, and every bit as high-strung and high-maintenance.
Texas has, as we might have guessed, resisted this direction. Why react against '80s superficiality when Texas never really hopped that train in the first place? While it could be that Texas art is still nascent compared to that in the nation's coastal hubs, it's more characteristic that Texas just doesn't care about what's hot outside of Texas.
Thus, Whistler's show.
Barry Whistler, a gallery owner these past 15 years, has always sniffed out a certain kind of talent for his discerning roster. His artists are consistent, smart but visceral, and while not wholly traditional, they don't exactly careen off the aesthetic tracks into confoundingly novel Purgatory. Aside from the work of the Art Guys (Texas' answer to veteran English conceptual artists Gilbert and George), Whistler's artists aren't even especially ironic, not in the overtly disdainful way of much '90s art.
Besides some upstarts from the major regional universities, some anomalous shows that happen in such alternative spaces as Gray Matters and San Antonio's Blue Star and Houston's Diverseworks, not much Texas art is brashly perverse, so Whistler's quieter contemporary bent is a decent representation of Texas art leanings. Which makes the excellent art of such Whistler artists as Ted Kincaid, Lorraine Tady, and Ann Stautberg that much more appropriate as an overview of recent Texas art -- even if they might be reluctant reps. (Show me an artist who enjoys being thus categorized, and I'll show you a tired sell-out, which these artists are not.)
At least four of the 15 artists on display were part of Whistler's first group show in 1985, when he had a space over on Commerce Street. And though John Wilcox, Ed Blackburn, and Michael Miller's work in this show is new, there's a guess-my-age element to their results: Wilcox's unabashedly op-arty "Snowfall For My Mother Departed" is as timeless as it is dizzying, a blizzard of pristine white dots on a black canvas; and Blackburn's "Judas and the Chief Priest," a monumental depiction of proverbial treachery, is so flat-line cartoony and acid-test colorful that any art historian would be hard-pressed to name its completion date.
Whistler throws in a smattering of works born through the decade. Skeet McCauley's panoramic photo "Barton Creek Golf Course, Austin, Texas" from 1992 may be far more critical than its idyllic lushness lets on. This vast, hazy beauty is, after all, artificially cultivated -- man's way with pillaging nature to create some creepy, Orwellian über-landscape. It could be a loving portrait of a Welsh or New Zealand countryside, if those skinny flagpoles, spewing sprinklers, and manicured little trees didn't interrupt the dream. What forest was razed to make room for this white-collar conceit?
Texas as a subject is, of course, on display. Texas artists are understandably mystified and fascinated and repulsed by their home, so swollen with myth and legacy and a diversity of terrain and characters. Bob Wade drives home his homage most directly with "Cowboy Band," a truly charming photographic portrait of what looks like a circa-1930 western horn-and-drum ensemble, hand-colorized and steeped in iconography, and in his "Art Goin' Down," an acrylic-on-photo-linen shot of a bucking bronco ditching its rider. The horse's dust-kicking action is such crystallized violent energy that it looks like a still from a Sam Peckinpah film. The incredible Ann Stautberg takes a more muscular yet winsome approach to Texas in her hand-colored photographs, those breathtakingly ominous and epic portraits of the Gulf Coast shoreline that seethe with lowering skies and briny sunrises.
Houston's Art Guys, a comedic jewel in Whistler's crown, are of course represented here -- this time with their 1999 piece "Bonded Activity #55," a 7-foot-tall skyscraper made entirely of sharpened pencils. Its shape deftly evokes a stacked and layered Art Deco monolith, a la the Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building. Adjacent is the equally tall, framed, schematic architectural drawing of the pencil tower, laid out with droll perfection and punctuated with a Walt Disney-esque stencil "Welcome," as though this structure is as good as realized and as functional as Rockefeller Center.
Perhaps the most un-regional -- and, therefore, crossover-like -- pieces in the show are by the young Ted Kincaid and veteran John Pomara. These artists have such a sharp sense of abstract, aloof cool that you might put them on an art-world VIP list that includes such '90s darlings as Gary Hume and Karin Davie. Kincaid's strange and vibrating orbs line up across a receding sepia-toned space on a photographic surface that gives away nothing of its process. Pomara's slick and satisfying row of whitened aluminum panels are cut by streaks of black and green that communicate pure velocity as they swoosh across the wall. It's abstract art for a new era, sidestepping anything obvious or cloying or datedly decorative. Pure art, perhaps as Stanley Kubrick might have idealized it.
But this is not reactive art; none of it is. Again, Texas seems oblivious to such movement. So while the nation shakes and moans over Sensation, the young Brit art show launched by ad-mogul Charles Saatchi and recently aggravating these shores, we have to wonder whether the Brooklyn exhibit's thorough and deliberate grouping of such high-maintenance, shrill work heralds the end of a cycle. Will the coming decade bring about more nuanced, mild work, more gentle boundaries, more classic forms? Texas artists sure don't care. They just do what they do, despite what's going down everywhere else.
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