Birthday blow-out

If 500X were a person, right now he'd be running around stark naked, whooping joyously, and setting things on fire. He never guessed he'd make it to 20. In this town, most would-be artists lose sight of their own creative flame well before they reach legal age, squelched as it is by teachers, or parents, or the damp haze of conservatism. That 500X, an ever-shifting string of artists who originally set up camp in a downtown warehouse 20 years ago, has existed this long in hostile territory is just this side of miraculous. A celebration, enfant terrible-style, should be in order.

Birthday suit aside, the co-op 500X is marking the milestone with a show that distills its contribution to the Dallas art scene all these years--20X500: Views from a Dallas Warehouse--an exhibition that, both nobly and predictably, plays up the positives, nearly eliminates the negatives, and lets the gray areas just sort of hitch a ride.

As part of Dallas' annual Gallery Walk last weekend, 500X's cavernous red-brick digs, a former air-conditioning plant that boasts no air conditioning, was just another destination in a long line of must-see shows--a sign that the space has either succeeded in joining the establishment (not its original goal), or failed to rail against the establishment and succeeded anyway (closer to its original goal).

The show's artwork tells the story well enough. Some of the early artists have gone on to become regional stars, some of its newest artists promise the same, and some of them, past and recent, seem to have fallen between the cracks, unnoticed and disengaged from the art contingent for whatever reason. If those ex-artists showed up to the anniversary opening, they slipped in and out of the crowd of local luminaries quietly--like shoegazers who attend their high school reunion to observe silently rather than celebrate. They're the casualties of a war against convention--start a family, get a job, and for survival's sake, collapse the creative process. But that's the baggage of landmark birthdays, and 500X is no exception. Measure achievement against regret, and try like hell to believe the former outweighs the latter.

Which it does, for the most part, at 500X, and not just because of its survival or birthing of notable alumni. A brief history: In the late '70s, two edge-loving artists--Richard Childers and Will Hipps--bought the circa-1916 building, gutted it, and invited 20 or so of their contemporaries into a deal that formed the original 500X. It was a space dedicated to experimentation, a safe place and studio for its members, a boundary-shatterer for the then-stagnant local art scene. They cited '70s-era SoHo as a spiritual guide. This was before the "revitalization" of Deep Ellum and Exposition Park, the areas 500X lies between in both location and identity, so the pioneer factor was high.

In its early years, purveyors such as Frances Bagley, Vincent Falsetta, and Nic Nicosia showcased with the co-op, and along with that the city got its first real taste of performance, video, and conceptual art from the X's various members. Rightly, the local press and art collectors felt they'd reached a watershed. Since the early '80s, the operation has been remarkable for its stability, though Childers and Hipps long ago sold the building and took off. The roster of board members changes guard yearly, sometimes more often than that, and droves of old and new fans still turn up for every well-publicized opening.

And they should. Until the launch of Gray Matters (a gallery founded by former 500X-ers Vance Wingate and David Szafranski), the MAC, Good/Bad, Angstrom, et al.--500X was the only real alternative space around, and deserves some recognition and support for its off-road discoveries. As with most alternative spaces, 500X's fare has often been spotty and unprofessional, but more often compelling and worthy, leaving no wonder as to the current success of old progeny: Bagley, Barbara Simcoe, Michael Whitehead, Frank Brown and more, who long ago moved their works to more slick and monied galleries. Occasionally, the up-and-comers still stage a cool show (Scott Barber's wretchedly repulsive, comic baby pool filled with gallons of mucus and nostalgia toys comes to mind), and the only place in the city that takes the risks and lets the public in on the gamble is 500X. Like it or not, you saw it there first.

Now some of the art you saw there first you can see again, at least through mid-October, and at the same time get a glimpse of the co-op's current strongmen. As you enter the warehouse foyer, the colors and shapes of late-'70s artworks hit your eyes like a warm slug of sentiment and charm: Bagley's neatly framed wood-wave, Falsetta's fastidious ob-comp designs, and Haynes Ownby's now ludicrous fabric-and-paint wall decoration, unwittingly straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Strangely, sadly, and without explanation, founder Childers' 1972 half-explosive abstract painting is part of this group--a canvas too loud to ignore but too vacant to fill the viewer's consciousness.

The rest of the show isn't in such strict chronological order. Hark back to the '80s for Pamela Burnley-Schol's photo documentation of her once provocative performance piece--lots of rope, lace, and some fluid that looks vaguely like blood. We should be grateful that the days of such self-indulgent psycho-drivel are mostly behind us. Mary Iron-Hatz's video installation, "Stemmons Crash," muffled, blurred, and too long despite its seven or so minutes, isn't at all interesting to watch except that it was some of the first video art this town ever witnessed. Better are Simcoe's tight and creepy graphite of ominous sexual-politico undertow in "The Shadow Wore Elevator Shoes," and Martin Delabano's "Early Morning," a table-based sculpture with his various lunging cartoon figures facing certain sexual-comic tragedy.

By 1990, Tom Sale and Dottie Allen were contributing to the mix with their fascinating, darkly morphed photo renderings of police badges and mothers and babies. And Celia Eberle had found stunning focus with her jewel-like depictions of insidiously tortured animals. Upstairs, Eberle's "The Animal" (1988) glows all green and friendly until you look again: The white deer in the center is trying, gracefully though in vain, to lick out a flame that snakes toward it on the end of an arrow buried in its haunch. In 500X's collective achievements, that one's a case for posterity.

Two nice surprises from 1986--Frank Brown's droll "Uneasy Alliance," a painting of corporate suits lost in the wild, coffee and cigs in tow, and Michael White-head's more figurative than usual "City Country," a painting laden with so much texture and force, it looks encaustic and then some--like its elements might slip right off the canvas and drip down the wall. Brown and Whitehead have since graduated to Edith Baker and the Conduit. Bringing a bit of their slightly earlier work to light rakes in more than historic credibility; it jars viewer awareness of how artists grow and move on, even today, even in Dallas.

A new school has taken over, represented here by a clever hinged-and-heavy contraption by Tony Schraufnagel--a tiny house that tucks neatly into its own steel case. Rosemary Meza's gestural painting of a grimacing mother and babe on an elongated stretch of unframed canvas pulls the viewers' eyes along the figures' sinewy, blurred limbs in "Mama I Will Be Your Superman."

These artists serve on 500X's current board. Their potential as artists is clear; their direction for the co-op's future isn't as obvious. Given the space's environment--sweltering in summer, frigid in winter, and leaking water through its ceiling and windows--and its initial intent to blow the top off Dallas' repressive dictates, it seems the group could afford to go berserk once in a while. The last thing 500X should do now is give in to its growing rep as a high-profile, easy-to-swallow destination for critics and collectors. Granted, the artists needn't drastically shift their personal visions for the good of their showplace, but to evoke Childers and Hipps, complacency is the haze that chokes this town and will snuff out the members' own flames. Maybe for the 40th anniversary, and we pray it comes, someone will run around naked setting the streets on fire.

20X500: Views from a Dallas Warehouse. Through October 11 at 500X. Call (214) 828-1111 for info and hours.

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