Cool your eyes
Art-wise, these early summer weeks are some of the juiciest Dallas will see all year. Short of the big fall and holiday seasons, this is the most well-attended time for the local galleries. People are more excited about the longer days than sick of them -- they'll step out often before the mercury hits 100 and sticks to that brutal number through September. So all the art spaces are open and buzzing, and they're showcasing strong yet approachable artists. Trends are on display, including big ones from the outside, and the current art world leans toward a couple of particularly bold and colorful past movements that jibe well with the mounting Texas heat. If you can't cool your body, cool your eyes, and if you're gonna trip back to the Mod era, make it bigger and better than before.
A stroll through two local spaces performs a twofold trick: shows you the art world's current re-examination of op art and minimalism -- two movements that were strong through the '60s, then mostly left for dead -- and displays the new school of international artists who busy themselves with this exhumation. At both Turner and Runyon Gallery downtown and the McKinney Avenue Contemporary uptown, the connective theme is big, bold, and graphic. It's eye candy for sure, but it's also a rather sophisticated window on a current obsession with things utopian and cool and clean, with the addition of the personal and ironic to these elements. You might compare it to Mike Myers' affectionate take on movie spy lore, but it's not nearly as overwrought. Nostalgic, sure. Dumb, funny, and repetitive, no.
Turner and Runyon's small but surprisingly complete show, Tang, carries a complex but still clear theme -- past visions of the future re-interpreted by those who grew up with, and then beyond, those visions. The original minimalists, the ones interested in the simple cleanness of color and line -- Donald Judd, Ellsworth Kelly -- enjoyed their brightest spotlight in the 1960s and '70s, about the time Tang's handful of artists were zipping around with runny noses, eating orange push-ups, and watching Batman on TV. Now all grown up, Greg Bogin and Sarah Morris and company have an understandable sentimentalism for the putrid pastel colors of their childhoods, for the smooth and assertive shapes and lines of the things they grew up with: egg-shaped clock radios and bean-bag chairs and shag carpeting and psychedelic wallpaper.
But these artists are too clever and restless to approach their homage to this aesthetic in a purely nostalgic way. They wouldn't have much use for the straight-up, obvious rehash of That '70s Show. Too much to analyze and rethink since then, too many ways to improve upon that era's charm. So the artwork in Tang quite bravely ups the ante on the futurist-utopian ideals and brings in a distinctly current appeal. You might compare it to the luscious "retro" re-design of the Volkswagen Beetle. In other words, Donald Judd's stainless steel and Plexiglas wall shelf (a 1971 piece kindly on display at the gallery, as example) is a touchstone for Liam Gillick's anodized aluminum and Plexiglas "Discussion Island Research Screen," which sits long and lean on the floor, even more antifunctional than Judd's decorative shelf, given that Gillick's perfect futurepeople won't need anything so pedestrian as real furniture. Gillick's work comes off fresh, geared toward new eyes -- it's sturdier, bigger, the block shapes and colors expanded-upon, but the lines are still razor-clean. It's minimalism with the word "deluxe" preceding it.
Same goes for Tobias Rehberger's giant cloth ottomans: huge islands of retro color begging to be lounged upon by gaggles of swishy, beautiful scenesters. But the reds and greens are just brighter and denser than their past mod counterparts -- just as the drugs the hypothetical clubgoers take are a bit more powerful these days -- and the sheer size of these two pieces thumbs a nose at the more modest ambitions of the past. Tongue-in-cheek, but functional and idealistic at the same time.
And so on with the other artists' works. There's great comfort and satisfaction in looking at things so familiar and cheery, but the sugar high is cut with real thought. This is current artwork with a clear view to the naive yet hopeful past as well as fresh eyes for the uncertain future, a set of bright young artists who dose their Kool-Aid with new urban myths and the wisdom of hindsight. Things like design and daily living aren't as simple and happy as our parents hoped they'd be by the year 2000, nor as creepy and alienating as lives depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey. We're somewhere in between, still evolving, sense of humor and beauty intact.
A few of Tang's artists are also on display at the MAC, which is fitting, as the bold, industrial-type graphics of minimalism make the easy crossover to op art. The uptown space's current vision-jarring show, post-hypnotic, is a traveling one; some may wonder at curator Barry Blinderman's delight in a movement that petered out long ago, once pop music and fashion co-opted it for themselves. Flashback to swinging London: Quivering patterns in bright enamel paint on big, expensive canvases quickly gave way to quivering patterns on album covers and neckties. The art world winced at this offensively easy migration of the aesthetic, and moved on to denser, darker things.
But, like Turner and Runyon's minimalists, these young 'uns are revisiting that territory with great enthusiasm, and again with no small amount of irony. Depending on your eyesight and sense of humor, op art is either the most trivial trend art will ever re-suffer, or the most efficient combination of art's higher goals: to be both attractive and entertaining. Walking through the MAC right now is a lot of fun, like walking through a movie version of what an art exhibit should be -- cartoony and gonzo and very important. Names like Peter Halley and Karen Davie and Tom Moody lend the necessary mover-and-shaker hype element, but the works speak for themselves, or rather yell and sing and vibrate for themselves.
We associate op art with visual trickery, and there are a few doozies here: Michael Scott's "The History of Memory Part I" makes your eyes feel like they're grating along a washboard; Tad Griffin's bar codes gyrate off their surface; Peter Halley's giant, acid green and pink "Red Cell" is the kind of painting that, if you stare at it for a bit then turn your eyes to a white wall, you see the same image in reverse color. David Szafranski's "Bra Sale" is one of those "Magic Eye" illusions -- gaze through the densely dappled color field until you see his rather teasing words floating around inside it.
But again, like Turner and Runyon's angle, this show transcends its own aborted roots and delves into not only the now and later, but the personal. Back then, op art was just about the mixing of clever optical tricks and neato colors and shapes, romanticizing the brainwash effect of playful visual fields. Now it has evolved to communicate far more. Sarah Morris' "Bathroom Floor (Las Vegas)" is a choice example of this: Her receding black and peach floor tiles certainly squeeze your vision, but somehow her relationship with this floor comes through viscerally. You get the sense that she has simplified and beautified a truly gritty, trippy bathroom experience of her own. It's not just a graphic anymore; it's a story. And from a few yards back, Fred Tomaselli's "Thirteen Thousand" may look like delicate, textured columns painted on a blue background -- but step up and get hit with a harder truth. It's actually 13,000 aspirin pills stacked in neat rows between columns of stained blue wood, and the whole is sealed and varnished with a thick window of resin. It's like staring at a document of a life so isolated and pained as to require this mass of anodyne, sealed and fading from the real world.
That is today's retro: Deluxe Op, X-treme Minimalism. No better way to beat the heat, or to resurrect the spirits of two long-dead movements.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.