Critics' choice

One of least gratifying things about being an arts writer is taking the piss out of someone who has good intentions. Don't get me wrong; there's something oddly exhilarating about kneecapping any contingent that really deserves it, and there are always a few floating to the top in this town, like dead guppies in an underpopulated fishbowl. They're obvious and they reek. When the Florence Art Gallery on Cedar Springs masquerades as a legit space then insists on showcasing novelties--a child painter, a blind painter--rather than any real vision (pun intended) from a real artist, I'll be first to snap. And terribly misguided acts by those in positions of power--as in, a big Fort Worth bank selling off its longstanding Caulder sculpture, one of the city's few and most beloved public works, in order to raise funds to redecorate its bank lobby--is certainly worth a good angry poke. Hustles, scams, and superficial plans abound in a region obsessed with cosmetic profile, sports, and cash flow. It's no wonder Dallas will see the opening of a new gargantuan sports arena years before it sees the opening of a much-needed opera house.

But Dallas can't afford relentless criticism about its visual arts front without suffering an overall undermining effect. The city just isn't culturally developed to the point of withstanding blows right and left; it's like tripping up a toddler just as he's learning to walk. Leave that kind of brutal and numbing press to New York, Chicago, London, etc., cities with hundreds of galleries lining their well-established streets, thousands of artists and collectors and dealers, and dozens of publications committed solely to that end. In one of those metropolises, if you're a critic and you demolish a gallery or artist in your art pages, you're merely adding to the already-in-progress melodrama, to the spirit of competition and the survival of the fittest. The herds are dense; the weak should be weeded out. Year-round, it's open season.

But here, if you take one gallery or artist down, you're unwittingly scoring one for the doubters, for all the folks out there who suspect that this region has little to offer, art-wise, in the first place. And you're potentially disconcerting those ever-optimistic art hounds who consider any contribution to Dallas culture, however weak, as another happy brick in the scene's burgeoning foundation. It's the built-in glitch of a relatively new urban landscape. Tread lightly, or else you're stomping the fledgling to death. (Not that Dallas is brand-new, but it's pretty new to the higher arts.)

We do have a healthy little scene here, packed with scrappers and underdogs and eccentrics and a bulging handful of spectacular artists and reps. But what do you do when a gallery (or four) opens that just doesn't measure up to any respectable standard other than the fact that the proprietors are sincere in their efforts? I mean, how do you tell the new, eager kid on the block that the new shoes he sports so proudly are actually cheap knockoffs and are bound to fall apart within weeks? It boils down to an invisible boundary line that he can't see, though others sense it: There's good art and there's bad art. Granted, sometimes our most venerable galleries will show an artist whose work we don't particularly like, but you can still sense the validity and thoughtfulness behind the gallery's choice to show that artist.

What is it with the new kid? Why can't he tell the difference between the good and the bad?

There are a few galleries that have cropped up in the Exposition Park area recently--entirely well-meaning new kids with shiny, suspect shoes. As a critic, I could choose to ignore them entirely and hope no one notices; dig into them with the gleeful ire of a strung-out New York critic after three sleepless nights; or address the problem of writing about weak galleries in a city in dire need of galleries. I'm obviously going for route three.

So, while Dallas can't afford to lose any of its better spaces, I'm not sure it needs what's breeding in Fair Park either, and my worst fear is that out-of-towners visiting the area will assume that this is what Dallas means when it says "art space," or even worse, that Planoites and Grand Prairians will traipse in from their nether regions some sunny weekend afternoon, looking for actual culture, only to conclude at the end of the day that the Dallas visual-arts scene consists of Celtic pottery and shoulder bags made of rabbit fur and mass-produced T-shirts.

That's what these Expo Park art spaces are: storefronts for dubiously trained crafts makers, not real galleries showing artists who transcend the profane in their search for meaning or irony or beauty. These are art spaces for Dungeons & Dragons dorks, for people who spend too much time exalting Riverdance, for naive graphic designers who have come to believe an icon of a stuffed animal belongs on everyone's back.  

There are four of them lining the Exposition side of the block. Not the Parry Avenue side: We all know by now that Angstrom and gallery:untitled are real-deal venues. And certainly 500X, down the street a quarter mile, has carved its place in Scene history. But along one short block across from Fair Park, Expo 825 (formerly the Space Gallery), Gallery O, the Independent Particle Gallery, and Sock Monkey have all quite by tragic coincidence fallen through the cracks of good taste and discriminating artist rosters. Not that every piece in every one of these galleries is god-awful, or that every one of this quartet has nothing to recommend in it. After all, Independent Particle is also a frame shop (smart that they didn't give up their day job), and Sock Monkey can get pretty ambitious at times and organize music events featuring some of the city's more notable musicians.

But unfortunately, I can't say these Expo Park spaces are contributing any more to our arts scene than another pregnant cat would to the city pound. This city is already teeming with unintentional kitsch (see: the West End), ugly and unfocused self-promotion (see: the city's hand in "planning" Deep Ellum), and bad stabs at art (see: first paragraph above). But neither are these new galleries the work of evil scammers or ingrate trust-funders or flaky bohos who deserve to be slapped around a bit. These are nice young people, with big ideas and a hell of a lot of hope, not to mention unabashed support of their "artists."

Last Friday and Saturday night was what these proprietors collectively dubbed Block Party Gallery Night, and on both evenings they opened their doors to the pedestrian public. Gallery O and Independent Particle debuted. Strolling from space to space, I couldn't help thinking, "Wouldn't that ceramic bowl be more at home in a crafts booth at Artfest?" and "Couldn't the guy who makes leather armor take his business down to Waxahachie for Scarborough Faire?" Scattered about the freshly painted (though raw) spaces were fake but dead-earnest "artifacts," college-exercise line drawings, high school-level watercolors, and tries-too-hard sculptures that stab at some simpleton statement about technology or some such dreck.

I'm not gonna name names. I'm just pointing out a distasteful trend, surely one that infects most any city once it gets rolling. Don't you know those aforementioned big-art cities have countless "craft-as-art" spaces? They're just not counted alongside Barbara Gladstone and Stephen Friedman and Gagosian, and they don't expect to be. But here in toddler Dallas, Expo 825 and friends sincerely hope to stake a regional place alongside Barry Whistler or Edith Baker, and that's the farce and pain of this dilemma. Again, the work isn't all bad, but about 82 percent of it is, and that's a pretty dismal batting average for four teammates in a row. By the time I was done perusing the fourth and last of these spaces, I was so ready to go home and crawl under the covers that I knew I'd made an important and exhausting discovery: Even a starving baby Dallas can do without some kinds of art venues.

One more thing
So much for charm. Those crispy-creaky old buildings in the Wilson Historic District (the area around Swiss, Texas Street, and Good-Latimer) may sport pristine paint jobs and shiny plate-glass windows, but one of the most important of them is falling apart.

Still, an excellent event arises from the wreckage when more than 200 of the region's best artists come together to lend their--uh--support.

Last spring, structural engineers declared the Dallas Visual Center for the Arts unsound when the Meadows Foundation, which owns the space, called in a few pros to check out some growing cracks in the building's north wall. DVAC director Katherine Wagner said that everything from ant colonies to brisk winds were snaking their way through the place (starting, of all things, in the USA Film Festival offices on that end. So the Festival heads can blame its program disintegration on such distractions, right?).

By December the building was trussed with extra outside beams, but a full renovation wasn't financially viable; DVAC officials decided to move all art (and potentially crushed patrons) out of the building, leaving only the offices open for business until a new space could be either found, or, in this case, built. Old DVAC will face the wrecking ball sooner than later. New DVAC opens just down the block from the old one, at 2801 Swiss, by September--courtesy Meadows. And thank God for that. For Dallas to lose such a respected and pioneering arts entity like DVAC would be a hefty blow to its cultural face.  

Meanwhile, DVAC board member Linda Hickman and her husband, artist David Hickman, have spearheaded a massive event to give the new center a nice kickoff: a benefit auction featuring a few hundred works by a few hundred of the region's noted artists, among them Melissa Miller, Sue Gunner, and Bill Komodore. Not too shabby. The sheer number of contributions to the event, titled Picking Up the Slack for Our Friends at DVAC, is a testament to the artists' affectionate view of DVAC and the center's place in Dallas' arts development. Most of the pieces are part of a silent auction, while 19 will be showcased in a live bidding war. Prices start at $50, then skyrocket from there. There's food and a cash bar, and let's just say this may be the worthiest art cause of the season.

Picking Up the Slack for Our Friends at DVAC takes place on Saturday, May 22, at 7 p.m. at the Grand Place at Fair Park. Admission is $20, and reservations can be made by calling (214) 821-2522.

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