It matters

The place has been closed for seven months. While the great unwashed didn't notice, the rest of the art freaks sure did. Dallas can't afford to lose a gallery--especially a great alternative space--like Gray Matters. We'd drive by the closed doors on North Haskell every once in a while and sigh at them: Man, wish you were open. We'd spot Vance Wingate, Gray Matters' owner-director, at various art openings and pester him: "What's up with your gallery?" He'd just smile and talk a bit about burnout and expenses and how his day job is taking up all his time and how he would reopen Gray Matters early in the new year. Then we would pester him some more.

Granted, it's not easy for a place that deals in...uh...edgier fare to survive in a city bent on beauty and convention. And Wingate was having enough trouble paying his own bills, let alone those of the mostly noncommercial, not so lucrative Haskell space. But still, we crossed our fingers and waited.

It's the new year, and Wingate kept his promise. So it's with unabashed glee (or close enough) that I write about the first Gray Matters show since early last summer--and this one's a killer. The clever combo of veteran Tom Sale and newcomer Jimmy Cantwell succeeds on two levels: For one, Sale is a Gray Matters fixture, and his tiny, odd sculptures get better all the time; his presence is familiar, even comforting. And second, Cantwell's even tinier, if not weirder, sculptures keep to the gallery's seven-year tradition of uncovering and supporting fringe (albeit trained) artists. The young and painfully shy Cantwell has never shown before, and likely never would without the prodding of his former art teacher Dottie Sale (Tom's wife and Wingate's friend). Tom Sale's work takes up the foyer and the large back gallery--this is, in essence, his show, titled Every Dog Has His Day. Cantwell, whose test-tube statues fill the remaining smaller front gallery, is guest of honor.

Cantwell lives in a 15-by-15-foot tool shed behind his brother's house near Lake Whitney. Word has it he never ventures into the main house; and even though he's apparently in his late 20s, he just recently bought his first car. A true loner, he likes the way this solitary life affords him plenty of time to read his books and carve magnificent little literary sculptures out of pieces of pastel chalk. In the early '90s, he took Dottie and Tom's various art classes at Hill College in Hillsboro, and they've kept in touch with him since: The Sales owned enough of Cantwell's pieces to launch this show without Cantwell having to put in any extra work or personal appearance, and Cantwell was happy to have the Sales carry the ball for him. Crowds and strangers make him nervous.

A needle, an Exacto blade, and sturdy, mid-quality pastel chalk--these are Cantwell's scant materials. And out of the dusty blue and orange and red and pink chalk sticks emerge all kinds of fantastic creatures, among them dragons and mermaids and griffins and goddesses--all so very tiny, and all supremely detailed, the products of a man gifted with equal parts talent and patience. The individual scales on the mermaid's fishtail are rendered carefully and clearly, as is the textured, curling fur on the cat monster, the leaves and bark on Daphne's mythological tree, and the curved claws of the dragon. These sculptures, each encased in its own glass test tube and mounted on a wooden wall rack, are miniature totem poles, diminutive talismans against the grind of reality.

Despite their size and modern protective cage, they're so dynamic they seem to lurch and stare and growl and do all the things these creatures have done for centuries across the pages of ancient manuscripts. The effect is both jarring and charming. It's like an unwitting science project, the fantasy and passion of the past captured for scrutiny in a pathology lab. Surely if they were released from the tubes they would bite or maybe sing a song, or at least rub their colored dust on your fingers.

You want to touch them, to get a closer look--and you can. The sculptures fill the upper half of each test tube; the lower half, separated from the top by a disk of cork, is filled with either colored sand or white cotton. You're invited to pick up the tubes from their racks and turn them over. The sand-filled ones drain, hour-glass-style, from one side to the other, covering the carvings. They become interactive pieces, toy-like, yet once you flip the thing back over and the sand runs to the bottom again, you're once more jarred by the tiny gaze of the creature within. This is art--pristine, blazing, minute art.

If the entire two-man show has any connective tissue, it would be the lack of human representations in the artwork and the proliferation of animals in their place. Like Cantwell, Sale prefers non-people to tell his stories, and for Sale, this is the Year of the Dog--the wee, very lost and lonely dog. Small paraffin, ceramic, and plastic pups are the central characters in Sales' small dioramas, which line the walls on bleached wood pedestals. Sale has worked with toy and model animals and chunks of rocks for several years, and, always a master of allegory and puns, his visions are getting darker, sadder, more desperate.

At first glance, the works are fairly humorous, with such titles as "In Japan Big Feet are Considered Funny" (this, for a black dog perched on one of Sales' sandy rocks; the dog teeters on fleshy human feet far too big for his reedy legs) and "Call Charter" (a fat pug sports thick, smeared clown makeup, and he looks miserable, as though he's about to hurl himself off his little mountain in anguish). It's enough to garner a smile, though it's likely to be a wan grin at best.

Occasionally a non-dog enters the scene. In "Deliverance"--and you almost need a magnifying glass to catch the details of this fist-sized drama--two bears in a river canyon study an abandoned kayak. One bear is in the water, on his hind legs, his paws on the side of the boat as he gazes into its mysterious emptiness. The other bear looks on from the cliff wall. There's an astonishing sense of loss here--for the bears, and for the previous owners of the kayak. Obviously, the horrors of the film and book come to mind, but what's happening here transcends that, and much of the work's power is in its understatement: its size, its silence, its surface cuteness.

"Ancient Mariner"--again, a dog and another boat--is no less morose. On a platform of violent-blue molded waves, a big German Shepherd mutt stands alert in a gutted, burned-out canoe. The boards are cracked, the oars are broken, the dog is covered in soot. He and his useless paws won't do much to help him out of this bind: The boat is doomed to sink, and he with it. Only, it looks as though the dog may be the cause of the damage. His mouth is tense and shredded, his eyes desperate, as though he's just taking a break from proceeding with the boat's destruction.

Sale finds his animals here and there: flea markets, garage sales, toy stores, Internet catalogues. Hundreds of them sit in his home studio, waiting to be cast in a scene. According to Sale, the lone rocks and boats and the even more solitary animals represent a total isolation, a bleak moment that's bound to grow even more hopeless. He places them accordingly, paints them and glues them and morphs them to his needs, and while the mini-toy affect is disarming, his success in evoking alienation rubs a deeper nerve. No matter how roly-poly and charming the two penguins in "(R)evolutionary Event," the fallout is clear. The one lying on his back on the ground, behind the black Volkswagen, has either been hit by the car or fallen out of it. The penguin behind the wheel looks on, somewhat apathetically. Only Sale knows what happens next.

Every Dog has His Day: Works by Tom Sale and Jimmy Cantwell is at Gray Matters, 113 N. Haskell, through February 27. Open weekends only. For more information, call (214) 824-7108.


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