Location, location

The phenomenon of suburban spread has, despite its tendency to homogenize everything in its steamroller path, sparked at least one enriching trend. Buried deep in the hearts of some of the pseudo-cities--Plano, Arlington, even North Richland Hills--are unexpected slices of *real art, almost as though the urban core of the art scene has, under the weight of population influx, shattered into little pieces that land in suburbia and take root. The Arlington Museum of Art, the Plano Art Center, and other like venues have evolved over the past few years and proved their stake in the high-aesthetics game. Solid shows, knowing curators, thoughtful viewers, and all outside the market hubs of Dallas and Fort Worth.

But really, these spaces have emerged not as bastard offspring of big-city venues but rather as independent forces: People resent having to commute into the dense downtown grid for all things cultural, and while the suburbs enthusiastically sprout their own pithy vines of "arts" and "entertainment" (if we can call megaplex movie theaters and chain restaurants such), the great anomaly is these art venues. Who'd have guessed that a frustrated Irvingite could walk down his own street to see an impressive installation by a pair of noted artists?

The Irving Arts Center, a dozen-year-old entity smack in the middle of Dallas' northwestern shadow, has dug itself a respectable niche in this decade, beginning as a single, humble lobby sporting works by earnest high school students and growing into a dual-galleried, tri-theater force that boasts a constant onslaught of music, drama, and visual arts by respected and emerging artists. Looking at its monthly calendar listings, you get a picture of a place that's mastered a balance between pleasing its suburban crowd with "safer" fare and taking the kinds of risks that force an unexpected education on its more complacent viewers. Granted, a space as edgy as Gray Matters would starve to death in Irving. But handfuls of the art-informed living in Texas Stadium territory would waste away if all they were fed was an endless diet of "Southwestern" paintings and Neil Simon plays.

Right now, the Irving Arts Center boasts this safe yet cutting compromise from the visual art contingent--the large gallery holding giant installations by Dallas favorites Frances Bagley and Tom Orr, the smaller gallery showcasing the unsettling drawings of newer talent Mike Hill.

Bagley and Orr, a sort of "power team" from the region's contemporary art scene (they're married), have enjoyed critical acclaim for years; she's known for her breathtaking figural works out of natural materials, he for his elegant wood and wire sculptures. Both enjoy representation by Dallas' more moneyed galleries. Maybe it's the vast size of the Irving Art Center's main gallery (more than 130 feet long, and the ceiling tops out around 30 feet) that seduced the duo; their two separate installations fill and bisect the whole bright room, his on one side, hers on the other.

The title of the show, To Float, fits well enough; Bagley references the term with air, Orr with water metaphors. Bagley's piece, "Cloud," is inspired by Japanese Shinto shrines, where pilgrims write their hopes or wishes on rice paper or cloth and tie them to the shrine. The man-to-spirit communication comes from the collective force of such desire. Bagley adopts the concept to her aesthetic with mixed results.

Three massive ellipses--umbrella-like tiers of wire--are suspended from the ceiling by a surprisingly graceful system of pale ropes and pulleys, and are likewise anchored to the floor by ropes bolted to sandy boulders. To each umbrella, or cloud, are tied hundreds of strips of rice paper that, densely packed, give each concave wire cage a solid shape, and on each strip is written the wishes of individuals--people invited to the gallery a few weeks ago to compose them. You can walk around and underneath the giant forms--they subtly sway and rotate in the air-conditioning draft. You can crane your neck and try to read the phrases on the thin strips, though the scrunching of the paper with wire twists (what secures them to the wire frame) obscures the messages: "I wish for"; "I wish to have travel thru..."; "The ultimate wish would be...of one another and get along...beings shooting at one another..."

So many read much the same: desire for world peace, desire for long life, desire for a "global shift in consciousness." Reading their heavy, interrupted messages gets comical after a bit, like the bathtub scene in Steve Martin's The Jerk, when the hapless hero sputters and slurs through his girlfriend's breakup letter because the ink is smeared by bathwater. Still, Bagley writes in her official statement that the wishes aren't meant to be read (ah, well); really, the strength of the piece comes not from its "message" but from its ethereal, serene form--Bagley's forte in the first place.  

Smartly, she's added two extra elements to the scene, one boulder tied to its pulley without a massive cloud in between, and another big rock bound to the ground under a trap-like net. These almost creepy add-ons stave off the sense that the piece is naively earnest, and inject it with a needed mystery, if not cynicism.

The gallery's other half is filled with Orr's three massive steel grids--austere, vertical cages with their planes jutting at odd angles. These, bolted to the floor with small hinges and bound to the ceiling with dark wire veins, are laced through their centers with raw wooden sticks that circle up to form thick, undulating funnels within--organic vessels of swirling matter trapped in unyielding metal. Orr calls the piece "Dead Kings," after a passage in a book about icebergs in which they're described as floating on the water like "dead ice kings." It comes off like a three-dimensional topographic map of offshore Iceland, the atmosphere divided into latitude and longitude squares and layered with the strata of ice blocks. It's also a fittingly cold, ephemeral installation, marked by the looming sterility of the cages and punctuated by the gritty texture of the somewhat warmer, unfinished wood.

Together these installations have a slice-and-dice effect on the gallery, cutting up the space without interrupting actual airflow. Her trio is of spiritual forms, his more brooding trio of earth and sky symbolism; both float, in a sense, however tethered to the room's top and bottom. They don't complement each other; they don't subtract from one another. They just silently co-exist.

The adjacent, smaller gallery, which the center refers to as the "New Talent" area, holds 18 of Mike Hill's drawings. Since 1990, the UNT graduate has sketched portraits of toy figures--plastic animals, soldiers, cowboys--with both the realism of an unkind photographer and the romanticizing eye of a paid portrait painter. In his colored pencil drafts, the objects are portrayed as monumental, threatening, heroic, while the ragged-seamed, glossy texture of their surfaces betrays their toy status. "Dragon, Phoenix, Leviathan" is a pencil-and-acrylic portrait of a rubber dinosaur, a rooster, and a hippopotamus, grouped in blazing, primary colors. Like David Levinthal's giant Polaroids of GI Joes, toy horses, and the like, these are droll takes on size and meaning: Kids bestow impressive imaginative power on their playthings--adults, come to think of it, are often guilty of the same.

Hill uses color with aggressive agility, though his tendency to score the surfaces with confetti-like slashes has an unfortunate early-'80s decorative effect. Hill's best colored work has him skipping this embellishment and instead attacking the figure; his most powerful images are of toys that are melting, roiling, burning as though saturated with acid, or muted as though ripped apart by little hands. "Lamb with Blue Paint" is a huge drawing of a rubber sheep, blazing red and blue with its knotted muscles and joints exposed, its eyes rolling wildly. The best works do away with color altogether. "Astronaut" is a beautifully rendered graphite drawing of a man's bowed head, his ravaged space helmet casting a shadow across his eyes. No doubt Hill's gift for shape, shadow, and context will give way to a highly recognizable style soon enough.

The initial, questioning response: Would these two exhibits seem as impressive if they were in Dallas or Fort Worth venues? Maybe their strength is that they exist at all in a place like Irving, fast-spreading land of sterile apartment complexes and the corporate haze of an ultra-varnished Las Colinas. Call it the suburban grading curve, because against that backdrop, most all genuine art seems damn fascinating. Picturing Bagley's piece at the DMA (no Dallas gallery is large enough to hold it), it's not quite as powerful or unexpected, especially up against the monumental installations of Claes Oldenburg's vaulted spike or Chris Burden's fleet of tiny submarines. Perhaps the piece is too kind for city angst, what with all its dangling wishes and "we are the world" optimism. Mike Hill's drawings, too, might come off diluted and green compared to the punchier, seasoned sketches of city-gallery mainstays Barbara Simcoe and Celia Eberle.

Maybe not. In the end, it's a "what-if" issue that turns back on itself to raise a buried, though better, point: The Irving Arts Center, like other suburban galleries, offers a safe place for these experiments and try-outs in a way that the urban establishment never would. Which points to the greatest potential value of suburban art spaces: toss out the rules, the pretension, the expectations, and see what happens. A new kind of risk is taking place within those whitewashed walls. It's OK to breathe. It's just Irving.

To Float: Works by Frances Bagley and Tom Orr, through November 15; drawings by Mike Hill, through October 25, at the Irving Arts Center. 3333 N. MacArthur Boulevard, Irving. (972) 252-7558.  

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