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Believe it or not, this is the letter "x," as reinvented by artist Matthew Sontheimer.

On the political side of the Dallas art scene, nothing in years has stirred more muttering expectation than Talley Dunn's departure from the venerable Gerald Peters Gallery and the subsequent opening of her own venue not more than five miles away. The young Dunn's name had become synonymous with Peters' roster of regionally favored, high-dollar artists, so while it didn't so much surprise the city's art hounds that the Peters' director might like a space of her own (with her own name on the sign outside), the actual event hit like a small atom bomb.

The shock waves generated by her grand exit and shiny re-entry had much to do with both the rumors of a lawsuit -- Dunn seeking freedom from a Peters no-compete contract -- and the public's knowing gleam that Dunn would take Peters' best artists to her new venue. Sho' nuff. Dunn's departure was the equivalent of an arsonist setting fire to Peters' artist stable; the thoroughbred stalls were evacuated at the Preakness, with Dunn leading the horses to safety, holding all the reins: Nicosia, Fisher, Bates, Surls, Ridgway, Miller, Lawrence...every winner trotted out in a neat line to follow the victorious Dunn to her cool new digs. She's their champ jockey, making sure they receive the respect and exposure (and money) they deserve. And she's the scout who can spot a potential winner.

So, of course, the gamblers followed. Like the artists, most of Peters' regular buyers are loyal to Dunn, not to the ghost-like presence of the off-campus Mr. Peters. Dunn was the one who returned their phone calls. Dunn was the one who worked the deals, attended the house parties, explained the complexities of the art itself. And whether you view Dunn as a highbrow version of boxing's Don King, or simply a ferocious lover of great regional art, you've got to admit that if anyone in this town could open a raging success of an art space, it's Dunn.

In the end, the whole issue isn't about some lawsuit or steely competition. It's about the art. Call me sentimental, but the only reason someone would be crazy enough to open a high-overhead, high-risk art venture in this town is that they have a passion for the arts. Otherwise, they might as well go into investment banking or day trading -- either is more stable than dealing artwork in Dallas. It's not about Dunn shaking up the scene; it's about Dunn building on what she does best, which is championing visual art. Obviously, her inaugural opening would be telling.

And it is. The official launch of Dunn and Brown Contemporary (Dunn has a partner in this venture, the quietly practical manager Lisa Brown) is a three-person show, and it only confirms our suspicions that Dunn was more than ready to take on the daunting task of gallery owner. Instead of some showy, heavy-handed "event" (she could have had Vernon Fisher install some seriously aberrant thing), she's managed to orchestrate a nuanced, fluid exhibition of quietly solid works by some excellent regional artists. Fort Worth's Helen Altman, Houston's Matthew Sontheimer, and San Antonio's Liz Ward -- none is a shooting (or falling) star, yet all are buzzing their way up the art-world ladder with admirable tenacity. And leave it to Dunn to present two artists -- Sontheimer and Ward -- whom Dallas has never seen and convince us that we're being let in on an important find. All the red dots next to the labels prove that Dunn's gamblers have been long sold on her nose for talent, although many of the works could sell themselves. It's a powerful combination, one she cultivated in her nine years at Peters.

Ward and Sontheimer are welcome additions to this terrain, and while there's no specific connective aesthetic or theme among all three artists, there is some sense of cohesion between the art and the burgeoning persona of Dunn's space. Attention to detail, perfection of presentation, and deceptively organic flow to the whole: That's what both a great artist and great art dealer can bring to the viewer table.

Sontheimer is the most obliquely conceptual of the bunch. He's taken an enlarged and somewhat abstracted version of his father's scrawled signature, vivisected it into parts, and developed his own precise calligraphic alphabet from it. In other words, the first tiny sliver of Dad's "Sontheimer" represents "a," the second sliver "b," and so forth, with each inked indention and curve taking on crucial import. In photo-smooth ink on Hurculene film paper, he's constructed this highly specialized (and of course, symbolically unreadable) alphabet into text: his own name, postcard correspondence, the name of a friend. In four panels, the letters "A-L-E-X" come off like four individual works of linear art, evoking Marden or the reedy twig watercolors of Ridgway. These are shown together, in order, though they certainly don't have to be. Each carries its own quiet, cryptic rhythm.

Ward goes the organic bent one further, paying homage to natural forms more directly: the cross section of a tree trunk, the dense leaf pattern of a succulent. Sure, these are abstracted, in the poetic way that watercolor can abstract forms, but the real gift here is Ward's total control over something as ethereal as watercolor and a subject as ephemeral as nature. This isn't dictatorial control -- it's respectful and unimposing but nonetheless a testament to her technical prowess. Endless years of lessons can't teach this instinct. She just has it, and the way her grayscale trunk radiates cold rings of the ages, the way her living trunk radiates warm rings of color, is truly hypnotic. And when she dallies with the traditional medium of silverpoint, you'd swear she was a reincarnated spider, weaving a perfect, delicate web of airy dimension.

Unlike the other two, Altman's been around; her wire birds were on display not long ago at Barry Whistler's place. Heavy steel wire curves and interlocks to form a different species of bird, each see-through form containing a small found object. The robin holds a plastic toy hippo, the wolf bird holds a wolf, the cushion wren holds a pin cushion. This deceptively simple concept leads to something more disconcerting: Are the birds projecting mere wordplay or what they want to be? What they just spotted below them on the ground or what they just swallowed? Incongruous objects can be the best mind-screw, forcing you to associate ideas that never otherwise would, and the artist's associations are satisfyingly insidious.

Altman's newest works are here too: three large wall coverings made of sewn-together, unused moving blankets, each gessoed and then painted with the silhouette of a different evergreen tree. The monumental things are snowy and vacant, the moving-blanket background an oddly ugly reverse of pristine nature. Thinking that moving blankets mean mankind's progress, man's continued imposition on the landscape, I couldn't help but wish two things: either make the trees to scale (yes, that would mean huge), or shrink them to better catch the dappled intensity of their forms. Or better still, make them used moving blankets -- battered and frayed with many cross-country trips, soiled with grease stains and furniture splinters. Still, it's an interesting and promising direction for a local with a proven track record.

All the works look great in the space; Dunn had the place up and running in about two months' time, though there's no sign of a rush. The size is modest and manageable, the light from the skylights is generous and clear, and the whitewashed walls are precise but not clinical. The sign isn't out front yet ("signage," as Dunn jokes), but Dunn's fans don't need a sign to tell them where she's doing business.

In the meantime, Gerald Peters has partnered with big-gun dealer Ted Pillsbury to fill Dunn's shoes, which is a compliment in itself. I'm sure that the new Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art will thrive, will find a new stable of thoroughbred artists, and will get over the shakeup. Which means, in effect, Dallas hasn't lost a director, but has gained a new gallery, if not two, and Dunn and Brown Contemporary is already proving that being a gallery owner is its own art form.

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