Despite dozens of travel shows and guide books--namely the homogenized promos covering transatlantic journey--we have little media that give us the real skinny on what it's like to traverse another continent. Michael Palin's PBS series Pole to
Pole comes closer than most. The intrepid Monty Pythoner braves the fringes and shadows of non Western Russia and the Middle East and such, and unearths some incredible gems like getting obliterated on homemade potato vodka with real Russian farmers. But man, do we see the droll Brit hit rock bottom a few times: bedraggled, suburned, hung-over, hungry, confused, and sidelined by language barriers and immigration officers. That's real travel, the ups and downs of it. You can see a bit of it on Lonely Planet, or read about it in the Irreverent Guide series, but for the most part, modern travel is depicted as some shiny, happy production--Frank Capra Does Budapest.
Rick Steves' pervasive Travels in Europe series, also on PBS, is especially guilty of showing its on-the-move host wearing impossibly clean clothes and a chirpy façade. Surely he must get pissed when Parisian gypsy punks steal his wallet. It's just edited out. For those of us who have hit those parts with nothing more than a passport and a dwindling wad of cash, we've seen way more than the comfortable middle ground. Delayed trains and blistered feet and warm beer are only the tip of the foreign-tongued iceberg.
Frank X. Tolbert2, the dynamic and prolific Galveston artist, has a double show in Dallas that's really a visual travelogue--in a sense it's the illustrated cousin of Pole to Pole. The lowdown and dirty, the singular and magnificent, the anxiety-causing elements of travel are all there in crisp and scratchy graphite, and the result makes for one of the funniest and gut-honest accounts of what it's like to traipse through Europe. Titled Berlin/Paris/Texas, it spans the walls of both the Mulcahy Modern on State Street, and the MAC, down the road off McKinney Avenue.
Tolbert's wife, artist Ann Stautberg, won a travel grant from the DMA, and in early 1996 the couple spent several weeks hanging out and looking at art in France and Germany. Tolbert's dad, the late Dallas Morning News columnist Frank Tolbert Sr., was a sometime travel writer, and here Tolbert Jr. picks up that line--not in words, but in spontaneous and folky visuals--from the thumbnail-type sketches he started while on his trip to the full-blown drawings and paintings he fleshed out once he got home and had time to process the experience.
While the works are personal, playfully abstracted, and symbolic, many of the images are portraits of the artist on his various gritty forays. There's an unmistakable familiarity about them, that crucial universality that we can all (travelers or not) glean from the whole. His style is dense with lines and expression and movement, and he captures moments and intangibles rather than solid scenarios. This is primarily a drawing show, with the sizes ranging from hand-width to monumental, and while some of the imagery makes it to painted form, most of these retain the punchy, jagged nature of the drawings. But there's nothing off-putting or obtuse about the work. Tolbert is about as pretentious as Matt Groening and as instinctively gifted as any noted illustrator, a combo that makes for a refreshing change of exhibition. Often such out-front humor undermines a subject--an easy way to charm the masses--but in this case it sharpens the appeal.
His journey begins, as it does for many of us, at the airport. In "DFW Airport," a guy with squinting eyes and a clenched jaw drags his way through the overcrowded terminal ("12 hours later," says his attached ball-and-chain, "we are going to Europe--can we please leave Texas?"). Wouldn't you know his flight leaves from Gate 10,000? Tolbert nails it: All the anticipation and excitement and frustration are packed into a single 30" x 22" square. Various studies of this piece show up in both spaces, and no wonder. The kick-off of a big trip makes a powerful impression. American Airlines would do well to commission Tolbert to do murals on its walls. At least we travelers could see it and smile our way through the nerves and chaos.
Then onto Berlin and Paris, his main points of stay. In Germany, he conjures the art bear, or "Kunst Bear," a menacing, subverted giant red mammal that sums up all the mongering and schmoozing of the Berlin art scene. The bear shows up in plenty of Tolbert's drawings; he and Stautberg rubbed shoulders with a lot of artists and collectors and gallerists while there. The art bear--looming fat and furry with its tubular penis smoking like a fired-off gun barrel--speaks: "Blah blah blah." So much self-indulgence, so much spew. Sound familiar? Stateside, we get it all the time.
In fact, it's the repeat imagery that powers the show. Nazi-like border patrol, bad parties and bad liquor, the incredible architecture. Trips like this punch lasting holes in your consciousness, and every step informs every following step: He eats one meal of fried eggs and ham, and then every meal after tastes a bit like eggs and ham.
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Tolbert has also produced one of the most reverent (and therefore comical) portraits of alcohol I've ever seen. The smaller studies for it are at both galleries, but the big painting is at the Mulcahy: a green-and-white Heineken oil can, pierced twice on the top since they don't have standard tabs in those parts, sits alone and gleaming against a giant blood-red background, with a cigarette's wispy smoke wafting up and out of frame. I laughed aloud with startled recognition when I saw it. That can on that crimson bar is exactly the way you feel after your fourth (sixth? ninth?) lager: melodramatic, effusive, brooding, and all the red is so Germanic and brusque (and everyone slur: Zumprosit!).
The MAC has most of the bigger drawings, and Mulcahy has many of the medium-size graphite-meets-watercolor sketches. The single-thought thumbnails are at both spaces, though Cynthia Mulcahy has a huge stash of other drawings from this series in her office, ready for the serious fan to rifle through. Worth the time, since Tolbert has the kind of observational acuity that can turn a single hour--as in the time he spent at the Berlin Museum of Erotica--into a vast tangle of decadent and incriminating works rife with implication. One hour as one lifetime. At that "family" museum, he saw a painting of a cat with a dismembered penis hanging from its fangs; the image must have amused and haunted him--it invades his portraits of his own sex life. Here's Frank and Ann getting it on in a hotel room and--doh!--the black cat, its mouth similarly full, leaps through the window to interrupt what should be a private moment.Here's a serene moonlit beach and, hell, there's that cat again. In other words, Tolbert's an Everyman--albeit a watchful one--who just happens to get down on paper the compulsions and fleeting notions we can all identify with--and with amazing results.
You feel that so much hanging on these Dallas walls is still connected to Europe by some invisible artery. When Tolbert left Europe, he brought some of it home with him, but he damn sure left some of himself back there too. That kind of street-level travel has a way of expanding not just your vision and your soul, but your sense of humor.
Berlin/Paris/Texas by Frank X Tolbert2 is at the Mulcahy Modern through May 29 and the MAC through May 30. Mulcahy Modern info: (214) 220-2024. MAC info: (214) 953-1212.