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The Mongrel Cur of Art-chitecture

John Frost's "Trust" (2003)

To bastardize something is not usually a good thing. Bastardization--or crossbreeding, as one might have it--signals the trivializing or making hackneyed of an idea or object once thought awesome, taken seriously or held in esteem. To bastardize is to make something impure--to contaminate or pollute that which is otherwise pristine and true. It can happen by way of shoddy marketing, stealthy appropriation or outright plagiarism. Prime examples include the transatlantic shift from high architectural modernism to the International Style circa 1932, the systemization of the avant-garde in art in recent years and the wielding of "fear" in Election '04 by both left and right. (As an equal opportunity political basher, I am obliged also to cite the Che Guevara Swatch watch, leftists who call for anarchy, those yellow-ribbon support-the-troops magnets and bumper stickers that query "Have you prayed today?") Bastardization also brings with it feelings of being cast off and of questionable origins. As good Americans, we are all bastards at some level.

The premise of Construction & Architecture, the new show at The Dallas Center for Contemporary Art, is bastardization: the confluence and commingling of art and architecture. Joan Davidow, curator of the show, has brought together a motley collection of sculptural stuff resulting in the creation of a new hybrid--"art-chitecture." The outcome is the happy mutt-ification of art. Inheritors of R. Mutt's facetiously stoic "Urinal" of 1917, this is work that riffs on the overlap and cross-circuiting of the five senses rather than the idea of mass production and the readymade.

Davidow is not alone in exposing such hybrids. Art-chitecture is spreading as if creative contagion throughout Dallas. In the last month alone we've had two world-renowned figures in town, an artist and art player, to discuss this newfound promiscuity of the human senses and form. Maya Lin, the artist best known for her Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C., a ruminative V-shaped descending wall of shiny black marble, was here to give two talks, one at the University of Dallas and the other at the Nasher Sculpture Center. Central to Lin's discussion was the way in which her work defies the purity of medium. Through a practice of making that is equal parts intuition and analysis, Lin has transformed the art of sculpting into a process lying somewhere between landscape design and architecture. Bart Lootsma, the Dutch architectural historian, critic and author of SuperDutch: New Architecture in the Netherlands, recently gave a talk at the DMA as part of the Dallas Architecture Forum's ongoing lecture series. Lootsma's presentation was chock-full of examples of wacky stuff being made by young designers across the globe. The projects were many-headed and conceptually libidinous, making intimate connections wherever possible between urbanism, art and sociological investigation.

In keeping with the spirit of such orgiastic play of medium and concept, the broad, open space of the Dallas Contemporary is host to an elegant three-ring circus of Texas' curly-tailed canines of artistic form. Theirs is a collective destabilization of the human senses, a synesthetic game in which the primacy of stable seeing in the gallery gives way to hearing, touch and the perambulating viewer who feels everything at once. In crossing the threshold of the space one is immediately confronted by the noises of Stephen Lapthisophon's "Tympan," a sound piece. Lapthisophon sandwiches the doorway in the sounds of two seven-minute loop CDs running in non-synchronous fashion. While the noise might be jarring at first, the nonsense juxtaposing of philosophy (Henri Bergson) and the lyrics of popular music (Burt Bacharach) soothes and comforts in its masterful appropriation of the white noise of our shared information glut. Across the gallery are two other audio pieces by Edward Setina, "Monotony" and "Variety." Both are white retro-styled boxes hung on the wall, each with a speaker in the center and red button. Their nonchalant Miss-Jane-Hathaway office-phone appearance belies the humor within. After pushing the button one hears each word, "monotony" or "variety," pronounced over and over with the accent misplaced on each word. Equally humorous is Setina's neighboring "Mechanical Pencil," a motion-activated sculpture of pencils rotating in fanlike fashion.

On the adjacent wall is "Mini-hall," a small video piece by Jeff Shore and Jon Fisher. Shore and Fisher rethink the already multidimensional medium of video according to a new paradigm of architectural space. Hung on the wall is a maze of wires, a mechanically driven set of levers and a tiny live video-relaying apparatus. Mounted next to this on a small console is a black monitor showing the movement of the wire-mangled video contraption. When scrutinized, one discovers that the contraption is really an architectural model inside of which sits a video camera that broadcasts live as it moves up and down the hallway. Dare to become part of the piece by dangling your fingers at one end of the moving hallway-apparatus while also watching it reflected Godzilla-esque in real time on the adjacent monitor.

The logic of Tom Hollenback's "White Chamber," perhaps the strongest piece of the show, is sensual destabilization--vertigo through whiteness. Situated in the back corner of the looming white space of the gallery, Hollenback's installation is an opaque, gray-white room lit only by an ocular cut in one wall to the left. Stencil-like footsteps on the floor lead you into the small cube. Once inside, your senses are caught off guard as the whiteness makes it absolutely impossible to gauge the depth of the space. The white paint creates the effect of fog in the roughly 6-foot-deep drywall room; one becomes oriented only after looking to the left, where Hollenback has cut an eye-shaped aperture in the wall. The light from the opening makes the corner of the small space legible, and certitude of the senses resumes.

On the other side of the gallery, John Frost has installed a room-scaled series of works--"Trust," "Sixty-nine Ovals," "Sometimes I Sleep With My Mouth Open," "Steps to a View & Spatial Bypass" and "Rod With Rings"--that one passes through as if experiencing a labyrinth. Frost borrows from the detritus of everyday life, from what he calls "the moments between events, the drive to work, the mindless flipping of television channels or watching paint dry." Before entering the small maze, a shower-drain-cum-peephole and stairs beneath invite you to sneak a look, creating a sense of voyeurism in keeping with Duchamp's "Étant Donnée." Around the corner, Frost has installed a makeshift yet surrealist shower in which he's embedded a Gober-esque drain inside a pillow made out of plaster. Beyond this space is another small room that functions something like an hourglass with sand beating down slowly from a small opening in the roof.

Dotting the center of the gallery space is the contrapuntal exchange of large-scale sculpture and small architectural models. Kathy Webster's shiny fiberglass pieces "Pest-X" and "Border Punch" seem like high-tech design furniture amid the Matta-Clark-esque rubble of Mark Monroe's house fragments in "1216 Grand." Selected by Max Levy from a storage room at the University of Texas at Arlington, the architectural models, both hung on the wall and lining the room, are all anonymous. Unfortunately, the rather random placement of these objects, not to mention their anonymity--we don't know who made them or why--counterintuitively transforms the primary thrust of the show, architecture, into an afterthought. But that's the show's only drawback.


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