Wall of Blight
Fort Worth hosts two exhibitions spotlighting the "grid" as a bearer of structural order in painting and the city. The shows feature work from the '80s--the 1880s and the 1980s, that is. And no two exhibitions could be so different. If the panoramas of Texas cities in Patterns of Progress showing at the Amon Carter Museum are testament to broadminded urban development in the late 19th century, then the geometric paintings of Sean Scully in Wall of Light at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth are evidence of one artist's determination to move backward in the late 20th. The maps are the result of the pointed pragmatics of land surveying and marketing combined, while the paintings are so many manifestations of Scully's disinterested yet stultified take on "beauty." For classicists of category, the oblique city views are kitsch and the paintings are "high art." But that's as far as old-hat intuition will take you. The exposé of cartography at the Amon Carter is far more alluring than the exhibition of Scully's arrière-garde painting. That Scully's paintings constitute "high art" is one sure sign of the death of predetermining hierarchies of high and low culture. With respect to loss and assassination, Scully is undoubtedly slaughtering painting before our eyes. Why would you want to look at painting if this--plane after plane of checkerboard patterns executed with cloyingly bravura brushstrokes in bad colors--is what it means to paint?
The Irishman Scully gained renown in the international art world in the early '80s, during another rejuvenation of the ever-declining, ever-renewing medium. In this instance, rebirth was driven by the market, a final exhaustion of 1960s-era iconoclasm, and, in turn, the welling forth of a pent-up desire to return to the object. Following from the seminal exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 1981, A New Spirit in Painting, Scully's work, along with that of Americans Julian Schnabel, David Salle and Eric Fischl and the "Great British" Stephen McKenna, Stephen Campbell and the Portuguese-born Paula Rego, was identified as "new spirit painting." Scully's shift in technique around that time, from the minimalist delineation of geometric form by way of tape to a soupy navel-gazing derring-do brushstroke, further qualified him for the title of "neo-expressionist."
Unfortunately, Scully's been working the same expressive stroke, pattern of stripes and theme of "light" for some 25 years now. And, even more unfortunate, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth is lending credence to his overwrought, under-thought would-be spiritualism of form. With paintings, watercolors and pastels, Wall of Light offers room after room of boring, uninspired work. The great disgrace here is that the Modern has devoted so much of Tadao Ando's handsome architectural space to so much bad painting. Wall of Light marks the end of a string of consistently intelligent and cosmopolitan exhibitions at the Modern that have included elaborate shows of work by Pierre Huyghe, Dan Flavin and Anselm Kiefer.
Scully's promise to "transcribe the interplay of light and shadow on the stacked stones of ancient ruins and architectural formations in Mexico" goes unmet, as this work seems spatial only insomuch as we deem swatches of blue underneath white paint to suggest depth and the refraction of sunlight. There's nothing wrong with an artist working through metaphorical notions of three-dimensional space on the two-dimensional canvas. In fact, such abstract mental and formal play, technological and otherwise, is a type of necessary mediation. But there is no mediation in Scully's work. He is a literalist of abstraction. Instead of rendering figures and objects in space, Scully channels anemic spiritualism through patterns of broken grids in shades of burnt umber. Here is an artist who paints as if in a bell jar: a painter who makes abstract canvases as though nothing has changed in the art world in the past 50 years or, even worse, as though he has forgotten his personal evolution as an artist. Scully's work is regressive. Not only has he been parsing the same issues of painterly line and sunlight for more than two decades now, but the various permutations seem only to get worse.
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The panoramic maps in Patterns of Progress: Bird's-Eye Views of Texas down the road at the Amon Carter offer a rich intellectual and formal reprieve. This exhibition of more than 60 bird's-eye views of cities in Texas casts a lesson in political economy and urban development. Inscribed over a century ago by itinerant cartographers, these lithographs of sloping and tilted views of rational urban infrastructure--railways, churches, reservoirs, courthouses, hospitals, schools, single-family dwellings and factories plotted on clean, crisscrossing streets of the grid--are the templates of no mere city growth but full-blown urban sprawl. You'll walk away from this show with a keen understanding of the logic of the grid: the matrix by which capitalism does its stuff. The grid is the armature of endless development, profit and expansion--what in this show is couched in terms of "progress."
As beacons of growth and improvement, the prospects present city life in the form of urbanism at the edge of rail development and immaculate nature. The gridiron blooms from nature like the beautiful and articulate latticework of Enlightenment prowess. The prints are the embodiment of Manifest Destiny in the form of frontier cosmopolitanism. Some, such as Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler's "Denison, Grayson County, Texas" (1891), show grids that are replete with architecture, while others, such as his "Quanah, Texas" (1890), show town space only partially inhabited, awaiting further settlement and investment.
The maps represent a three-decade period in Texas of rapid urban development based on the railways. From 1870 to 1904 Texas shifted from 28th to first in the nation in the number of miles of railroad track, with 10,000 miles of track laid in the 34-year span. Fowler's "Decatur, Texas" (1886) includes small vignettes of monumental buildings suggesting that architecture as well as town development is a source of marketing, advertisement and, as a result, burgeoning urban pride. Of the 11 wanderer-artists who drew and published the views, three figure most prominently in the show: two Germans, Augustus Koch and Henry Wellge, and the native Pennsylvanian Fowler. Theirs was a democratic trade, in that one could seemingly teach himself how to draw perspective maps. Included in the show are the tricks of such trade, the how-to manuals from the period: John Gadsby Chapman's The American Drawing Book: A Manual for the Amateur and Basis of Study for the Professional Artist and Appleton's Cyclopedia of Drawing: Designed as a Text-book for the Mechanic, Architect, Engineer, and Surveyor.
These books and the mass-produced quality of the work lend a sense of autonomy and cool pragmatism to the exhibition that is sorely missing in the ego-centered Sean Scully: Wall of Light.
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