Consider the Copycat

It was a glowing neon sign at the entry of 500X that kicked off the inner debate. A few pink and blue tubes twisted smoothly into the run-on phrase "Daddy's Girl Mamma's Boy," copped directly from every old, beloved Bruce Nauman neon piece that plays on words and stereotypes. This newer work, by Texas artist Jayne Lawrence, was the same size, same shape, same laconic attitude as its flashing predecessors, and I wondered how many Dallasites visiting this group show would recognize such an, uh, homage--or whether it even matters.

"There's nothing new under the sun" and "But is that OK?" These are the not-so-laconic phrases that ricocheted around my head as I walked through the rest of 500X's annual juried amateur show. Not that I wasn't impressed with much of the work. I was, and I was thrilled that 500X and DMA curator Charlie Wylie had teamed up for this exhibition of new artists' work. But much of it points to what's clear in nearly all areas of artistic expression, from music to film to fashion to theater: Everything's been done. And maybe that's OK.

The glowing neon was Nauman all over again, and throughout the show lurked the shadows of Motherwell, Hockney, Oldenburg. You know, all the usual suspects--the pioneers of contemporary art. Not that that list is endless; toss in Beuys, Bourgeois, Rauschenberg, Richter, maybe Johns and Warhol, and you've got pretty much the entire root system of all new artwork. Just try to pioneer an aesthetic. Trust me, it's been done by one of these artists or their very direct descendents (as in Julian Schnabel, Matthew Barney, Julian Opie, et al.).

Established art ideas are just that: proven, effective expression of universal concept and emotion. They're worth re-exploring because they work so well. Frankly, the artwork in Expo 2001 marks a well-executed, intelligent beginning for many promising artists. The raw talent is clear. John Hartley can paint inarguably well; his melancholy candle and lone-figure paintings conjure the technical prowess and subject matter of Richard Patterson via Gerhard Richter (see what I mean?), and are a bit too close for my comfort, but God knows this guy can deliver an image and mood at the same time. Andy Amato's large oil on canvas throbs with dark, bloody aggression (hello, Motherwell). Ryan James' "Digital" and "Phase Patterns," both nice examples of witty obsessive compulsion on paper, conjure Fred Tomaselli by way of Brice Marden--but with this visually and emotionally satisfying result, who's counting?

Let's just say there are legitimate ways of recycling art, and, yes, newer and younger artists are the likeliest culprits, the same way a new band learns to play instruments and write songs by learning other people's music. Hell, even the Beatles, the ground zero of four-piece rock, started out playing Chuck Berry and Little Richard covers, and these are the guys who a few years on recorded the likes of "Revolution Number Nine." We just hope that an apt little cover band will someday move on to create their own aesthetic space, and we can only hope that these up and coming visual artists will do the same.

For example, I'd like to see Lee McBride's work a few years from now. McBride's "Belong," a length of thick, ribbed white tubing knotted on the floor and hinged with rings of animal fur, deftly combines the organic and the sterile in a way that makes you wince with good-humored discomfort. It's a lovely nightmare of future mutation, and it's also a play on Duchampian absurdity. Art recycling can come from several valid angles: homage, universality (artists will never get away from Death, Rebirth, War...) and, as with McBride, updating another artist's impulse to match today's concerns. Duchamp did funny things with ready-mades and fur and such, and he loved absurdity and played with the relationship between the natural and synthetic world. Fascinating subject matter, and worthy of repeat visits as society cultivates new ways of pitting technology against the organic. That's why McBride's redo works just fine here.

The inherent danger of recycling is that, despite its earnestness, it often fails to add anything new to a well-worn concept, or even aims lower than the original. Expo artist Paul Abbott overlaps photographs to create an imagescape, just like David Hockney's famous photo collages, but Abbott's is smaller, flatter, and far less ambitious. Besides, even Hockney was being tedious when he did it, since he was only ripping off earlier Nauman.

Like most contemporary art pioneers, Nauman's influence comes up plenty. Video and film, painting, sculpture, installation, performance...the man has covered the spectrum of media and concepts with the ferocious abandon of a brilliant soul on steroids, so Lawrence's aforementioned neon welcomer should come as no surprise. (Even North Texas' favorite upstart, Erick Swenson, who creates creepy-fantastic creatures from taxidermy models, owes a nod to Nauman's ethereal animal pyramids and carousels. Then again, who's counting?)

No artist, not even proven, working greats such as Sigmar Polke, can sidestep all influence. I spotted plenty of Rauschenberg leanings in his last show. Thus, we can cut Expo newcomer Lily Hanson some slack for her glossy little wall reliefs; the glaze on wood and the tiny fabric pouches that protrude from their surfaces may recall elements of Jasper Johns, or Louise Bourgeois, or even the early, wet-hot Matthew Barney sculptures. In the end, Hanson's work is a deft amalgam of all of these, while defying any one-way, blaring comparison.

To their credit, a few Expo artists have managed to forge unproven territory with daring and mixed results. Nancy Mladenoff is on to something as she stencils dark enamel paint images of plants and insects onto tacky polyester upholstery fabric (schizoid home-ec art, really); Brenda Shook paints her affectionate "Dad on Swing" with a novel kind of chunky, honest perspective; and Catherine Chauvin hits on the truly hypnotic with her starry-sky print, "Life in the Time of Meteors." After all, big-city art hubs like New York and London don't have the monopoly on originality.

Actually, I'm back for a holiday visit since moving to London nearly a year ago, and after several saturated art seasons there, I was curious to return to the local art scene. I hate it when people go away from their home ground and come back straining under the quasi-emotional weight of their own profundity and sophistication, as in: "I've seen things you wouldn't understand."

Dallas isn't exactly a backwater, but more often than not, the high-stakes art openings I attend in London yield some truly startling and inventive work: Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Gillian Wearing--it's difficult to trace their conceptual lines back to any one artist or era. Perhaps that's why they're getting richer and more famous by the minute. Expo artists, take note.

However, my own impending sense of pretentious discovery in London was squelched early on, when I laid eyes on an installation by London's own grande dame of thoughtful-cum-significant sculpture, Rachel Whiteread. Her luminous resin casts of the negative spaces underneath chairs, titled "One Hundred Spaces," is one that helped catapult her to fame in the mid-'90s, and though it glows and hums with massive import, it also smells of recycling. I can't speak for the rest of London, but for me it recalls a not-as-famous concrete cast of the space underneath a chair, circa 1966, titled "A Cast of the Space Under My Chair." By none other than Bruce Nauman.

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Christina Rees