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Diane Durant Photographed America's Cools for an Exhibit at CentralTrak, and It's ... Cool

Editor's note: Over the weekend, Betsy Lewis took home second place for arts criticism at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies' annual awards. See the rest of her work here.

Moving violations, Border Patrol checkpoints, a flurry of camp Americana souvenirs -- how, exactly, does a short story flourish as a gallery installation?

For her Creative Ph.D. exhibition -- and UT Dallas does have such a thing, because UT Dallas does what it wants -- Durant documented an 18-day road trip with herself as both Thelma and Louise, recording every encounter, every place, every thing and every fear along the way.

The existing need for the journey, as conceived by the artist, was to road trip the backroads from her birthplace -- Cool, Texas -- to a couple more Cools of America, one in California, the other in Iowa. This might seem too self-precious a concept to stomach, except Durant is not cool in the glossy, gassy Dallasistic consumerist sense; she's nerdy. One might say supernerdy. One might say nerditry is in full bloom here, but with museum-quality installation balanced with the unique mental furniture of Durant's artistic and personal paradoxes.

Durant went on her journey alone, but the story of the journey is for us, inside Centraltrak. I was engrossed, impressed, I was laughing my ass off, I was there for four hours, and kids, I don't do that.

All of the photographs in Between Here and Cool could have been shot in the same small town. They are images of the buildings and people that define a nowhere pitstop, universal to the middle of nowhere but fascinating to urban tribes with limited access to Dairy Queen. Among the photographs are architectural shots of buildings found in any small town, like "Bills Garage, St. Genevieve MO," but Durant is a master of catching a single moment's peculiarities in the life of the overlooked subject. In the moment captured at Bill's Garage, random lines spring by chance from, toward, and around the building, none of them quite straight, some of them not even solid (the puffy white trail of a passed plane, shadows in the grass and on the garage).

The crazy lines make everything about the shot just a little off, a little bit not to be trusted, and in an instant, the ordinariness of Bill's Garage becomes menacing. Is there someone looking out of those windows? You'll never know. It's like Ed Ruscha handed a camera to Flannery O'Connor and said, "Go shoot the weirdness you write."

The exhibition's subject matter has unexpectedly universal qualities for such a specific premise, and Durant has organized it on a spirited List of Works that includes a "List of shots not taken" -- an itemized list of the missed opportunities that can haunt a person for years. On most items, she'll list a reason for not seizing the moment, the most common being "Fear." The rationale for missing shot No. 59 reasons? "I was drinking a Slush Puppy; didn't have a free hand."

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There are stories from the road on the walls in large vinyl lettering and ephemera from the road scattered throughout the gallery. The whole show is comedy born of fear. A flattened tire and the fear that it spawned greet you at the entrance:

"Something wasn't right. Every few seconds I could feel a click...click...click immediately beneath me. I slowed down.

Click.

Click.

Click.

I sped up. Clickclickclickclickclickclick.

Slowed down. Click...click...click.

Something...wasn't...right.

I'd made it all the way to Missouri and was beginning to feel like I'd seen everything: that proliferation of sameness in the American landscape I'd read about in books, a hundred clapboard buildings a hundred times forgotten, marathons of black tar pavement rolling out before me like the continuous belt of an indefinite treadmill. So I wanted an experience, an incident, a story. I eased into the St. Genevieve High School parking lot and braced myself for the dissolution of 3,000 miles worth of traveling mercies.

But there wasn't a large nail in my tire. There was a small nail. And a bolt. And a screw. Once punctured, the inner liner of a pneumatic tire must be cleaned, buffed, cemented, patched, and coated. I took a deep breath, called a tow truck, and secretly hoped my mechanic's name would be Randy."

Living through something stupidly terrifying, something that gets the best of you while you're busy judging your own fear, also gives you irresistible resilience. On top of spending 30 minutes at a Border Patrol checkpoint, she had plenty of sketchy encounters, plus an ongoing confrontation between self-preserving instinct and getting the elusive shot. Would you stay a night at the Clown Motel? Alone? Unarmed? A camera for a talisman? Diane Durant did that. After journeying into that black hole, she brings the American backroad to the gallery, and it's pretty freaking cool.

Diane Durant: Between Here and Cool runs through July 27 at CentralTrak, 800 Exposition Ave. A related poetry reading will be held Thursday, July 25, from 7 to 9 p.m. at CentralTrak, featuring former Texas Poets Laureate Karla K. Morton and Alan Birkelbach, as well as Durant herself.

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