For heaven's sake

Opening a gallery in Dallas is just this side of nuts. Even established spaces in our so-called "gallery district" play Russian roulette with nearly every show; rosters of regular clients are no guarantee of a sale. But opening a gallery here and showing works by a "never-heard-of-'im" German painter is downright certifiable. ("You got that straightjacket, Pete? We'll need two.")

Six months ago, local framers and UNT art-school grads James and Patricia Stone took on a sweat-soaked labor of love only the young and almost-foolish would attempt--they opened a space on Routh Street dedicated to the art they care about, be it local, national, or international. (Hell, who needs focus when you've got passion?) The first few months they played it safe: First the modest venue was filled with a show of ceramics, and then with works by noted local assemblage-man Chase Yarbrough. Only after these did the Stones start baring their sharper teeth, their penchant for edgier stuff. Derrick Rossi, a relatively unknown young artist--self-taught beneath his career as a genetic scientist--brought his death-themed, men-in-boxes paintings to Stone By Stone as he started a residency at Southwestern Medical School, thus rechristening the still-new art space and its aesthetics as something akin to the more risk-loving galleries of Edith Baker and Barry Whistler.

So the question arises: How many integrity-laden art spaces can Dallas support? The local arts scene is kind of like a meager 10-gallon fish aquarium capable of supporting only 20 small fish when five extra fish are added to the mix. The result is a biological disaster (like the aggressive ones munching away the fins of the weaker ones, or an outbreak of the slimy "ick" disease), and at least five end up floating to the top in pale death. Blame it on resources and the number of those who tap them: Surely Manhattan, with its millions of folks crammed onto one small island, will be one of the first places on earth to experience a 12 Monkeys bio-plague. Dallas, conversely, will unwittingly exterminate any overgrowth of interesting culture--there aren't enough supporters to go around. What else can explain the endless struggles of our ballet ('cause we already got a symphony and museum, see), the loss of our best bands in the face of a rock-scene upswing (bye-bye, Funland and UFOFU), and the inability to produce a viable arts district (let's throw millions of dollars at a new sports arena instead)? The Angstrom and gallery:untitled have also opened in the last two years. We can only hope that they and the promising Stone By Stone survive--thrive even--and that no casualties are reported in the process.

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Stone By Stone's Russian roulette turns Kraut poker with their latest offering. Showcased artist Matthias Sturm has this thing about the heavens--both kinds--the ethereal, spiritual kind with an omnipotent creator and all that, and the outer-space, "the-truth-is-out-there" kind. His art strives to reconcile one with the other and to find our identities somewhere in between. It's the same conflict theologians and scientists have been fondling since mankind scratched its head and stated, "I don't know if I should believe in what I can't prove," and then quickly added, "But I'd like to."

In his mixed-media paintings and monotypes, Sturm often casts a human--an elongated, jutting-hipped, naked one, presumably an everyman who might as well be you and me and Sturm all at once--in his intense, thoughtful dramas. These are strangely abstracted expressionist-cum-morality plays that fiddle with the origin of his little, visible soul. There's a cross floating beside him and a leafy plant under it and a spaceship-like orb wafting across the top; to whom, if anyone, will he answer? Everyman keeps one open eye (or two maroon eyes, or side-sweeping eyes) on all options with silent, curious regard--religion, nature, or the otherworldly.

No, there's nothing so concrete in the works; a first glance will land you in a pleasantly chaotic color field a la Basquiat or Kandinsky, or recall the scratchy, barely-figurative works of de Kooning. And really, some would question how well a 28-year-old who lives in Hamburg could possibly apply these questions about mysticism so earnestly without losing his cool (which in art-scene speak means bitterness, cynicism, and apathy). Is he getting to the crux of anything, really? (And don't let the titles lead the witness.) But step closer, and there are those ever-present searching eyes, and that cross, and that plant, and that hovering science-fiction thing popping in from time to time. It's a repeated iconography, and while it's familiar, Sturm has taken it out of all familiar context. How often do we see spacecraft depicted in a medium as traditional as painting or printmaking, and how often does a spiritual painting make its calling card--the cruciform--smaller than anything else in the picture? Let's not assume anything about Sturm's soulful priorities. He's working them out, stacking and re-stacking them before our very eyes.

He uses a generous dose of history as a compass---moral and concrete and cultural at once. Titles such as "Noah's Ark," "Satyricon," and "Levi" betray his predilection for the proverbial and mythical, which, as in Joseph Campbell's reverent eyes, has led man's search for identity from the get-go. Likewise, Sturm's version of an unnamed guitar player--gestural, fractal, and sporting one funky green boot--points to a newer kind of hero-god, one gaining power in our time and erasing the impact of traditional divinity. And when Strum goes on to sign these works with an elaborate, cryptic stamp recalling Chinese scroll signatures, or a briefly scrawled explanation of his subject matter (as in "totem"), he's really fabricating his own timelessness, his own small place in the scope of art history.

The piece "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde," though it deviates from the spiritual-mystical thematics except in terms of identity, is getting the most attention of the show. Two skeletal faces, nearly mirror images, grin at you with innocuous, tilted-head inquiry. Clawed hands curling in the foreground fail to elicit true creepiness, though the unblinking eyes might. Here again a plant, and two other repeat motifs--an arrow and an "E" shape--appear faintly across the right creature's chest area. That same arrow, sometimes in a stronger lighting-bolt shape, tends to show up in other works pointing toward a character's heart, as in "The Letter From Suisse." This time the cross is Switzerland's flag, but the arrow threatens to pierce the letter-bearer's torso. Injury, or redemption? Because none of the creatures seem in turmoil, even in the mildly violent, Guernica-tinged "The Shipwreck," it's hard to believe that Sturm is damning his painted children or himself to too ugly a fate. He's not given up on this life just yet.

Sturm has remained in Germany (he couldn't afford a plane ticket to Texas for this show, his first U.S. opening), and even his bio raises comparisons to German contemporary artists Anselm Kiefer and Sigmar Polke. But instead of finding the heavy-handed isolation of Kiefer's scorched landscapes, or the fluid sub- and super-stratums of Polke's color fields, we see in Sturm's work a greater likeness to earlier German Expressionism--the fathers of Die BrYcke and Der Blaue Reiter. Kirchner's vertical characters with their exaggerated hands and feet; Klee's geo-tribal scrambles; toss in some of the French Fauves' way with unmodulated color. Not that the formally trained Sturm ever seems mired in what once was--his images are certainly fresh, or at least refreshing. Put bluntly, these could be children's book illustrations by way of an acid trip, or biblical colorplates by a sedated schizophrenic, all with a relaxed bonus unassociated with LSD or mental instability. The artist can rest assured that he's tapping a universal concern, and that his viewers will lean in closer to study it.

In his artist's statement, Sturm says that "painting is a silent, secret thing"; the sentiment jibes well with the atmosphere he's created on paper and canvas. None of the works yell or even whisper. It's like looking at a stranger's facial features to figure out what he's thinking, and miraculously getting the gist.

Matthias Sturm: Tander Lund is on display at Stone By Stone Gallery, 3023 Routh St. (214)-720-9068.

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