Local Yokels

For contemporary artists living and working outside the world's art centers, regionalism has long been a high-risk, low-reward career path. To choose it is to work in a style whose heyday is long gone, to opt for a future with built-in limitations, to abandon all hope of ever being The Next Hot Thing, to be consigned forever to Sotheby's arcade. There are good and historic reasons for this state of affairs, many of them painted in the 1930s by Thomas Hart Benton or one of his nativist disciples. Some of these reasons are also visible in the form of mindless arts boosterism, cheerleading for the "local art scene," and other fatuous forms of discourse. Still others are circulating in the lesser work of the "Dallas Nine" and bad WPA murals of shirtless workers, art that celebrates backward values with a false, hokey twang.

But regionalism has its good points too. The best regional artists work in a grand, if old-fashioned, American tradition, a tradition that dates back to the 19th century. They enjoy a built-in base of support from local collectors and institutions. They have shows at the MAC. And, especially if they happen to live in a place like Texas, they have a lifetime of inspiration, documenting what's unique, wonderful, terrible, and downright weird about a people, a place, a moment in time. The best tend to fall for the same ruse Texans have been falling for over these past 175 years--they fall for the land, for its hardscrabble beauty, for the same strain of Stockholm Syndrome as many an otherwise sensible Texan before them.

To be a good regional artist is to walk a razor's edge, to seek the sublime without much hope of real recognition, and to maintain eternal vigilance against bad taste and sloppy sentiment. Fortunately, there are some artists who manage the trick--artists such as Ann Stautberg, whose work over the past decade is now the subject of a show at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary.

At 51, Stautberg is one of the MAC's usual suspects, an artist who has spent three decades producing work rooted in a sense of place. Educated at TCU and the University of Dallas, Stautberg prefers the medium of the hand-colored photograph, an updated twist on the photos of grandma and grandpa hanging on many a family wall. Instead of focusing on Great Uncle Frank, though, Stautberg trains her lens on empty expanses of the Texas coast and unpeopled domestic interiors.

The results, which she blows up to astonishing scale, are at once a throwback and stunningly modern. The majority of works in the show, aptly titled Texas Coast: A Decade of Images, are in fact lonely shots of shoreline, gulf, and clouds. Stautberg records the precise moment of exposure and provides vague notes of place in titles like "6.2.99, A.M., Texas Coast, #1." The pictures, printed in sizes as large as 5 by 7 feet and hung unframed on the wall, have a Whitmanesque, documenting-this-great-land, song-of-myself quality, describing not only the landscape but Stautberg's own reactions to what she sees and experiences.

The scale and the hyper-realism are at first disturbing, producing a sense of voyeurism, of peering into private lives, of being confronted with too much truth. As with Matthew Brady's Civil War photographs, we want to avert our gaze. It is the same sense of discomfort that an earlier generation of Americans experienced viewing the work of Thomas Eakins, the great realist painter. Like Eakins, Stautberg is a lover of the specific and the factual; we believe we could find this precise expanse of shore, this precise bathroom sink, could perhaps even compute the time of day from the angle of sun and shadows.

But Eakins and Stautberg are at cross-purposes, using precisely opposite approaches to make the same point. Whereas Eakins set out to make painting--an inherently fictive medium--tell the truth, Stautberg is setting out to make photography tell lies. Like Eakins, she recognizes the impossibility of disentangling sight from memory. "If a man makes a hot day," Eakins once explained, "he makes it like a hot day he once saw or is seeing; if a sweet face, a face he once saw or which he imagines from old memories or parts of memories and his knowledge, and he combines and combines."

Stautberg, in turn, reduces and reduces, filtering and choosing reality. The artist may be a photographer, but she is certainly not a camera. Instead of the truth, she gives us a Galveston of stunning beauty, free from tar, dead fish, and Portuguese man-of-wars. As if this weren't subjective enough, Stautberg uses oils to supply the role of memory, to provide a wash of emotion, to idealize her subject. Thus she injects a pronounced melancholy into many of the pictures, paeans to the forlorn Texas landscape. She creates the sky full of threatening beauty, emphasizes the tornadic green atmosphere through contrasting primary colors. It is she who loves the landscape, who argues convincingly for the Texas coast, who persuades us, for a split second, to forget what we know.

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Christine Biederman