Magnificent obsession

Unlike dog owners who tend to look like their dogs, or married couples who take on each other's characteristics over time, artists seldom look like their paintings or sculpture. It's often the smallish, geeky guy who paints big, bold canvases or crafts throbbing, tumescent sculpture. And it's the squeaky-clean, plain Jane who creates lush, erotic nudes or strong abstracts that take your breath away. Go figure.

Valton Tyler doesn't look anything like his art. He's the soft-spoken, elfin grandfatherly man barely visible above the throng around him in the main gallery at McKinney Avenue Contemporary. His hat gives him away -- a gently worn fedora that's lost both its creases and its hat band -- poking up between the heads of well-wishers, friends, family, and the art-curious gathered to meet the fairly reclusive artist on opening night.

Tyler stands hunched over at the center of the group, laboriously writing something for an eager fan on an exhibition catalog. He asks her to spell her name, and painstakingly forms each letter. He looks much older than his 56 years, a function of ill health, his closest associates say -- open-heart surgery nearly two years age and diabetes. There's a frail quality about him, another reason you might never suspect Tyler as the creator of the large, strong, dark, and majestic surrealist paintings all around him. He smiles as he hands the booklet back to the young woman. Between her name at the top of the page and his name at the bottom, Valton Tyler has written, simply, "I hope you understand."

Most of Tyler's close friends in Dallas' art community have given up trying to understand him. Words like "obsessive" or "eccentric" crop up, but his colleagues aren't interested in labeling him or otherwise explaining the inexplicable. They are content to remain fascinated by his complex art, which is also difficult to describe. Tyler creates figures and objects that are simultaneously organic and industrial, sculptural and flat, ominous and funny. He paints elaborately detailed canvases of what could be sci-fi cityscapes or an inventor's schematic for a perpetual-motion machine. "If you had to put it in one word, I think he's a true visionary," says Murray Smither, a standard-bearer for the visual arts in Dallas and a 30-year friend of Tyler's. "These paintings come from some place deep down. He sees shapes that form these paintings, and once you get to looking at them, they've got humor, they're disturbing, they're quiet and gentle." Smither is curator of Tyler's Visionary Landscapes show at the MAC.

New York gallerist Phyllis Kind led the assembled viewers through the galleries on Tyler's opening night. She came to town as a devotee, a highfalutin' gallerist who has consigned Tyler's work on occasion from Donald Vogel, his rep of Valley House Gallery in Dallas, and as a longtime art lover with a penchant for self-taught artists. That's another paradox about Valton Tyler's work. Tyler's drawings and paintings are very polished, technically perfect and jewel-like -- hardly characteristics of the commonly primitive, raw, and naïve efforts of the so-called outsider artist. "That's a popular misconception," Kind says. "It's a fascinating thing we're dealing with in the field of self-taught artists. There are people whose work is primitive, and there are those whose work is as controlled, as delicate, and as carefully wrought as Valton's, and none of them spent one second in art school."

Both Kind and Smither attribute one common denominator to Tyler, and to most, if not all, self-taught artists: obsession. "What we're talking about is a kind of primary obsession," Kind says. "A person is so involved in the art he's doing, it becomes a substitute for self." Smither recalls an example of both Tyler's vision and his obsessive focus on his work. "We were driving somewhere," Smither says. "Valton was driving, and he says, 'I am seeing this building with a hole in it.' I said, 'You're driving, Val. Just drive.' He was seeing this whole form."

Smither says people respond easily to Tyler's work because it doesn't reference art history, although the more erudite viewer is apt to see shades of Hieronymus Bosch, Max Ernst, or Henri Rousseau. "His paintings are not burdened by some awful weight of certain schools or traditions in art," Smither says. "There's nothing there that he connects to. He just paints. He has to."

Tyler began painting at the age of 17, after growing up in Texas City, observing the industrial complexes that made up the oil refineries. He was 3 years old in 1946, when Texas City caught fire. "I distinctly remember it," Tyler says. His environment affected the work, he admits, but he was probably more influenced by his father than by the miles of pipe and acres of oil tanks on the horizon. "My father was a paint and body man in his own shop," Tyler says, "and he also drew and painted some. He was an inventor, though, mainly." An unsuccessful one, however. Tyler says his father never patented any of his futuristic contraptions. "He probably should have," Tyler says. "I know he regretted it."

Tyler's early experiences help explain his work. He doesn't sketch or plan out his machines or landscapes, he says, and doesn't have a habit of starting with the main object, or painting the foreground or the background first. "I work on the whole thing," he says, "and I see things in a whole other world."

"Tippicanoe and Tyler Too" is a Bosch-like example. Structures, houses, bridges, vehicles, and creatures as they exist in Tyler's fertile brain are revealed in the small etching, created in 1971. Tyler's big, bulbous shapes in "Desert Shield," from 1990, are part creature, part craft with chains, cratered surfaces, and menacing sharp-pointed implements making a fierce contraption set on realistic sand dunes. In stark departure from his industrial, metallic works is "Alligators," a lush, tropical jungle scene where even the ferocious alligators are tamed by Rousseau-like foliage and a quiet doll or angel figure. "That cross," Tyler says, pointing to a small object in the background, "could mean something about the crucifixion." He's hard to fathom, Valton Tyler, but his innocence doesn't seem contrived.

There are 35 paintings and works on paper in the MAC show, and Smither says these are just a tip of the iceberg as far as a retrospective of the prolific Tyler's work. Tyler's last solo show was in 1986 at Dallas' defunct but fondly remembered DW Gallery. Smither believes Tyler is making a living making art, but wonders whether that truly makes any difference to him. "Like any other self-taught artist," Smither says, "they keep doing it because they don't know what else to do."

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Annabelle Massey Helber