Texas Tribalism

With all the rhetoric of globalization, any public discussion of localism in the arts would seem to be déclassé. Somehow localism appears to run in direct opposition to the forward march of progress supposedly borne by the forces of globalization. In our area of the world, however, localism in the arts--grassroots support and what some like to describe in terms of regional style--breeds a special strain of tribalism. Localism and tribalism, while not the same thing, are kindred forces. Localism in the arts gives way to what I'd like to call Texas tribalism lite: a form of primitivism in the present--a bull-headed determination that makes "the city that has no there there" think that it is the center of the universe.

That said, there is actually a fine line between localism and tribalism. The hair's-breadth relationship between the two becomes ever so much smaller, even claustrophobic, when you add a crowd to the mix. Take a reasonable group of people, gather them together to discuss something along the lines of "grassroots support of the arts in Texas," and before you know it, you have an agitated and semi-zealous mass of enthusiasts for the local--a powwow of Texas tribalists. Those once prim and proper supporters of the art world, the Texas bourgeoisie and our own bevy of almost-aristocratic art collectors, become politely fanatical about their Texan roots.

So often, though, theirs is a selective and creative memory--a mind-set in which Texas is forever frozen in the 1930s. Never mind the constant boom and hum of planes flying overhead, the swift thrust of highways that carry you rapidly from one end of the metroplex to the other, or the ad-hoc urban landscape of strip malls and discount retailers. Never mind that this is the execution capital of the so-called civilized world. Never mind that Texas is amazingly au courant--modern in good and bad ways. For them, for those cheerleaders of said "local," Texas is an ochre and burnt umber image of flat planes syncopated by prettily undulating hills, a Regionalist painting by Charles T. Bowling, Otis Dozier or Jerry Bywaters in the vein of Thomas Hart Benton some 70 years ago.

Held in conjunction with the exhibition Texas Vision: The Barrett Collection, now showing at the Meadows Museum of Fine Art at SMU, a daylong symposium at the museum set the stage for just such a gathering. No rabid foam was spewed and no jugulars were torn asunder; a much milder air of herd-like happiness-to-be-Texan pervaded the air. One might be melancholic that people's minds could be so flaccid--so in denial of the potentials of a 21st-century Texas, so stuck on a long-dead notion of Regionalism and local art.

It would seem that the subtext of the symposium was the decade of the 1930s, the landscapes and down-home images of the dust-bowl Regionalism of yester-millennium's art, and another not so palatable aspect of that turbulent decade, namely 1930s Germany. The day began with a polite introduction that included an invocation of "Texan soil"--as in "We are gathered here to talk about the 'soil' from which these artists come." While this comment was meant to be a literal reference to the hometowns of the artists whose work the Barretts have collected, it is useful to remember that similar discussions of "origins," "soil" and "Volk," or a given region's people, have had other, more disturbing connotations in the past.

In the early part of the 21st century, German and Viennese artists ushered in artistic modernism by way of the organic. Artists and architects made reference to an earthen-based cultural rejuvenation most literally symbolized in the form of "Das Zeichen," or "the Sign"--a quasi-crystalline diamond-like substance romantically conceived to be the kernel of art. This vision gave rise shortly thereafter to an expressionist architecture--the organic form of which literally seemed to be erupting from the earth. By the 1930s, these artistic shenanigans gave way to the backward-looking theories of German origins and racial purity so characteristic of the German National Socialist Party, the idea that a specific land gives rise to specific people who are purer, who are less contaminated and stronger, than the rest of the world.

Remarkably, though, while the symposium verged on the mundane and was oriented toward an idea of Texas' past rather than the future, the exhibition itself is neither mundane nor backward. Showing in the upstairs galleries of the Meadows Museum is Richard and Nona Barrett's collection of work by Texas artists from the 1930s to the present and Swiss painters working at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. One is wont to see a willful connection between the Barretts' choice of collecting Texan and Swiss art--to find meaning in their decision to collect art from two places that are so culturally disparate, other than sharing a go-it-alone mentality. (Don't mess with Texas! = Swiss refusal to join the European Union.) But there is probably little meaning here. The Barretts are eager supporters of the Texas art scene because they like Texas art. Slightly different, though, might be the motivation for collecting the work of little-known Swiss modernists. The Barretts' acquisition of works by Ferdinand Hodler, Félix Vallotton, Ernest Bieler and Cunio Amiet might simply be viewed as smart investments, since what these paintings represent, other than a realist, figural and vaguely Symbolist approach to picture-making, is a group of little-collected and thus not yet wholly commodified modern works of art. In this instance, the Barretts become cutting-edge collectors, avant-garde Texan art aficionados who are one step ahead of the international game of art valuation.

For what the two-part Texan-Swiss collection lacks in shared national origin, it makes up for in its largely and consistently figural quality. There is very little abstract art in the collection other than John Pomara's "Re-bound" (1997) and Jesse Amado's "Untitled (Crystal and Glass II)" (1997). The pieces by Swiss artists are for the most part portraiture, landscapes and still-life paintings. Of these, Vallotton's "The Ham" (1916) is quite remarkable for its verisimilitude and the story behind it, that it was a meat prop placed in a shop window over which a starving wartime crowd drooled longingly. In the ample gallery space devoted to the Barretts' large and diverse collection of Texas art, one finds a vast array of figural representation, with some pieces being more experimental in form than others. In the piece "Three Rivers (Atascosa, Frio, Nueces)" (2001), Harry Geffert transforms the idea of landscape from an unimpeded view of a natural landscape seen through a window into three freestanding vertical bronze totems. Shaped something like a man's tie and ranging from five to eight feet in height, each bears a wrinkly surface mimicking the movement of roiling and flowing water. In a similarly inventive fashion, Jim Magee also rethinks the rendering of landscape, pushing it from the literal form of two-dimensional painting to the more conceptual realm of three-dimensional sculpture and the found object. In "Airport Road" (1984), Magee has gathered roadside detritus and trash (steel, paint, wood, burlap, flower petals, paper, glass and wax) and assembled it in a black steel grate-fronted box. The piece forces a juxtaposition of the natural and man-made, the pure and the polluted.

The exhibition suffers from being too diverse. Clearly, its reason for being is to present to the public the collected work and generosity of the Barretts and not really to push the envelope of thinking. If the latter had been the motivation, then perhaps there would've been (should've been) more of an emphasis on the transformation of the "figure" or, more interesting yet, the shifts in interpretation of the "landscape" in Texas art over time. While hope lies within the pieces--that is to say, in the quality of the collection itself--there is no hope to be found in presenting it as representative of an insular and narrow-minded notion of what it means to be "Texan."

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Charissa N. Terranova