Vincent's price

Get a grip, oh ye of little faith, and bear witness. Finally, without question, there's irrefutable proof that Dallas can produce damn fine art. Drool-on-your-shirt fine. Lo-and-behold fine. It's not just the stuff from the handful of local artists picked for the Whitney Biennial in New York City that's serving notice to the naysayers. To those who whine that local art doesn't measure up, even some of the winning Whitney work's not good enough -- like Vernon Fisher's tedious, never-ending ode to the housefly. And some locals who don't accept video as a valid medium don't like Brian Fridge's novel and beautiful tapes of icy vapors, even though the eerie images from Brian's "fridge" are putting Dallas on the map in NYC.

Granted, you can find a stalwart testament to Dallas and Fort Worth artists in the hallowed halls and on the sanctified walls of the Whitney for the next couple of months, but all that work was shown here first, in major and minor galleries, in solo and group exhibitions, during the past couple of years. While this stuff was showing up around town -- sometimes to critical acclaim and commercial success, but more often not -- local art dealers and gallery owners were joining the chorus of bellyaching. "Dallas doesn't buy Dallas art," is the perpetual rant. "Houston artists sell in Dallas. Dallas artists sell in Houston," is likely the second verse. "People only buy the East Coast anointed," sings the chorus, ad nauseam. Some days it even sounds like a heartfelt lament, like Rodney Dangerfield's head-bobbing, neck-jerking "I can't get no respect."

Just when you've had enough art-scene gloom and doom, just as some very good Dallas galleries close their doors, the city that believes shopping is truly an overlooked art form springs something devastatingly mighty on you. It's fitting that you'll find it down at the end of Main Street. Fitting and sort of Rockwellian. There's some incredibly impressive, moving, mind-blowing art at Conduit Gallery. And the guy who's making it isn't in the Whitney; isn't gluing Bic pens on tin cans and calling it art; isn't listening to grumpy gallerists. He's pretty much tightened his middle-aged jaw muscles and dared to show his bare-assed-risky, new abstract paintings to an unsuspecting public. Here's a guy who could raise your art-scene standards from the dead, Dallas; if only he weren't so darn quiet, unassuming, and ego-less.

Vincent Falsetta would bristle at most of this diatribe; he'd be the first to claim modestly that his work isn't that good, or to defend others by describing how hard it is for local artists to make it big. He's politically astute after 25 years as a working artist and 20 years of teaching art, as well as pragmatic and sensitive. He's loyal to Nancy Whitenack, his Dallas gallerist for 10 years, and to OK Harris, his New York gallery. He's a classy professional, a dedicated artist who's also a tenured professor at the University of North Texas. He works obsessively in the 900-square-foot studio that stands just outside the back door of his Denton home and yet finds time for his sons' soccer games. He mentors his most promising former students, steering them through the Dallas art scene, giving references, making important introductions. In short, Falsetta seems to have his priorities straight, even as he navigates the harsh, fickle realities of fine art in Dallas.

Falsetta says the Conduit show, the second solo exhibition in a self-described breakout period during the past two years in which his work is looser and more expressive, feels like "a more focused show." He says his departure from what had become signature paintings -- super-finessed technique in tightly controlled abstracts -- is a logical, freeing progression for a midcareer artist.

"In that 1998 show, the 12 paintings were not like 12 variations," he recalls. "Instead, they were different strategies on a similar concept." Falsetta painted two or three canvases with wavy stripes, two or three with built-up shapes forming quirky grids, and some, he says, "were even like plaids." The work was meticulous, a longtime hallmark of Falsetta's style, but there was a new celebration of process. The latest Conduit exhibit represents the artist's exuberance and experimentation with gesture.

"I'm able to investigate relationships to gesture and process," he says. "The gesture is not used as a formal element nor as a stylistic method, but as an element of content." Falsetta slips into the teacher-mentor role, explaining complex ideas easily and patiently. "In abstract expressionism, if you see this big heroic stroke going across the canvas, that's what it's about -- the heroism of the artist. The dramatic brush strokes of Lichtenstein and even Richard Patterson are like the appearance of spontaneity, but it's not a real spontaneous act."

For his new paintings, Falsetta spends the bulk of his time in preparation, creating and analyzing small studies that eventually become large paintings. The time spent on the canvas is short. He works in oils and is limited by needing to work "wet on wet," completing a painting over a one- or two-day intensive session. "I am making 12 or 14 paintings a year, which is more than when the work was meticulous," he says. "In my new work, there's an odd combination between the appearance of spontaneity and improvisation."

To convey spontaneity and speed, Falsetta says he used a variety of tools in the new work, which features vertical and horizontal bands of paint applied with brushes, cardboard "spreaders," palette knives and dry-wall spatulas. Demented references to a one-armed paperhanger come to mind in the large paintings, where 12-inch-wide stripes of paint begin with thick edges and stagger down the canvas at irregular intervals. Falsetta calls the fits and starts his stutters. "It may seem like a streak goes through a painting, stutters, and then picks up again," he says. "It alters the energy, slows down the speed."

The experience of Falsetta's paintings at Conduit is visceral and emotional -- a kind of soul-level shivering enhanced by the gallery's high-ceilinged, pristine space. Spending time with this work offers up the very best of the illusionistic aspects of abstract art. Look at them long enough, and you'll begin to see things that aren't really there. In Falsetta's "Untitled AK 00-2," streaks of white paint percolate from beneath syrup-thick layers of black paint. The effect is an ethereal, glowing light like some kind of impossible internal illumination. Likewise with "Untitled AJ 00-1," a large-canvas exploration of the same phenomenon, only adding a luscious mound of red paint, dead center, as if the artist had gouged the surface with a tube of lipstick.

When Falsetta diverts from black and white -- an homage to photography, he says, and the idea of freeze-frame images -- he adds neutral tans or peach- and flesh-colored paints. In "Untitled AL 00-3," the viewer begins to see an unmistakable pattern of tree bark on some of the big, vertical blocks of paint. Other striations look like medical images -- X-rays or CAT scans of leg bones and cracking ball joints in a human knee or hip. One show-stopper -- and there is more than one -- is "Untitled AG 99-12," a hyper-mirage of black tire treads breaking through slushy ice and snow. None of this, the artist says, is intentional. All of it, he says, is why he paints and what drove him to abstraction.

So stuff a sock in your collective blowholes, you chronic complainers. At least, give it a rest long enough to breathe some rarefied air down at the end of Main Street in Dallas -- the city that brings you Stanley Korshak, professional sports, and, every couple of years or so, Vincent Falsetta's paintings. All this, Dallas, and a brand-new Kenneth Cole store at the Galleria. Life is good.

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Annabelle Massey Helber