What's in a name?

[Flashback to 1954. Scene: interior bedroom. Pregnant wife and husband talking in bed.]

WIFE: It's less than a month now. We have to resolve this.

HUSBAND: I don't think it's such a big deal.

W: Our last name is Fuhrer! What on earth are we going to call this baby?

H: Anything we want. Pretend it's Smith and go with anything you want.

W: It should be something happy, to counteract Fuhrer.

H: I've lived with this my whole life, and it hasn't affected me.

W: But what if it's a girl?

H: Want sort of happy name? Fannie? Fannie Fuhrer?

W: No, no, no.

H: Felicity? Felicity Fuhrer?

W: Oh dear God.

H: I've always liked the name Merry. Not M-A-R-Y. But like with Christmas. Merry.

W: (Sighs.) That's different and cheerful. No one would make fun of a sweet little girl named Merry, even if her last name is Fuhrer.

H: It's better than Eva. We wouldn't even consider Eva. Would we?

W: (Sighs again.) I hope it's a boy.

This fictionalized account can't even begin to explain what Merry Fuhrer's parents might have been thinking 45 years ago. And it wouldn't be funny, or even relevant, to the artist. Fuhrer says it never occurred to her that people might smirk at her name. "Really," she says, "I never even thought about it." It's this sort of quasi-goofiness and naïveté about the real world that smacks you in the head when you meet Fuhrer. But it's one of her best qualities when she applies it to paper or canvas in her art. She's got all the earmarks of a self-taught artist -- her work is obsessive, complex and tediously rendered; this, yet she's finishing up her master's in fine art at Texas Woman's University in Denton. Maybe she shouldn't be, you begin to think as you watch her quietly discuss her quirky life and her latest, equally quirky, work. Maybe they'll teach the spontaneity and sense of wonder right out of her. Perhaps this timid woman with a name that sounds like some cruel, neo-Nazi holiday greeting will become like all the rest of those by-the-numbers students: bogged down in art-history references, painting exactly like their professors paint, finding nothing new to explore and express.

Fuhrer opened her first solo show last week at what has become known as the Fort Worth gallery closest to Dallas and closest to the edge -- Handley-Hicks. She was gallerist Bettye Hicks' pick to debut on the Fort Worth Art Dealers Association's annual spring gallery night, which this year focused on newcomers under an "Introductions" theme. Hicks didn't go looking for some outstanding art student to showcase, though; she simply discovered Fuhrer's work when she made rounds of student studios at TWU after lecturing on running a gallery and working with art galleries about a year ago. "I had an immediate sort of response," Hicks says, "and later I was still haunted by it. Her work energized me so much. I loved her obsession. Obsession says a lot to me about passion."

Decidedly better than student output, Fuhrer's body of work is a sociopolitical statement about the American automobile. Fuhrer seems fascinated with what she calls "the mover and shaper of our entire culture," even as she explains that she's lived without a car for the past 15 years. "Everything I've ever done is autobiographical," she says. "I'd had a short string of disasters with cars, and I'd decided to give up on them. It started with a Ford Pinto...and this huge cloud of blue smoke." She couldn't shake images of an endless stream of distorted and sometimes anthropomorphic shapes motoring along twisted roadways curling among Jetsons-esque cityscapes. "My focus is really on the absurdity of the car culture," she says. "It's a mix of humor, fear, and energy."

The same could be said about Fuhrer's life. When she talks about her past and her work, she reveals a mixture of insecurity and will-o-the-wisp-ness -- as cliché as it sounds, she is a woman given to vague wanderings, a woman still in search of herself. She grew up in Florida with family members who worked mostly in the medical profession; moved to New Mexico for a time; then got married and moved to Lubbock, only to get divorced and get a BFA in English literature at Texas Tech. At 34, she got rid of everything except what would fit in two boxes, because that's all she could take with her on a Greyhound bus. "I just felt like I wanted to start over," she says. "Screw it -- that was my attitude. I wanted to go somewhere where nobody knew me. I didn't know what was going to happen."

Fuhrer ended up in Chicago. No stranger to odd jobs, she apprenticed in a frame shop, then took an entry-level job at the Field Museum of Natural History. She sanded walls for repainting before new museum exhibitions. One day a staffer asked her to take pictures of a new large-animal exhibit. They couldn't find a camera, so Fuhrer told them that she could draw and would simply sketch them. She says she spent the whole day on the project, much to the chagrin of her supervisor, but the effort rekindled her love of art. She took some night courses at the Chicago Art Institute, but when she eventually returned to Texas -- this time, Dallas -- she resigned herself to going back to school to pursue "something in medicine to follow the family." That got her enrolled in occupational health courses at TWU, where she wandered by the art department one day and signed up to audit a life drawing course. That was a turning point.

"I just decided to quit messing around and to do what I wanted to do," she says quietly. "I'd gone back and forth for so long -- since my 20s. I was responding to the feeling that art wasn't a responsible thing to do with my life. And that I would never be good enough to ever do anything with it. And I never had encouragement from the people around me."

Fuhrer says she's found the encouragement, finally, in her professors at TWU and in Hicks, and in the gallerygoers who discovered her work on Gallery Night. She also teaches life drawing there and includes some serious anatomy studies for her students as she finishes out more art for her master's thesis exhibition. Fuhrer says her next body of work may explore the figure, and there's a touch of Kiki Smith's sensibilities when she talks about applying neurophysiology and other pre-med courses to her artwork in the future. For now, though, her obsession on the "metal deities" of the commuter culture are taking all of her time. Some of the work on view at Handley-Hicks will make it into her master's show, she says. "I thought maybe it was a little too silly, and that it would have to be more serious," she says. "But there is a serious undertone."

Hicks says that the day she walked into Fuhrer's studio, "I was immediately in every single one of those cars. I was immediately taken into the experience of her work." The car series is more political than silly, with commentary covering air pollution from tail pipes and smokestacks; foreign oil conglomerates and America's boundless appetite for gasoline; and the stress- and anxiety-producing traffic that, coupled with road rage, seems insurmountable in the local, mass-transit-less culture. Yet, there is the Jetsons-meets-the-Flintstones cartoon landscape ambience in Fuhrer's colorful, rushing works. Her cars, though, aren't cartoony; not a single one has eyeballs for headlights, a la Speed Buggy. They do have personalities, however subtle; one looks as if it could shrug its front-fender shoulders, while another tries to swivel rear-fender hips around a sharp curve. Overall, the effect isn't as sophomoric as the description leads you to believe. It's novel. Fuhrer says her work's been criticized for its illustrative quality, and there's some of that, certainly. But her vision and similarity to "outsider" artists keeps these paintings from careening off the fine-art edge into schlock.

In Fuhrer's "Detour," orange traffic cones whirl upside down like tornadoes, while a roller-coaster roadway wends its way along a city skyline in the distant background. The artist paints yellow detour signs with flashing amber lights and orange-and-white construction barrels among other traffic images. The only abject cartoonization of the auto appears in "Battle Between the Truck and SUVs," a quirky diptych featuring one car with saber-toothed tiger fangs where its grille ought to be. "Heat" is an outstanding effort, an oil-on-masonite work in a red and hot-orange palette, crowded with multilevel, circular parking garages, elevated freeways, and high-rise buildings that bend in the wind like weeping willows. The most poignant piece is one of nine small panels hung together in "Road Fragments." A strangely alive crush of cars seems to watch as one of their own takes a seemingly suicidal plunge off a high bridge.

Fuhrer's life experience shows in her work. At 45, she's got considerably more baggage than your average 24-year-old graduate student. Her goofy subject matter, like the artist herself, resonates with layers of maturity, self-analysis, and completeness of thought. Parts of the "Metro Driving" series are hard to forget and, as Bettye Hicks says, may haunt you for a time. But even if don't remember Merry Fuhrer's work, it's certain you'll remember her name.

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Annabelle Massey Helber