The Great Leap Forward

The first thing one must say about Come Forward, the Dallas Museum of Art's show of emerging Texas artists, is: At least it tries.

This is not necessarily to damn with faint praise. Unlike too many DMA shows before it, this one isn't just a PR moment masquerading as an art exhibition. Nor is it an exercise in schizophrenic boosterism, an attempt to advertise Big D as a sophisticated, visually happening place and to educate the natives along the way.

This show presents itself as a serious examination of new directions among young contemporary artists living in Texas, and for the most part, that is what the museumgoer gets. Unfortunately, along the way Come Forward also falls back--upon jargon of the thickest, most distasteful sort: the art-world sort. And what a shame. For the exhibition includes some promising young talents, and touches upon the important issues of the day--only to smother them in a catalog laden with awkward prose and sodden with self-importance.

Not that this is unusual. As Robert Hughes has noted, in both the art world and in academe, "to write direct prose, lucid and open to comprehension, using common language, is to lose face. You do not make your mark unless you add something to the lake of jargon to whose marshy verge the bleating flocks of post-structuralists go each night to drink." In Art-Land, "Language does not clarify; it intimidates. It subjects the reader to a rite of passage and extorts assent as the price of entry." It's tempting to chalk the problem up to too many hours spent pondering German philosophers (note that I don't accuse anyone of actually reading the stuff). Tempting, but as Hughes suggests, probably naïve. For in the art world, language has a use: to make even mundane thoughts sound important.

It is, however, unusually irritating, because Come Forward: Emerging Art in Texas is in so many other respects illuminating. The show's thesis, more or less, is that the myriad, nontraditional forms "art" takes today are the direct and natural result of changes in the system for educating, nurturing and promoting young artists, as well as in society at large.

The curators argue that emerging artists have moved away from producing "objects" (that is, painting and sculpture), in part, because the Western world has moved away from an economy based on manufacturing objects. Like the society about them, artists nowadays produce services, information and especially entertainment. This shift has "affect[ed] the art itself," and the natural result, they argue, is a rhetorical, posturing, theatrical art--the kind of art presented in Come Forward.

Of course, being the curators, they have selected artists to fit this thesis, as well as to conform to certain biographical requirements. (The artists also had to be young, to be living in Texas and to have "a certain level of education"--i.e., have a university fine-arts degree). And so the 11 artists in the show all explore, in a loudmouthed, melodramatic fashion, what the Frogs would call "dialectics": the virtual vs. the real, objects vs. information, public vs. private.

Ironically, though, the more successful work in the show remains preoccupied with formal issues of art-making. Irene Roderick, for example, produces intricate, large designs of white paint on architectural film depicting the façades of gothic cathedrals and motorcycles. At the same time, however, they are abstract objects, formal exercises à la Jackson Pollock. Augusto Di Stefano's alluring canvases, color-washed backgrounds with dollops of impasto and matchstick-sized lines glued to surface, are simple yet powerful explorations of contrast and contradictions in material, in size and in color.

In typically through-the-looking-glass, art-world fashion, the curators accuse the grandstanders--installation and conceptual artists--of being aesthetes, while they see the painters as grandstanding. They deign to include Di Stefano because the work, to them, seems "image-conscious" and "contrived." On the other hand, they admire Chris Sauter's over-the-top installation titled "Engaging the Minotaur," with its video and round-pen and trailer-trash living room adorned with tooled-leather testicles, as "finely designed and crafted."

Similarly, they read way too much into Robyn O'Neil's faux-adolescent doodles of dinosaurs and speedboats. And they are far too generous to Joey Fauerso, a tremendously talented painter who nevertheless personifies the show's too-obvious, rhetorical, advertisements-for-myself leitmotif. Fauerso's depictions of sitters engaged in "private" acts (sucking fingers, picking noses) cover territory already explored and written about at length, and the highfalutin phenomenological explanation they append adds little.

To their credit, the curators do manage to hit, ever so briefly, on the important questions of the day. Co-curator Lane Relyea mentions the impossibility of disentangling the museum's promotional machinery from the academic and critical functions--and then segues into a discussion of the artists and their strategies. Unfortunately, he doesn't address the elephantine issue standing before him: If the museum sees itself as a full partner in the emergence and, yes, promotion of artists, who is left to make carefully reasoned, critical judgments?

Relyea also explores, fleetingly, the artist's "shift from a private to a more public mode of existence." Artists no longer exist, as the critic Jed Perl and others would have it, in some private world of artists, some local Montmartre, where they work out problems in the seclusion of the studio and the cloistered community of other artists. Relyea lays this off on the rise of the university fine-arts education, with its emphasis on the public critique, as well as on the increasing importance of--you guessed it--public relations, noting that, for several years, a number of high-profile arts schools have advertised their thesis exhibitions in Artforum.

Rather than make any (heaven forbid!) judgments about these developments, though, the show's organizers sink into an easy, self-congratulatory tone, pronouncing their efforts "dynamic," "fascinating" and "richly layered," even a "gestalt." (In a truly laughable piece of back-slapping, curator Suzanne Weaver even calls Relyea's essay "clear." And by the standards of one immersed in Artforum, I suppose it is.)

Still, in the Alice in Wonderland world of the museum show, it ain't half-bad. And given the DMA's history, that is something to crow about.