Honeymoon suite

When the Conduit Gallery invited Good/Bad Art Collective to stage the first show in its new annex, the union evoked a list of strange but workable partnerships. A shot of whiskey in a beer. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. CBGB's and early punk rock. The common thread? Each of these unlikely marriages worked because the mismatched characters played off one another in surprising harmony.

Good/Bad, Denton's own enfants terribles with a penchant for perverse conceptual art, rarely invades conservative Dallas. When it does, it's relegated to an alternative-space gig: 500X, or the still-new Angstrom. Conversely, Deep Ellum's Conduit Gallery has made its impressive reputation by representing mid- to late-career regional artists of solid standing, rarely delving into untried territory.

The new Annex, a satellite space to the Conduit proper, is where these two forces recently met and fell in love, as captured in Good/Bad's incisive show, Welcome to Important Town. The result: The Conduit has sharpened its edge and challenged the expectations of longtime patrons, while Good/Bad has pushed its own professional boundaries and landed its highest-profile show in North Texas.

"We wanted a place to make other, new things happen," says Nancy Whitenack, the Conduit's owner-director. "Our storage space down the hall was cramped and not doing us much good as storage, so we decided to make something useful from the room. So with no regard for money pressure, the new space could be used to explore raw ideas, experimental and riskier work."

Thus, the Annex was born. "I think the size and shape of the space is its character," says Marty Walker, gallery assistant for the Conduit and the Annex curator. "It's not the room. It's what you put into it. It's about small, power-packed shows."

See, the Annex is--ahem--kinda small. Only 14 feet by 7.5 feet, in fact. And L-shaped, with a bulging concrete pillar interrupting one wall. In other words, about the size of the master bathroom in a middle-class house. Its dimensions--narrow, bent, and high-ceilinged--would challenge any artist. More so, one might think, a group of fledglings used to dealing with their modest whitewashed building in Denton's industrial boonies, where noise and objects and inflammables spilling outside or onto the roof are the norm.

But Walker was determined to have this controversial, fast-evolving collective take first shot at the Annex. Her interest in Good/Bad started a few years ago when she was a graduate student at the University of North Texas; Good/Bad was founded in 1993 by UNT art students bent on exploring ideas outside the school's tired curriculum. "I was so impressed with how resourceful they are," Walker says. "The spirit, the freshness. They never take themselves too seriously, yet they take their presentation very seriously."

Good/Bad's antics, based on the assertions of conceptual art--idea over content, concept over technique--have been as diverse as they've been constant. The Collective stages a new event nearly every week in Denton, some far more cohesive than others, given the ricochet pace. Members explore every possible mode of expression; they blow things up, tread water in barrel tanks, create sculptures you have to mess with to understand, stage ambitious video and live-music events. No night is the same, and each show swims in its own quirky theory. Yet, no matter how much time, energy, or money is poured into any given show, Good/Bad prefers to present these for one evening only--the members thrill in the immediacy, in making viewers experience art while it's fresh, and then get off on tearing it all down the following morning.

The Conduit show, in forcing Good/Bad to leave its show up for a 30-day run, proves the exception. Walker admits, "At the proposal meetings, some of the members kept saying, 'Do we have to leave it up?'" Granted, prolonged exposure poses greater critical risk. But keeping Welcome to Important Town up for a month wasn't Good/Bad's primary concern.

"The size of the Annex was addressed immediately; it was a good leaping-off point," says Martin Iles, the collective's director-of-sorts. (Careful. Good/Bad's members resent the "leader" concept.) "It works well as a metaphor for our deficiencies, which we like to play with anyway. Everything we created for this show had size in mind. If we had been doing a show for any other space, it would have been completely different."

While its individual members often create individually intriguing works, Good/Bad's group forte has always been installation and site-specific work. And the weird Annex space forces site-specific planning; if anyone could christen the Annex properly, Good/Bad is it. With a dumpster, a jukebox, a snow ski, and Titanic, no less.

"One of the points of the Annex is to polarize," Walker says. "What's happening there should be completely different from what's happening in the gallery."

What's happening in Welcome to Important Town is different from what's happening anywhere in Dallas, and thank God for it. When you enter the Annex through its still-new glassy door, you're immediately confronted with a Good/Bad mascot: a green dumpster. Everything about it is rigidly normal--its heavy metal lid propped open with steel rods, its sharp welded corners, the parking-zone decals across the front. "Satellite Dumpster" is, in fact, a replica of the one that sits in front of Good/Bad's Denton building. But instead of a huge thing overwhelming the claustrophobic space, it sits politely in smaller scale--about the size of a washer/dryer combo. Inside it: the discarded plastic cups and beer cans from the opening-night party. If Good/Bad can't have its one-night stand in Dallas, it will at least reference a single-night event. On the crowded opening night, those familiar with Good/Bad sensibilities didn't hesitate to toss in their trash. The uninitiated weren't so sure.

The adjacent wall, the big one, is plastered top-to-bottom with a vinyl-print photo of Good/Bad's members. Twenty-one melancholy people, dressed in snuggly Aspen attire, gaze out from a wood-paneled "lobby" equipped with wet bar and mounted deer heads. No smiles in this ultra-posed portrait, but each of them sports a plaster cast on his or her right leg. Crutches and canes lean against chairs and laps. And in front of this grainy image, propped against the Annex wall, are the splintered pieces of a single giant snow ski--long remnants that together hold 21 right-boot bindings. "Apres Ski," the piece is titled. One can't help but picture a snowy downhill slope littered with 21 moaning, cursing vacationers. One takes a dive, everyone follows. Kinda like the risk the collective faces with every show.

Across the tiny space is another self-referencing piece (Iles likes to call Good/Bad works "efforts" or "attempts." "It refers to our ambitions versus our limited resources. We never know if we're gonna pull something off," he says.) This "effort," simply titled "Jukebox," is indeed a standard CD-playing, make-a-selection jukebox. In it: 23 CDs with their covers, each one recorded and designed by a collective member. No rules. The results are intentionally spotty and frustrating, often forcing a visitor to endure a smugly obtuse selection far past the point of novelty. Dan Baily's CD plays the actual noise of the subway trip from Brooklyn into Manhattan. Michael Eudy's piece features the artist singing above the roar of a vacuum cleaner. Heather Grace's CD--the cover art is a picture of the artist wearing an S&M ball-gag next to the old Whitesnake symbol--has her singing a karaoke version of the pop-metal band's severely dated hit "Here I Go Again," the gag muffling her flat voice and making her sound either retarded or demented. Erick Swenson's CD art is actually the cover of Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits, only Swenson has cleverly blotted out the "s" in the word "Hits." Swenson has quietly layered all of this beloved album's songs into one track, forming a single, swelling, creepy "tune" that bleeds with tiny snatches of the familiar songs. It sounds almost like back-masking. "The Boxer" here, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" there, an echo of "Mrs. Robinson" that lilts in and out--symphonic, droning, plinking. The irony works. Swenson has made the ever-approachable duo sound insidiously evil.

And rounding out the quad on the remaining wall is "Titanic." Big block letters spell out the ship's name across the pristine white wall, and beneath the word, at eye level, a tiny Sony Watchman is mounted, its bitty 3-inch screen dancing with images. This, in turn, is attached to a VCR mounted near the floor. Now playing: a pirated version of the blockbuster film, bought for 10 bucks from a New York black-marketer, a guy who sneaks into a theater with a tripod and video camera and tapes the movie for illegal sale.

"NBC will air Titanic in the year 2000--they've already bought the rights," Iles says. "The film is so diminished when you take away its size, put it on a small screen, cut it with commercials. It's actually a terrible movie." Good/Bad has re-edited the film with TV ads interspliced throughout. Dramatic moments are interrupted with a fade out, then a chirpy "Hi! I'm Professor Pork Chop!" Suddenly James Cameron's Hollywood monument seems far less, well, monumental.

Together, the four "attempts" fill the room with the usual Good/Bad critical thinking, humor, and insider barbs. But the sense that the collective knew the stakes were higher this time, that it had to pull this off, hangs in the Annex air. The pieces are perfectly constructed, fully formed. Accessible but not ingratiating. The mood is "Hey. We're here, we're getting really good at this. Pay attention."

And they're right. Attempt becomes success.

Welcome to Important Town runs through March 28 at The Annex: The Conduit Gallery, 3200 Main St., Ste. 2.5. (214) 939-0064.

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