While the monstrous, Blob-like urban sprawl devours the pastures and native tall grasses of the land from which my Stetsoned ancestors sprang, there are at least a couple of pleasurable consumerist gems to be found amidst the slop strewn along the freeways. Here, piggy piggy (it’s the year of the pig, after all.)
One is the new-ish Ikea, just north of Dallas in Frisco. I love Ikea. It makes me feel as if I’ve walked right into one of those old European shorts they would show Saturday afternoons on the CBS Children’s Film Festival with Kookla, Fran, and Ollie back in the ’70s. Cute blond kids in lederhosen living in starkly white but homey Corbusian flats, playing with tin soldiers and chunky, hand-carved wooden blocks — all so exotic to me growing up in a ranch house in the Colorado foothills with my legions of GI Joe's and Micronauts.
This is The People’s Republic of Ikea, where you drive in past rows of blue and yellow flags flapping loudly in the perpetual North Texas wind. It’s been angrily rumored by the Nascar/Dubya-lovin’ set that the land is actually owned by Sweden. Damn commies, they say.
I say the trip’s worth it for the food alone, and I hit the cafeteria line first. Don’t get me started on those meatballs they dish up. Even if I were still vegetarian, I would lapse for those compelling, yet by any standard mediocre, jumbo-marble-sized balls of mystery meat slathered in lukewarm, light brown gravy, with that weirdly sweet “lingonberry” sauce on the side. I don’t actually know what a lingonberry is, or what they put in the rest of that stuff, but it’s like Swedish crack or something.
So, wishing I were at least Danish, jacked up on their excellent coffee, I blissfully wander the one-way arrowed, maze-like paths, dreaming my organized Scandinavian Socialist Utopian Dream, longing for all that great storage and the Klagstosnorfoblom sofa/chaise combo (in split-pea green, or should it be the dark leather?). I crawl through the kiddy porticoes and buy weird candy that never actually tastes good but gets me anyway with the promise of real artificially flavored Norwegian raspberries. Maybe it’s the improbably bright colors. I’m just like some nostalgic fish — drawn by the sheen of memory and primary-colored plastic. Belly full and trunk packed with designerly junk made from pulped Indonesian rainforest, I head back south onto the George Bush Tollway. Back to the vacuum.
Often enough lately, this means it’s back to that other costume jewel, my new home away from home: Northpark Mall. I have been to Northpark what seems like nearly every week for the last six months. It wasn’t by choice. Not at first. You see, I’ve just got married. Yeah, thanks, it’s good. First time, nearly 40, you know, feeling very adult.
Starting a few months ago, my fiancée wanted to start looking for all the gear: dresses, suits, jewelry, shoes, new special “wedding” perfume and cologne, the works. Initially a skin-crawling dread would overcome me, followed by pouting and grumpy recalcitrance. I’ve despised malls since it no longer was the place to (ineptly and always unsuccessfully) attempt to pick up girls, i.e., about 1984. But now I’ve been seduced. Overcoming puritanical snobbery, I’ve allowed myself to be won over by the one-two punch of some decent art and, well, shiny plastic, among other things.
The difference is that Northpark is a museum, too. Sort of. But this is maybe even better for the art. Most art people don’t know about it, and the shoppers don’t seem to give two shits, but the place is owned by Ray Nasher of Nasher Sculpture Center fame, and he’s parked an impressive percentage of his stash in front of the doors of Neiman’s, Barney’s, Victoria’s Secret, and the Watch Hut. And they’re all much less pretentious, more at home, there than their collection counterparts downtown — all those hunky chunks of bronze, sterilely interspersed amidst trees planted in rows like a barren orchard, each one choked by thick electrical cables for cheesy lights (painted gray as if we won’t notice or will just mistake them for mechanized biblical snakes). Now that would be a good installation, the conduit rigged with speakers to temptingly cajole: “Hey, kid, go ahead, scratch your name on that Henry Moore. Nobody’s watching….” Not only criminal, but sacrilegious. Eeeexcellent…
Looking at art at the mall brings into the light the more shadowy aspects of art viewing. And shopping. I felt this sort of tension, armed with my little notebook, scribbling observations while actually looking at the sculptures. People looked at me funny, and then at the art, astonished, as if they were seeing it for the first time. As if it had suddenly materialized, the way the Aztecs only saw Cortes’ ships once the shaman made them believe there was actually something out there.
It’s almost an inversion of the tension experienced at the museum, where the annoyed stares rightfully go to the chatty strollers. In that context, one feels an obligation to give each work a certain amount of time, square off with it and grok the subtleties of the artist’s intent, the curatorial nuances, the historical resonance. One peregrinates the galleries, quiet and reverential, a pilgrim visiting the stations of the Art Gods.
Which can really get so very tiring, and even so, you never really know if you’ve given it your all. How many minutes (more like seconds) of viewing time correspond to the artists’ own alcoholic bodily fluids expended over their labors? With only the occasional docent to act as priest, few enough folks have even the remotest idea what’s going on; the veil of institutional mystery remains drawn, and the Wizard stays magisterial. Not to mention how sore your feet get, the brain weighted by useless minutiae. Flagellated into submission, the hoi polloi dutifully pick up their key ring, Venetian glass paperweight, or desk calendar at the special exhibition exit booth. Everyone feels slightly ennobled, and hopefully at least the teenaged kid has scored points with his date for his sophistication and sheer non-lunkheadedness.
That’s why it’s all begun to feel more honest at the mall. No one bothers. They’re just there to shop or to see a movie. The most attention I’ve seen anyone else give the art was a guy who, walking rapidly by the Antony Gormley figure trio, reached out and casually touched a lead-soldered shoulder. Standing at the atrium mezzanine near the AMC theatre and food court, I looked down on hundreds of people passing the legs of the giant Mark di Suvero that commands this space that forms the very heart of the mall. They seemed to fall into three groups (not including the kids, who love it and dance around it like pixies on crank): those who just walked around it, paying it absolutely no heed — about 70%; the more adventurous who, without any clear conscious intent, veered or steered right between its tripod legs — about 29%; and then the final 1%, those zombified shopping somnambulists who tripped over or walked right into it, which happens a lot more than you think would be possible for an 80-foot, bright red-orange steel behemoth. It’s that Aztec thing again. What the hell is this art doing in the way? I’m shopping here, dammit!
But it looks really good if you can actually see it. Much better than its cousin on the north end of the Sculpture Center, which looks like an A-frame corporate logo set by the freeway downtown. He’s very hit-and-miss, this guy. Can everybody say “Worst di Suvero ever”? But at the mall, you get to see this quite good one from all sides and from various heights. It’s incredibly dynamic, well-realized right down to the rivets, and you don’t have to try to get that. It just is, and it electrifies the space. This is what sculpture like this was meant to do and be. (And it looks as if last year’s mall renovation was, quite appropriately, built around it.) Even better is a colorful pile of lumber on a cactus-surrounded plinth down the corridor: a new Joel Shapiro that shows him leaving behind his now somewhat tired figure formula. Or maybe, picking up on the current craze for porn in our art, it’s his aestheticized take on an orgy.
Especially ignored at Northpark are a number of Frank Stellas, more familiar as signposts on the way to the toilets — toilets that are themselves surrounded by some extraordinary, colorful, framed Maeght scarves designed by the likes of Kandinsky and Magritte. The Stellas are great, too, some lithographs and one of those baroque aluminum reliefs from the ’80s. They are chaotic and intense: people just avert their eyes and hold their bladders until they get past. As if to prove my point, wife just said, “I don’t remember those at all.” And she’s a painter. Thanks for the confirmation, honey.
Before the renovation, the large group of Jonathan Borofsky’s Hammering Men was hard to find, tucked off in some corner. Now they are better placed, and you’d think they would attract some modicum of attention, being large, kinetic, and immensely weird. But no, folks just book on past. The men, undeterred, keep hammering in Sisyphean labor, their motorized arms quietly commenting upon the senselessness around them. If I had a hammer…
When the existential horror overwhelms, I say just give in and shop (“when in Rome…”). There are abundant pleasures to be had. The highlight has to be Barneys. Not that you can really afford anything in there until the warehouse clearance sale, but that is not the point. The store is utterly fabulous. The display designers have apparently taken cues from the likes of Dan Graham, Robert Wilson, Miró, and Gaudi. Everything feels considered, and because the store’s at the very top of the department store food chain, you will find none of the attitudinal masses to be contested in Neiman’s (all the perfume! all the hairspray! all the nips and tucks!) or, heaven forbid, Macy’s (strictly for last, desperate, end-of-day, sale-rack drive-bys, crowded and tacky). Check out the purses at Barney’s. There are a lifetime’s worth of sculpture ideas there. I’m often left wondering if I didn’t miss my calling, continually amazed at what women’s designers can get away with. For pure aesthetic enjoyment and challenge, a trip to a good women’s shoe department is a much safer bet than your average contemporary art gallery.
As for men’s shoes, I’m fond of a couple of pairs of Steve Maddens I’ve picked up, and he has a store at Northpark. For trainers, I’m partial to Adidas, and their shop here is one of 24 worldwide featuring just their limited edition lines. It is the inevitable Harajuku styles in the window that pull me at first — some bizarre cross between a tracksuit and a sushi chef uniform in denim (?). Inside they have a section of clothes, shoes, and skateboards designed by some selected graffiti dude du jour from the west coast or wherever. Laylah Ali was in last year to sign sweatshirts bearing cool images of her father from before he was getting beat up by thugs like Leon Spinks or fulfilling his role as the head-trauma-afflicted goodwill ambassador of the world. I am also drawn to the palpable early ’70s, pre-disco era chic, typified by a line devoted to Ille Nastase, the number one tennis player of 1973. (I was five, but I remember him well; my generation is obviously ruling the design houses.) I have to say that Adidas is on the whole doing it better than Urban Outfitters (would somebody tell those preening slackers who work there to shave off those goofy beards?), where I just got a replica OP pullover that I think I’m actually wearing in my fourth grade class photo. In like retro vein, you Puma enthusiasts are covered with a similar boutique down the way.
I’ve been intrigued to watch Anthropologie change in the last year. They have been slowly shifting from a late ’60s, flowery, nouveau/arts & crafts movement-inspired romanticism to an edgier, early ’70s, mod, art glass, De Stijl, and California craft-inspired thing. Wake up and smell the macrame. What’s it all mean? Some grad student ought to write a dissertation.
Now, by way of full disclosure and to divert accusations of my promoting rampant consumerism, this shopping thing is something of an aberration on my otherwise nearly spotless record of ascetically inspired poverty (or maybe it was poverty-inspired asceticism). I spent about a decade pursuing the formal study of Zen Buddhism much more ardently than money, sex, fame, or art. And by this I mean shaving my head and wearing robes and living on mountains and that whole trip (much of it, coincidentally, about the same time that Leonard Cohen was doing the same thing a few hundred miles south, only in a way much cooler and with a deeper voice). Apparently, according to some haphazard but oddly congruent mash-up of astrology east/west (astrology being of mild and embarrassing interest), I’m a Libran goat, inclining me to be one aesthetically inclined mo’ fo’ (monk, former.) My predilection for an appreciation of nice things is perhaps therefore cosmically justified (though I wouldn’t exactly consider myself an aesthete; Gourmet Magazine is for sissies).
Maybe this partly accounts for my fondness for some dictums of the late Tibetan master Chögyam Trungpa, who loved poetry, horses, women, art, and booze (not necessarily in that order), and often praised the elevation of material stuff in the service of actualizing one’s mind and life. Invoking the Dralas, the Tibetans say, that is, activating the intrinsic beauty and sanity of terrestrial existence at all levels. One does this by smartly adorning oneself, by appointing one’s living space, and by seriously but lightly attuning oneself to the nuances and true nature of things and how they might better remind us of the worlds that hide behind and within, or shine out from, this stuff we have come to dualistically, and a little arbitrarily, classify as matter.
So I do not dismiss it when a clasp is well-placed on a handbag, or when I get the chance to peruse an 8-foot long, gold Barry Flanagan hare leaping across my path at the shopping mall (a presence most people must wonder about between Easters). I take as much pleasure in a well-tailored suit as in a batch of well-cooked brown rice (which is to say, considerable), and I find as much insight in a well-built home or car as in a Texas sunrise. And why should we not have more pleasure, and allow ourselves to experience greater insight, from the mundane?
It’s a question at the heart of our lives here, at this moment, particularly in Texas, where pleasure seems to need to be spelled out with capital letters, in neon, then slathered in fat, fried, covered with jalapenos, and eaten off a stripper’s waxed and G-stringed ass (though even the G-strings are increasingly dispensed with, too much mystery). We fear and distrust sensual enjoyment, so rather than let it be a gentle and renewing presence in our lives, we both shun and worship it in its most distorted forms: pornography, gluttony, violence, and speed. For their part, the “ennobling” museums beat you over the head with culture in a rarified box, while the television kicks you in the gut with idiotic crassness and fear, and the careless construction of our cities make taking a stroll in an open wood or field a matter of a 90-minute commute on a freeway.
This is why, perhaps somewhat out of desperation, I have learned to appreciate the finer points of Northpark Mall, and see it as one of the places where the machinations of our civilization haven’t gone wholly wrong. In fact, maybe appreciably right. If malls are where we go to hang out, standing in for absent city centers, why shouldn’t art fill them, therefore becoming more integrated into our daily lives? I don’t think it matters that no one really looks at it. It soaks in and refines the atmosphere by degrees. Artists by definition are individuals attuned to the mythic, the aesthetic, the critical, and the beautiful, and all that these things represent for our culture and zeitgeist. Artists are evolutionary agents, helping to orient us within the uncertain tides of our near-complete conquest of life on earth. Through their own attempts at self-preservation and sanity in the tumult of 21st-century life, the rest of us can find renewal. This is actually art’s very function. It deserves to be experienced, more often and by more people, even if only unconsciously. It deserves to be as friendly and familiar as the heinous default “design” of the strip malls, overpasses, glass box industrial parks, and all the rest, allowing art’s rich, subtle subversiveness to act as a dialectical edge to the more purely commercial interests of the marketplace.
And the art itself might be better served by having the burden of conscious care lifted from it. If it just hides out as decoration, well, it’s suddenly much closer to its traditional role and less resented for it. I hope that Ray Nasher buys a few more malls, emptying his warehouses to stock them with Hockney posters and Serra arcs and Kiki Smith crystal spermatozoa. He’s doing the community and culture an appreciable, if unheralded, deed of service.
My only real critique of the collection itself is that I hope he broadens the scope of the work beyond the VH1 “We are the ’80s” theme, and shows something made by someone whose career peaked after the Reagan era — remember Mimmo Paladino, anyone? Enter the southwest entrance, by the concierge, for a refresher. And speaking of Italian Neo-Expressionism, that reminds me of that great gelato stand, upstairs by the Jamba Juice….
Images by Kevin Todora
Titus O'Brien is an artist and writer living in Dallas. He is a regular contributor to Glasstire and the Fort Worth Star Telegram.