Home > Feature > Panhandle Odyssey, Part I

Panhandle Odyssey, Part I

In Albany, TX

After recently noticing a listing on Glasstire for the exhibition Samuel Colt: Arms, Art, and Invention at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, I half-jokingly suggested to the editors of GT that they send me to review it. My dad is a gunsmith and avid collector, and I received a firearm every birthday and Christmas from age five until I left for college. Most every weekend was spent at a gun range or country junk pile or washed out arroyo, anywhere I could help my dad refine his science of destruction. Needless to say, I was well steeped in gun lore and the finer points of their aesthetic and engineering accomplishments. For Dad, guns are art, pure and simple. And even now, I still keep a Colt under the mattress (take note, angry stalkers).

To my surprise, without any trace of irony GT acquiesced, with one small condition: that I cover everything else from Dallas to Amarillo. As long as they were paying for gas, I was game. One last west Texas road trip before heading to Chicago at the end of the month…

Entrance to the Old Jail Art Center in Albany

And so began a three day whirlwind of driving, guns and art. Most of the drive time was spent listening to a five-disc long interview with writer/theorist Robert Anton Wilson, talking about Korzybski’s time binding, Leary’s 8-Circuit Model of Consciousness, his years working for Playboy and the absurdity/veracity of various conspiracy theories. Driving is one of my favorite meditations, and a good time to feed your brain weird ideas. So, contemplating Pound’s relationship with Joyce and the twisted nature of my own reality tunnel, under cloud strewn, bright blue Texas skies, I burned up the miles and a bunch of $4-a-gallon gas.

First stop: The Old Jail Art Center, Albany.
The director of the Old Jail, Margaret Blagg, pointed out to me that Glasstire wrongfully lists them on the Panhandle events page, and she’s right. Albany is less than three hours from Dallas (versus about seven from Amarillo), nestled in some of the prettier country in North Texas, and it happens to have one of its nicer courthouses. The Art Center is just one block east of it, on the road in from Cisco.

The actual Old Jail proper was closed for renovations, but the bulk of the galleries were still open. The entrance courtyard is scattered with rusting steel and patina-ed sculptures of dubious 20th century provenance, and struck me as sort of sad. Oh, forged bronze abstraction, how cruel the fates! The main gallery past the entrance is a handsome, burgundy-walled 19th century affair. surprising me with a trio of Renoirs (reminding me once again why he’s my least favorite French painter ever), a stereotypical Modigliani portrait and a slew of funky mid-century modern paintings. John Erickson’s Space Scape (1951) looks like a refugee from a Jetson’s episode, and made me giggle. There’s an unusual Paul Klee painting that I loved, but then, I nearly always love me some Paul Klee.

Henri Fantin-Latour...Nature Morte aux Roses, 1899...Oil on canvas...Old Jail Art Center

A Caillebotte landscape, presumably of the south of France, looked like the hilly, dry pastures surrounding Albany, while a tiny, precisely observed Fantin-Latour, Still Life of Roses, left me smitten, mysteriously imprinting itself into my consciousness. I really enjoy little selections like this, when you can spend some time with works, gleaming like little treasures, that you might just blow by in another context. Fort Worth sculptor Cam Schoepp‘s marble Bench, occupying the center of the room, is a great piece, but is unfortunately flanked by two functional wooden numbers 12 inches to either side, like would-be muggers. Art loses to decoration once again.

A newer space devoted to contemporary art features the work of another Fort Worther, J.C. Pace III. Positively, it struck me as a very good way to introduce art since, say, 1960 to the kids parading through the museum on their way to art camp, or to other museum-goers living in the area. It’s all metal — steel, bronze, iron, cast, forged, found. A lawnmower is cast whole in stainless steel, affixed to a wall; there are a series of skillets hung on another, with cast bronze vegetables affixed to their surfaces. The room is dominated by a large bronze tree, suspended with roots exposed, echoing bare branches above. A series of large light boxes show what appear to be giant x-rayed vegetables. The boxes are stainless steel, clearly fabricated by the artist’s hand, and distractingly rough hewn. The decision to have them powered by thick yellow cables, haphazardly exposed and running across the floor, seemed especially senseless. The brown canvas walls were smudged, dinged, and punctured with thousands of holes from previous installations, adding to a sense that the whole thing wasn’t quite ready for showtime.

J.C. Pace, III...Three Avocados, 2007...Bronze...

I’m impressed that a young artist (born 1977) has been able to martial the resources to fabricate all this stuff. Outside, the giant bronze avocados alone must have cost many thousands to produce. In fact, I initially thought this must be some old local guy I’d never heard of who’s been placing his fruits and veggies in front of bank buildings nationwide for years. But it makes more sense now. This really is sort of first show fare. The nature versus art thing is a bit cutesy, and all the literal weight just sort of made it a drag for me. The sculptures seem to exist in some uncomfortable zone between high end décor and fine art; between pseudo-pop regionalism and 21st century production-driven, high concept practice. Only the production is too rough to be one thing, and the ideas too flimsy to be another. Again, his greatest accomplishment is getting it all made, and scoring a show next to a room of established masters, however major or minor. As I always say, if you know where to market yourself (Pace’s galleries are in upscale tourist communities throughout the Rocky Mountains), you can make some bank. It wasn’t doing much for me, but what do I know? I’m obviously not in his market.

A little room of folksy Joe Barrington toy truck-with-dinosaur sculptures didn’t exactly fire me up either.

An astounding collection of scary pre-Columbian artifacts and figurines did sort of grab me by the hoo hoo – all those short-limbed, big head figurines and grimacing death gods, just sitting there in glass vitrines, senselessly arranged in brightly lit rows. I just figure it can’t be good. The spirit of Tloloquelzxtlolxcatlolatzl cries out for blood! Creepy. It made me sad that some of the most beautiful things in the museum, two Hopi pots by Bernadette and Dorothy Track, were stuck in a corner, in the bottom of a shelf case housing guns and other cowboy accoutrement, in a western ranching historical display. It seemed a metaphorically apt placement.

Afterwards, I grabbed some lunch across the town square, at a little joint called Our Daily Grind. If you make an effort, you can usually find a place on the road in Texas that isn’t another Whataburger, Dairy Queen or scary broke-down double-wide slinging grits and eggs. Three generations of women, from what I’m assuming are the same family, hustled to get out the homemade grub, which while tasteless was at least fresh ? just steer clear of the new "wrap sandwich." The daily special, pasta and salad, looked bigger and better, but I only saw it after I’d already ordered. Grandma, though, needed to get her temper under control. She barked at customers, slammed down plates, and generally seemed put out by the whole business. The Soup Nazi routine may go over in Manhattan, but it doesn’t translate quite as charmingly in small-town Texas.

Next stop: Abilene, 20 miles southwest.

Wind turbines outside Abilene

One thing you tune into when you get away from any central metroplex is that so-called art of any kind becomes a more or less welcome thing. We are a utilitarian people, we Americans, none more so than Texans. On the whole around these parts, wherever humans have made their mark, they’ve tended to leave one aesthetically blighted expanse of chain restaurants and strip malls. One would begin to think we just don’t have a clue. But it’s not all bad news.

I find a pleasant exception in the proliferation of giant wind turbines across the state. Miles of them on the drive down to Abilene had me stopping the car just to enjoy their majesty. As pure aesthetic objects, I find them the most beautiful human-crafted things around. That they may help solve any number of global crises is gravy.

Linda Murray at the Abilene Center for Contemporary Art

We’ve run out of earth to conquer, and we’re increasingly rubbing elbows with each other on an overcrowded planet. Necessarily, we turn inward, and begin to work on underdeveloped hermeneutic and epistemological faculties; i.e., Aunt Ethel heads down to the local art fair with the kids to see them some pi’tures. And this is a good thing for everybody.

 If every city seems to be building new museums or expanding old ones, often in order to display contemporary art, many smaller towns are seeing a proliferation of galleries, museums and art centers to encourage the locals to stay and the tourists to visit. The Abilene Center for Contemporary Art (ACCA) is a vibrant example (as is the Old Jail). ACCA is right downtown, the hub for the monthly First Friday Art Walk, which I unfortunately just missed, showing up a day early.

Mary K. Kiel Huff and Anthony Huff

Begun as an artist co-op, the Center has graduated into an official non-profit. There are about 70 dues-paying members, with I guess only a third of that number especially active. A number of first floor galleries concentrate on monthly solo or small group shows of members. The big front space was in process of installation by artists Mary K. Kiel Huff and Anthony Huff, of their free and funky regional expressionist paintings and sculptures. I liked their spirit.

Work by Larry Millar

Another space featured the work of Larry Millar. Fighting my way through a black, sheet plastic maze, I entered a tiny, low-lit gallery, hung with a series of tile-like paintings that are made solely with mud of various hues. The mud’s a nice idea, and some of the abstract pieces were like pleasant mandalas, but others had ruinous cartoon frogs and goofy text. Other assemblages with bones and rocks and twigs look like the type of collections any kid who’s spent any time outdoors could make. Ok, Millar loves nature. Now, how to make actual art out of that? The quandary of quandaries…I’d recommend getting familiar with Lothar Baumgarten, Hamish Fulton and (forgive me) Andy Goldsworthy.

Diptych by Philip Van Keuren

I quite liked the photo diptychs of SMU professor Philip Van Keuren in the rear-most first floor space, which is the only space devoted to non-members, and to photographers only. Modest, thoughtful, mature and evocative, they reminded me why I sometimes really like photography — which still often comes as a surprise. Very old school, in a dreamy, silvery Atget sort of way, but with a distinctly modern sensibility. Sometimes, novelty is simply overrated. Upstairs, artist studios surround another gallery that often features group shows of member artists responding to a theme. Let’s just say the less said about a show in the middle of Texas titled Pie R Squared the better, though the general approach is a great way to create community and give artists something to push off from. In the conference room, wrenching photographs of Ugandan refugees by Michael Friberg were a geo-political gut-check.

Exterior of the Grace Museum in Abilene

A short walk down the street took me to the Grace Museum. Built in 1909 as the Grace Hotel, by the 70s it was abandoned and destined for demolition, like many similar downtown landmarks nationwide. Luckily, it was spared that fate, completely restored to become the centerpiece of a downtown renaissance, and the wedding reception capitol of Abilene. It also houses art, history and children’s museums on separate floors. I was sorely disappointed to have just missed a Jaune Quick-to-See Smith show, which made Art of the Automobile all the more underwhelming. Billed as the "first ever museum exhibition of the Automotive Fine Art Society," it looks exactly like it sounds: lots of lovingly airbrushed illustrations of cars in cliché period settings, and a few zippy abstract swooshing car sculptures.

The boot shop at the Grace Museum

I liked the classic boot factory upstairs better, part of a small history museum devoted to Abilene lore. The children’s museum was no bigger, but the bright plastic pseudo-science displays had the biggest aesthetic impact of the day. I loved the kid-sized, anatomical sliding panel sandwich. It’s good to remind the wee ones how we’re all these skin bags of guts and goo, without having to have surgery or a car accident. I bet Abilene produces some surgeons thanks to that display and the giant Operation game board next to it.

Then it was off to Lubbock. My grandfather was an endocrinologist who taught at Texas Tech for 30 years and I spent many long summer weeks there as a kid, but hadn’t done anything more than drive through it in nearly three decades. I was looking forward to seeing a whole different side of a town that exists for me only through the misted lens of childhood memory.

To be continued…

next time: Joe Arredondo introduces Lubbock to good gin; I visit a dozen Lubbock artists; the Bruno houses; encounters with Stanley Marsh 3 and his minions; Smithson’s Ramp; wild turkeys and pronghorns in Palo Duro Canyon; and the deadly genius of Samuel Colt.


Titus O’Brien is an artist and writer who is currently moving from Dallas to Chicago.

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