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Bad Art by Good People: The Texas Sculpture Group

Sometime around 1960, either Ad Reinhardt or Barnett Newman (the Internet, which knows everything, can’t decide, and I wasn’t there) quipped “Sculpture is what you bump into when you back up to look at a painting.” I heard this old joke a half dozen times during the installation and opening of A Panoramic View: The Texas Sculpture Group at Lawndale Arts Center. Swapping old jokes, comparing welding scars, and a shared, slightly underdog identity is what the group is all about.

The joke is rubbish, of course: a bit of vintage snark akin to the old rock guitarists’ description of drummers as people who like to hang around with musicians. It reiterates the ancient snobbery of the clean-handed over those sweaty types who get things done, and is especially ironic in the mouths of artists and musicians, who for centuries have been rated below pen-and-paper intellectuals by the same logic.

The fact is that sculpture, through its ever-broadening scope as assemblage, performance, installation and social interaction, has been kicking painting’s ass on cultural relevance for decades. This show is not that, though. Sculpture, as practiced by the Texas Sculpture Group, is still the dirty-fingernails object-making that Plato dissed and Shakespeare, too, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: TSG members are “rude mechanicals”, and proud of it.

A Panoramic View was basically uncurated. Juror and self-described “fine art sculptor” James Surls, after encountering resistance to his first concept of an installation-heavy show, threw in the towel and chose, instead, one piece from each TSG member who applied, and membership is not selective: anyone willing to pony up the $150 yearly dues is in. Taking these two facts together, the show was what you would expect: wildly uneven, and vastly overcrowded. The order you saw imposed on this chaos is the work of Lawndale Exhibition Coordinator Dennis Nance, whose gallery maps guided the installation of nearly a hundred pieces.

TSG, as represented in the show, is more like a confederation of sub-clubs, organized by medium. There’s the welders’ union, the ceramists’ circle, the stone polishers’ guild, and the tree-limb painters’ coterie, each presenting works of impressive technical skill in their particular area.

Convention says art is made for viewers, but that’s not always true. In most cases, especially in hands-on sculpture, the satisfaction experienced by the maker in the manufacture of the work is their original and highest purpose; the physical leftovers are often an anticlimax. To call them bad art is to look at them from the wrong end; though they have been placed on public view, their real purpose was fulfilled in the studio, for an audience of one. If only they were allowed to stay there!

Unfortunately, though you can have a ball noodling on your guitar in your basement, at some point, if you’re going to continue to call yourself a musician, you’ve got to get up on stage. Likewise, to call yourself an artist, some cruel, unwritten law says you’ve got to show what you have made. With few exceptions, members of the Texas Sculpture Group are looking to their organization to negotiate this necessary spot of external validation for their work through the institutional channels of the artworld: galleries, museums, and non-profits like Lawndale.

A Panoramic View was more like a family barbecue than a professional art show. It was a joyful expression of a shared enthusiasm, and I’m not going to rain on it by picking and choosing. Of course the TSG members would love nothing better, since validation is the whole point, and they’re as anxious as owners at a dog show. Those whose works came out on top would crow, the larger number I trashed would gripe, but for what?

art critic stamp

There. That’s done. I’m not saying that many of the works on display would not have been better left in their shipping crates, but whether dogs or divas, I’m glad they were here.

 

The Texas Sculpture Group: A Panoramic View, was on view at Lawndale art Center from August 22 – September 27, 2014

 

also by Bill Davenport
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24 Responses

  1. Bill, why did you take the time to review this show if you weren’t going to give your public anything to even judge your critique by? Not a single picture or description of any of the work in the show? Criticism is about talking about art, not putting words in the mouth of the artists (My favorite example: “It was a joyful expression of a shared enthusiasm, and I’m not going to rain on it by picking and choosing. Of course the TSG members would love nothing better, since validation is the whole point, and they’re as anxious as owners at a dog show. Those whose works came out on top would crow, the larger number I trashed would gripe, but for what?” What? DUDE, are you trying to pick a fight!? You are one mean fker! There are some big sculptors out there! Where is the love and some professionalism? It’s time to see the wizard.

    And so we now must accept that all the members of Texas Sculpture Group are masturbating in their Texas basements with their dirty fingernails? Now who is “…reiterating the ancient snobbery of the clean-handed over those sweaty types”? This tired postmodern game that you play in your society of irony and clever concept wit, bashing anything containing any hint of craft or visual aesthetic beauty is no longer hip. Its not. Dada began it, made the point well, time to grow up. Dissing craft has been the easiest way to justify crap for way too long now and lots of people are getting tired of that. Sculpture is the making of objects. Its not performance and has no need to be social interaction or installation to qualify as worthwhile in the eyes of an audience

    I know you didn’t want to put your friends into the category of the TSG idiots but to set the record strait: Dennis was one of many under the guidance of Caprice Pierucci, TSG exhibits chair who “imposed order on this chaos” And no, James Surls said nothing about wanting to make the show an installation exhibit. We begged him to pair the show down to a few artists but being a guy with a heart, he wanted to give everyone a chance to be shown in this fantastic space that he pioneered.

    I will end my little rant, with this email quote about the show written by Christine West Executive Director of Lawndale: “We have received wonderfully positive feedback from both artists and visitors. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that this was the best show we have had EVER!”

    Still love you somehow Bill. xoxo – Steve

    1. Bill Davenport

      I took the time because it is an important Texas show, involving a lot of active local artists. It embodies some of the hands-on, do-it-yourself enthusiasm that makes Texas art interesting, but it is, by no measure, a show of great art. How could it be? With a hundred people and no curation?

      To ignore the show entirely would have been snobbish, (though easier). Instead, I tried to talk about what TSG means to the art scene, and to its members, explaining the value in a show that, from the usual art-first/people second viewpoint, wasn’t worth reviewing.

      I think you are under-valuing amateurism. “Amateur” originally meant “lover”, someone who does something for the love of it, it’s not “masturbating in their Texas basements.”

      I’m trying to find a way to applaud the efforts and seriousness of the TSG members, To praise their enthusiasm and their camaraderie, but not most of their products.

      For most people,”professional” aspirations in art are a misguided goal. It makes what could be a fulfilling and interesting activity into a frustrating and ultimately embittering struggle, or, worse, a mere business.

        1. Bill Davenport

          Yeah, but really good businesses manufacture coat hangers or perform outpatient medical care. They mostly don’t bother with artworks.

  2. Bill, I appreciate your reply and your remarks about wanting to talk about what TSG means to the art scene, to its members etc. But lets be frank here. Anyone reading this would never get that impression. I will grant you the benefit of the doubt for anyone else reading this because you have said it far more eloquently in your comment here (but personally im not buying it. There was some pretty harsh depreciating there!) Ok enough.

    My apologies for any harshness in my knee jerk defense earlier written last night with SSRI’s coursing thru my system. But to reiterate (and I’m not sure if James told you that or where you heard it) we (I personally) did ask that the show be trimmed to a few choices by the curator and we, (TSG and Lawndale), were a little miffed that the show was so large. And yes there were of course works that didn’t belong in a contemporary ‘fine art ‘exhibition of seasoned professionals but the organization is all inclusive and all of our shows, but for one a year, are curated. Surls had reasons that made good sense for doing it they way he did, I assure you, but I will let him explain them if need be. I won’t put words in his mouth…ahem.

    Otherwise on a personal note since I have the floor for a NY minute, Glass Tire usually keeps it fun, I think its one reason why you have so many fans. No doubt some clever folks there including yourself, but, I think that snarkey criticism is getting old the same way so much irony in the work out there is.

    Thanks Bill and Rainy for listening, thinking. Keep it up. xo

  3. Tony Falco

    Don’t apologize, Steve. You have a genuine comment and then back track? Don’t sound like Bill, who has back handed compliments peppered throughout his response to you. They are not the hand that feeds; if you should apologize to anyone, it should be the staff at Lawndale for having to deal with that mess.

  4. Hi Tony nice to see someone is watching. Lawndale has had their fair share of apologies for the “mess”! My apology was about attitude not content. In any case I appreciated the response. I recognize cloaked insincerity when I see it but I don’t play the clever insult game. I’m sure, as we all do, Bill has to keep his dignity too and a little sting is expected. He’s a critic. Being right is their job or they loose audience. Little sting there Bill! Bills a great guy, I can’t agree with a lot of what he says, (I love the Glassell building btw). What the artist gets out of art and what the audience makes of it is what’s most important. I have no use in remaining bitter or winning anything. I’m here to make positive changes. I do love to take advantage of a good platform though. So here’s something that’s floating around on a related subject; maybe Glass Tire will print it a an article:

    Saving Beauty – The Painful Rebirthing
    Of Visual Aesthetic in Contemporary Art

    By No One In Particular

    Beauty and craft are the two dirty words of the longest running trend in modern art history. Currently, the contemporary fine art – market / criticism / exhibition / education sphere has a dark cloud over it, coated in shiny glitter on the bottom. The story of ‘The Emperors New Clothes’ has become the standard and most accurate analogy for what has been happening for the last half century in the realm. Simply put, while conceptual beauty seems to have remained quantifiable in contemporary circles, well-crafted, visually beautiful (yes beautiful) works of art are rarely being accepted today as serious and worthy of fine art status.

    “But beauty can no longer be defined, there is no absolute!”

    Bull hockey! Don’t let that old argument depress you any longer friends. It’s not true. You know beauty. There aren’t many ugly sunsets out there and we all know slop when we see it. Artists have been hitting the beauty button in our brains for millennia. Conceptually and visually. That’s what artists are for.

    Aesthetic allure was banned with all “absolute truths” decades ago by a construct called postmodern. Truth can only be defined as what IS for certain, and the only thing known for certain, is what IS at this moment. Beauty is what brings us into the moment, where extraneous thought is silent because we are listening, raptured. The music of an artwork that makes one want to listen is visual aesthetic. Its poetry, the conceptual.

    I don’t have a name. There is no copyright… read on. Spread the word.

    When visual art isn’t visual

    What happened after 1900, when we began defining experiments in art history as movements every few years? Like adolescents, we drop anything fashionably outdated — however innovative or incredible, aborting enlightening work that could have been, yet isn’t considered timely. Today, a skill, a technique, a form cannot remain relevant, contemporary, even when new mastery or ingenuity is shown. A movement used to be left to simmer, to soak up the spices in the pot, to refine… not even named until fully burning itself out.

    We have run out of isms… Perpetuating the ‘new’ has become a game of trying to break all the rules, generating the least art-like objects and certifying them with the most clever infusions. Add a few sticks to qualify it as an object and voila, you have something new. The formula has become the norm. The easiest way to make visual art that is unlike any visual art before is to make non-visual, visual art. The Visual has increasingly become secondary to witticism, pomp, ego, marketing and concept; converted into theoretical rhetoric, a mere means to making a statement, a proving ground for wit. The uninitiated are left wondering why, but afraid to ask for fear of being scorned as ignorant.

    Noam Chomsky, referring to the over-intellectualization of art theorists, made this comparison to scientific theory in an interview: “They have big words. We’ll have big words. They draw far-reaching conclusions. We’ll draw far-reaching conclusions. We’re just as prestigious as they are.”

    The perpetual adolescent

    Dada and Abstract Expressionism at their infancy (along with other movements) were indeed, wild experiments, a revolt and a slap in the face of the establishment. As a taste for these efforts grew, then so did the need to rebel further and the notion that new art must be just that: wild experimentation, revolt and a slap in the face of the establishment. This was indeed wonderful at first! It had to happen! We were freed to investigate as many new forms, media, and styles as our hearts desired. However…

    The well-intended postmodernist rejection of ‘absolute truth’ claims began as a reactionary move from the stage into the street like Dada, but seems to have ended up a stage dive into a drunken crowd. The endless irony, purposefully careless spatter on anything other than canvass, the resolutely tacky assemblage, the oh-so-shocking penis depiction and the classic tongue-in-cheek, comical, pop-culture icon smear have become ever so common, and even more boring than the verbose bullshit which certifies it’s art. Imagine if punk rock had evolved from its revolutionary genesis, into accepted norm, to ultimately become the standard musical genre of the century.

    Problem is, the art department hasn’t moved on like the music and fashion departments, where the idea of cool has evolved into a healthier integration. A walk today through a record store will reveal a diversity of individuals of varying ages and cultures who are listening to any combination of musical genres and wearing anything from the last seven decades; finally realizing after a century, that experimental can entail refining the classics. There is good in all that had come before and worth a try on. Music and clothing are easily affordable so brand popularity is ultimately dictated by the masses. Fine art trends, however, are manipulated by the few in power. More on that in a bit.

    Craft? God forbid!

    When Ai Weiwei pours a hundred million hand painted sunflower seeds onto a museum floor, we are impressed, moved by the Herculean effort, prompted to ponder labor abuses in the third world. Primarily we are conceptually challenged, whereas a painterly, surreal, Mark Ryden illustration may affect us on a different primal level. Neither artist should be overlooked. It’s the exclusion of any expression having merit that is depraved. But stroll through the late twenty-ish century wing of the art museum of the future: There’s little to marvel at other than a bit of history, worn jokes, the mystery of why penises and vaginas were so shocking and a profusion of experiments without conclusions.

    This isn’t, of course, about negating the experimental, the novel, the political, conceptual or the ironic. This is about invalidating the intuitively known values of aesthetics. The astounding craft and undeniable picturesque beauty of a political Diego Rivera mural leaves us with something brilliant, though the depictions have played out and become history. The knowledge that a bronze is not painted Styrofoam is part of the value in experiencing a Rodin. The seamless construction of a Koonz, the complexities and material use in a Kienholz are all part of what make the work ‘work.’ Craftsmanship is the art of seducing materials into speaking ideas. This, few can pull off well.

    Who is mucking this all up?

    Collectors share some of the blame for following the queue of investment buyers or the advice of dealers as their main direction instead of listening to their own darkening hearts. But there’s little today for them to truly fall in love with or understand from an aesthetic or spirit borne perspective that isn’t suffocated under hype.

    Museums, our certifiers of historic significance, can take a chunk of the fault. The contemporary curatorial position is a ladder climbing institution. To be at the top one must be in the know of secrets, and in curator terms that means finding and ‘interpreting’ something no one else comprehends. That work is getting easier and easier to find. We have such a glut of lazy young artists today; the lure of easy fame and money seems accessible by merely manifesting clever ideas in the most economical way possible. This is what academia and the market are telling them sells.

    Critics will commonly follow the trend of what looks like a cutting edge. It’s the fulfillment of being in authority that has driven so many throughout history.
    And dealers. We come full circle here. They are the sellers of the emperor’s clothes, and like curators, convincing patrons of the value and exclusivity of their artist brands is paramount. Somewhere along the recent timeline of art history, the hard work of an individual craftsman/artist became perceived as middle-class. The shakers of the high art world are almost exclusively heavily educated, wealthy and crave the power of influence. Rubbing elbows with the village maestro is less appealing than owning something coated in brilliant, theoretical honey and associated with the wealth it takes to employ a factory of workers to create.

    But genius is not synonymous with education or success. Most visual, less verbally disposed artists will avoid confrontation with those who could viciously stomp on their ideas or stunt their reputations. And too often the technically challenged, not so visual artist, leaning heavily on verbal concept, will have more time outside the studio to spend grant writing and is probably communicating better with the man. Harsh generalizations yes, but generally the case.

    Be brave

    This analysis is meant to convey an understanding; blame is not really where our action should be. The action comes from being brave enough to admit that we do not see the emperor’s new clothes. Artists and true art lovers must stand up to those obsessed with left-brain speculation by using their highly developed right brains. Don’t allow an argument filled with scientific sounding utterances and references to the abstruse back you into a corner. The emperor is naked, his balls are hanging in the wind and yet ‘they’ will go on describing his amazing robes with undeniable intellect. The right curve, the perfect shadow, a flawless seam, an inscrutable expression, will tell a thousands words for every word they can write about it.

    If we don’t speak up about what is happening today, we risk de-evolution into atrophy, of our ability and the memory (of what mastery is) needed to create assets like joy, inspiration, inexplicable bliss, psychological and spiritual fulfillment through visual means.

    Plagiarize, print, post, repost, send and spew. Be brave.

    September 2014

    1. STEVE, too bad I didn’t have this to read at my “Looking At Art” episode last week. Thank you for the effort. Maybe your essay also says why I quit renewing “Adforum.” I spent much time with the Lawndale exhibit.
      Some very rewarding visual experiences.

      1. The 20th century has only been 100 years (most of them are heh) but we need to finally realize that jumping from one thing to the next without developing anything is over. All the new technology gave us a lot to work with but like the centuries before us which had less to deal with in terms of new technology, we need to refine what we know now and start making “fine” art again. The toddler is an adult now. I hope you will find numerous other opportunities to “Plagiarize, print, post, repost, send and spew and Be brave.” Thanks HJ!

    2. Well put, Steve. I loved your music analogy.

      The hype is becoming more and more transparent. Purely conceptual work feels contrived more often than not. I don’t believe it has the substance to survive on it’s own. In any other field we learn from the past. Imagine mathematics if we ignored Pythagoras or Archimedes. Conceptual art pisses on the past, it asks us to view it as if it’s isolated in time, independent of our aesthetic history. Clever gimmicks are a crutch for the lame.

      We are genetically programmed both towards aesthetic preference and for intellectual inquisition. Why isolate the two? Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but it is statistically quantifiable. I goes beyond an arbitrary personal preference. *insert sunset analogy here, or mankind’s preference towards savannah type landscapes with a water source, and maybe mountains in the background; a common theme in the idea of evolutionary aesthetics.

      There’s beauty to be found in complexity. Humans respond well when there are multiple layers of interest. We can see that in how we choose our sexual partners, or how we pass our free time. Things with minimal layers don’t hold our interest long. The single layer view of the arts has survived by artificial means for far to long. In the arts why not add to the layers of interest, letting them exist simultaneously rather than systematically isolating them? Combining aesthetic appreciation with concept is the next logical step in art’s evolution.
      We’ve been taught to feign interest in excrement. This practice is merely low hanging fruit for anyone who wants to seem cultured. If people want to roll around in sh!t and talk about how sublime it is, let them. I’ll just stand and watch, life is too short, and valuable to waste time molding my thoughts about art to fit a contrived institutional view.

      Diversity or death are the only two options I see for visual art. It’s time to throat punch the institutions and leave them gasping for air while the artists are free to forge the path that is right for them without resistance or scrutiny. If people want to keep making art out of nothing and spend all their time justifying it, I may question their authenticity, but it’s their choice. There shall be no more movements.

  5. As a painter/ sculptor and a show dog owner, I just have to get another comment in, bless my heart:
    Steve- you and the Board of TSG rock. Your work and commitment are what make us pony up the $150 a year, and consider it a good bet.
    Bill- its the same as my last week’s comment. You’re right! But Jeeeesus- yeah, we all had the same reaction when we discovered we were just in another membership show. But we support the TSG because they- down south- are doing something that we – in DFW- only bitch about: they are working their butts off to get Texas artists noticed on a national level by partnering with the International Sculpture Center and the benefits that that offers. As in- a chance to be curated into an East Coast show along with Chicago artists. Bingo! I will Pay Pal that hunnert n fifty bucks happily, and smile like I was in my right mind.

  6. This little piggy went to market, and had roast beef.
    This little piggy stayed home, and had roast beef
    This little piggy had roast beef, and then more (roast beef)
    This little piggy had none…not! He had roast beef!
    And this little piggy cried “I made it to the roast beef too!” All the way home.

  7. And what did this superficial, hypercritical review do today to improve the world? Did Mr. Davenport eat something that upset his stomach at the opening? Did his mother criticize him too much as a child?

    Please, this tirade was not even amusing and certainly degrading to Glasstire. Can you please try to raise the intellectual discourse?

  8. Dan Havel

    I hate it when my fingernails get dirty when I masturbate sculpture, but its just what I do. I agree with Steve. Sorry the art got in the way of your superior aesthetics and conceptual longings. Bill, come over to Art League to see our physical leftovers after we crafted our sculpture. There is only one sculpture in the main gallery, so it might be hard to ignore. We left paintings off the wall so you would n’t bump into the sculpture…..

  9. “Sculpture is what you bump into when you back up to look at a painting.”

    hehehehehehheheeheh

    I’ve got one. Ive got one.

    How many performance artists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

    anybody? anybody?

    I DON’T KNOW I LEFT AFTER 45 MINUTES!!!

    hahahahhahahahah

    *sniffle*

  10. mark s smith

    So glad there is still some salt, vinegar, and the energy to bother to have this commentary and FYI we painters have dirty hands too.

  11. It’s important for us to hear what Bill Davenport has to say, as he is the well groomed voice of the system, and of the art world elite. I loved where he started to go with sculpture’s cultural relevance, though I honestly don’t agree that painting as a whole is less relevant than sculpture. It’s a case by case basis, and blanket statements printed for the masses don’t serve us well.

    Separating the entire TSG from what his view of sculpture is baffles me. Art crosses boundaries, it doesn’t conform to them. Group shows such as this make no pretentious attempts to exclude, yet he viewed it as an attempt for “external validation”. Fair enough, he probably could have gotten away with saying that any attempt for an artist to show work is an attempt for external validation. No person is an island, it’s human nature. But let us not stop there. Would art critics exist without external validation? I think not. Would artists still exist without it?

    If we as artists don’t learn how to respond critically to this kind of preconditioned, esoteric drivel the battle for aesthetics will be lost. Concept without quality pushes art into the realm of pure philosophy (which does have it’s own beauty). Purely conceptual art may have started as a much needed rebellion, but the flock has fallen in line. The institutions are serving the cool-aide. We don’t have to drink it.

    No deluge of verbal vomit will ever replace aesthetic practice. Yet people are being primed to write off aesthetic value. I understand how pure craft without concept can seem banal, but to group even the majority of these sculptors into that category seems a bit premeditated and misinformed. Or perhaps just unobservant.

    Every artist in every show has something to teach us. When we are the audience, it’s our job to listen, not all language is spoken. This show embraced sculpture from pure craft to the more conceptual. It did not enforce a hierarchy, or drink the cool-aid that flows so freely. It simply showcased people of varying skill, and conceptual ability who weren’t afraid to throw a punch in defense of aesthetics.

  12. Dirt Hands McClud

    Wacky potato-chip flavors have more cultural relevance than sculpture. What’s the hullabaloo? Likewise, social practice is a Netflix documentary no one has ever seen. I don’t know what the *really* important thing is. (Ugh, how oppressive.) But, I think the important thing with the above is the sentence. Nice craft! But very poor social skills.

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