Last week, a Facebook friend of mine — an artist living in Dallas whom I’ve never actually met — caught my attention when he posted this on Facebook after his recent visit to NY:
Walking through the galleries in Chelsea… the work that we saw felt different than art here in Dallas. Part of the difference was presentation. The Thomas Demand curated show at Matthew Marks was very expensive to pull off. There was a massive photo mural by Demand, angled walls built with angled tinted windows, Magritte paintings, all of the work focusing on “domesticated nature.” Even in the smaller galleries… something seemed different. What it was is slippery, and I can’t quantify exactly what felt so different about those galleries as I look back. Thoughts?
I immediately commented: “Daring curatorial vision?” To which my Facebook friend replied: “Yes. Not only were there big ideas, but they were executed with precision. How do we raise the bar here?”
I haven’t responded to that question via Facebook yet, so consider this post my answer, Facebook friend.
I realized, FB friend, that you had pinned exactly the itchy-thing bothering me lately about art shown here — that lack of vision executed with precision, and also a lack of daring. Although a fresh new round of gallery shows just kicked off the Fall season, I’m not particularly pumped about any of it — all of them, save the Todora/Zilm FWCA show and a few others, are shows with work by local-ish artists who make good work that’s not very exciting. While wacky installations wouldn’t suit the spirit of any of the work of these artists, I certainly can’t help but wonder what sort of challenging, unconventional or imaginative shows could have been mounted in their stead if the culture and culture-markets of Dallas were a little more hospitable to such things. Too often Dallas’ galleries focus too much on the commercial aspect of the work they represent, at the cost of any real ideas, when in reality gallerists have this tremendous space to surprise us and guide us into seeing better– to ask us to think, build up new vocabularies by culling from old ones, and point us in new intellectual and aesthetic directions.
Granted, commercial galleries aren’t museums — being curatorially adventurous isn’t their aim; presenting and moving the work of their artists, so that careers move forward and mouths are fed, is. Christina Rees at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts is able to put up progressive, stick-it-to-the-man work by local and internationally known artists in part because, as a university-run gallery, she’s not selling any of the work, so she has the freedom to execute curatorial ideas that elucidate a particular theme, make a particular accusation, or herald some big idea without worries about making money or paying anyone. Some of the area community colleges are taking advantage of that same liberty; Ryder Richards at Richland College and Joshua Goode at Tarrant County College have brought some innovative work to those campuses, as well. Then, of course, there is the always ambitious, though hit-or-miss, space at Centraltrak, which is only ever as good as its director and the artists in residence there (and there are currently have some interesting ones).
All that being said, aside from the sometimes-spotty successes of our non-profit spaces, FB friend, you are right to notice, and be flummoxed by, the great disparity between the quality and innovation of commercial gallery exhibitions elsewhere and the ones we put up here. Apart from the logistical assumptions that the NY art scene has more money and more access, I guess, to institutions or collectors that would help facilitate a show like the one at Matthew Marks in NY, I’m not entirely sure why something of the caliber of Thomas Demand’s curation of this show could not happen here — gathering contemporary work by a handful of emerging and established artists under the umbrella of a theme, in relation to older works of art or some other object(s), also on view.
To be fair, there have been a handful of group shows in Dallas that have succinctly explored a theme, most notably the drawing show INK, Inc. at Holly Johnson Gallery last year, which exhibited sophisticated works on paper from a wide-array of artists and was beautifullly installed; and this past summer, Conduit Gallery also put up Wunderkammer, curated by Philip March Jones of Institute 183 in Lexington, KY, that was an ambitious exploration of the theme of contemporary cabinets of curiosities. But shows like this are rare, and while they are important, they are not entirely of the kind we’re after in this particular discussion, either.
What makes a show like Thomas Demand’s at Matthew Marks so compelling is its excellence on every level. From the collection of vigorous work in various media by a disparate set of artists, to the challenging, ambitious and thoughtful nature of the installation itself , to the corollaries it anchors itself in historically (via writings by Rene Magritte), to the clear, intelligent press release — the entire “package” of the show is complete and of the highest standard.
Again, I’ll grant that it’s not the primary role of commercial galleries to exhibit work in the curated museum format. They shouldn’t, in fact, do it that often, as it would detract from the good, singular attention that needs to be given to their roster of artists. But my point is this, FB friend: certainly, Dallas galleries, and, perhaps especially, independent curators and artists themselves, need to do more about making shows like the one at Matthew Marks happen in order to raise the bar on quality and innovation in our own art scene. We need to see more visual compendiums that challenge and engage outside the museum setting, but that are executed with all the clarity of vision and installation precision that we expect from those institutions. Like so many things in Dallas, FB friend, raising the bar may be an instance of cultural fill-in-the-blanks — make it happen. If we want an expanded vision, we need visionaries.