Art Criticism and Dallas: Part One

by Christina Rees August 29, 2014


In these pages, Bill Davenport and I tag team the Wednesday and Thursday column slots every week, and I read his installments as an admirer watching a precise and unerringly honest writer give us his assessment of art, usually in Houston, which means he’s doing his job as a real critic when it comes to writing about local artists and their shows. And while it’s thrilling to read his take each time, I remember my younger self in the 1990’s doling out my version of the truth about art here in Dallas in various publications, and the flashback makes me feel a little adrenalized and sick, but also newly resigned.

Whatever else I’ve been writing here week after week—calling out institutions, assessing pop-culture phenomena, pointing out regional drawbacks (and editing some of Glasstire’s other frank reviews)—one thing I’ve avoided is writing an honest critical review of a local artist’s work. But just as I understood back when I started out as a full-time critic in print journalism, I know that artists here work hard and the good ones want real feedback. When I use the term “art criticism,” I don’t mean critical-for-the-sake-of-controversy criticism, but rather the kind of writing that communicates whether or not an artist’s work accomplishes what the artist has set out to accomplish, and whether or not that original impulse was something interesting to pursue in the first place. But these things are endlessly nuanced and the gray areas are vast; I’m not sure I even believe in black and white anymore. I might not have understood that as a youngster the way I do now.

I’ll restate something here that shouldn’t have to be restated for the umpteenth time, and yet it does. People in the art community here are too polite. (Except in comments sections, of course.) The idea that the Dallas scene lacks criticality gets written about rarely (kudos to Peter Simek at Front Row for being one of the only art writers here who consistently calls it like he sees it) but talked about behind closed doors a lot. There’s a lot of art out there, but locals like to pretend all growth is good and everyone is a winner. No scene or artist can evolve in that kind of environment.

There are too many artists and gallerists here who take for granted that they’re graded on a steep curve by fans who don’t know any better. And artists or fans of art who say they don’t want or need real criticism are probably in the right city if they’ve settled in Dallas, because most all the writing around art in this town is just lifestyle writing. That’s what visual-art journalism means in Dallas, because its southern roots make it allergic to anything critical. Back in the late ‘90s, I might have predicted that by 2014 Dallas would be awash in real critical dialogue around art, but that might have been optimistic when looking at a region bent on catering to money rather than culture (and catering to culture only as it relates to money). With few notable exceptions, what I see instead of real journalism is a flood of would-be artists and scenesters who love being big fish in a shallow pond, and glossy magazines who like to run flattering portraits of them.

Much of the art world at large has sunk to this level of lifestyle and market reporting, so Dallas can comfort itself with the fact that it’s pretty much like everywhere else now. The big new Arts District and our region’s population growth has put Dallas in the larger spotlight of national scrutiny, but mostly Dallas’ art scene is just a more populous and populist version of the “same as it ever was.” We’ve still got our universities and institutions, academics and curators, cliques, galleries, and collectors: the ingredients of an art scene. But most local artists remain voyeurs of the international art world, not participants in it, and having more artists on the ground making more noise hasn’t necessarily elevated the conversation.

In 2000 I stopped writing criticism and started doing everything else around art, both here and in other cities—curating, teaching, running a commercial gallery and then a non-profit, doing art fairs, going to auctions, being married to a professional artist. I’ve seen many bright and dark corners of the art world, and developed what I hope is a clear-eyed view of the bigger picture over many years, and I’m positioned to write about art in a way I couldn’t have imagined in 1997. Bill may be rolling his eyes that I’m just now getting around to this.

But I am getting around to it, finally, and the art season is starting up again.





Ekrem Serdar August 31, 2014 - 15:23

Do you think Dallas (or TX in general) is unique in it’s abundance of boosterism as opposed to critique? I’m not sure. I feel like it’s a general problem everywhere.

I do think a brief, gut response, no matter how “drive by” – like the kind RJ Harrington does on Trust Your ArtGut in Austin – is often helpful to get the conversation going, and help zero-in on some issues. It can feel cruel to offer an unrefined dismissal to anything that’s not Abramovic or Jeff Koons (who’ll never feel the effect of critique anyway), but hey, most people are adults and can deal with it. A little more “drive-by” all around might get the blood flowing.

Robert Boyd September 1, 2014 - 07:07

“most people are adults and can deal with it.”

In my experience, many people (if not most) remember every bad or even ambivalent review I ever wrote about their work and can quote back least favorite phrases from it to me years later.

Ekrem Serdar September 1, 2014 - 16:50

ha. Well, being sensitive doesn’t mean they’re not adults, though “should deal with it” would be more accurate. I guess when the general landscape is boosting everyone, it’s hard not to feel unfairly singled out.

Alexandertroup April 22, 2017 - 21:16

This is a good respone to what is Dallas Art as a cultural scene or visionary event should become as a new city has evolved out of an old era that had a very good time indeed….and having grown up in a circus of how important the people who can promote such a long time event since the 1930s todays art needs two voices to be heard while one mentor from the Morning News my folks knew and I have studied these past 5 years was Raul Askew who wrote good very good themes on the Modern Dallas. And how it would become and so your story here opens up not old wounds an grudges but where is good taste to continue to support the native original artist that make such a real Texas theme. Alexander Troup. Dallas Art since the mid 20th Century.

Marshall K. Harris August 31, 2014 - 20:07

Two interesting reads if interested, reflecting on the art of art criticism is first “The enemy of art. Criticism from Plato to the present” by Dick Henderson and secondly , “What happened to art criticism?” By James Elkins. Elkins does a marvelous job of examining what he suggests to be the seven headed hydra of criticism.

I agree that the discussions of art are particularly polite in these here parts mostly because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and because a considerable discussion requies investigative knowledge, direct exposure and comparative examples on which to base opinions. You can’t say if something is good or bad if you yourself don’t know what is good or bad. Art and art criticism it seems has become like developmental soccer where everyone gets a trophy. I trust that is going to change?

I’m interested to see what comes from this refreshed discourse.

Antoaneta Melnikova-Hillman September 1, 2014 - 15:42

Politeness is the ingredient that takes the salt out of the dish and everything becomes tasteless and mushy.There are not brave enough critics to say-The king is naked! Too much sweetness and bypassing the bitter point of truth.

Loli Fernandez (-A Kolber) September 1, 2014 - 16:16

And it is different in Houston? If so, how? Show me please>

peter briggs September 1, 2014 - 16:39

On occasion autobiographies can be interesting.

thx September 2, 2014 - 00:17


Dave Hickey September 1, 2014 - 17:07

There are no economies of scale in art or music. A million Texas artists wouldn’t improve the likelihood of good art being produced in a very bad place.

Meredith Jack September 1, 2014 - 18:06

As usual, an insightful and provocative statement; a million artists, period, wouldn’t guarantee that more “good art” would be produced. But, which is the “very bad place”? Dallas ? I might agree, I’ve never had an outstanding time in Dallas or Texas ? I’d definitely agree if we were talking politics, but art, not so much; there’s a lot of interesting things being made but not always shown.

Alexandertroup April 22, 2017 - 21:20

An old observer who knows when the trinity river is dry and floods a good story every 100 years.

Herb Levy September 1, 2014 - 20:27

My main criticisms of this piece are that for every time Christina Rees uses the word “Dallas”, she should have used the phrase “North Texas” instead and that every time she uses the word “art” as if it is synonymous with “visual art”, she should have made it clear that what she was saying was just as relevant to writing about the performing arts in North Texas as it is to writing about visual art in North Texas.

HJ BOTT September 1, 2014 - 20:53

GAWD! This review sounds so tired. Recalling 2000 as if that were some ancient time back (braggingly covered a lot of ground in such a short time). For this we read such “in-depth reviews?” Just another time sponge. Raul Askew said all this in the 1960’s in Dallas. And then there’s Roberta Smith. She was eating artists alive because they were not in her “group” but everyone knew she was flying on her stick. So? Do we really have to go through this all over again? Opinions, opinions! Make them meaningful, neither cruel nor puff, just be descriptive about the art and the institutions.

Michael A. Morris September 1, 2014 - 22:30

I welcome the criticism wholeheartedly, but if it’s possible to have it with the snark dialed back a bit, I think that would be great. Let’s talk about the work. Let’s even talk about how local artists are or aren’t living up to what people are seeing outside the city. And maybe we can somehow dial the trolls back a little too….well, I’ll take what I can get.

Doris Murdock September 3, 2014 - 11:37

I appreciate Mr. Harris’ possibly backhanded swipe at current art criticism: “. . . a considerable discussion requires investigative knowledge, direct exposure and comparative examples.” and his more direct “art and art criticism has become . . . like developmental soccer where everyone gets a trophy.”

Justin Hunter Allen September 4, 2014 - 11:27

It seems it’s mostly the commenters that are critical around here. It’s fun because you can count on a relatively constant stream of material on glasstire even when news & reviews are spare. Though it would be twice as fun if the articles were directly spurring a conversation weighted more in response to their critique rather than their subject or persistant themes like: what’s up with Dallas and _______?

There have been several articles that empoyed critical though but I’ve read a *couple* reviews in the last year that were not… puff… or critical in a… err…

Alejo Benedetti tried his hand with James M. Rizzi in a decisively brief report. Though what he got back was 100% “this review sucks” (See Fig. 10 above). I think Alejo was being honest with himself and performing as a reporter, hence the brevity.

On the other hand Richard Bailey took to Pedro Velez’s engineered saga of sorts with an essay on the more flushed out side of things and the response was 60% “you don’t understand”, 20% agreement to some extent, 10% “boo-hoo”, and 10% may-or-may-not-be-another-writer-invading-on-personal-beef-with-artist. Not really suprising or unique for the comment streams.

What was noteable, and leading to my point, the artist himself complained on twitter about a writer EVEN, get this, writing about it.

He then challenged his congregation to read it without throwing up moms spaghetti.

Now, I know on good athourity that Valez secretly masturbates to it because #monochromaticpress is his practice, but for many artists in Dallas getting any writing at all is a feat and crucial for supporting documentation of an exhibitions occurance and social relevance based on confirmation of reception. I contend that #anypressisgoodpress™, or at least useful as “James M. Rizzi: Linescapes at Circuit 12, Glasstire, 2014” on a CV bibliography doesn’t say anything particular besides his name, the title of the show, where it was, and that it was written about. If I was standing in a gallery reading his CV I’d go, “Huh, seems legit.”

Furthermore with all the exhibitions popping off in Dallas, there is no shortage of subjects for critical review and being critical doesn’t require liking somthing to exercise. There’s being polite, and then there’s accidentally severing your tounge. Plus, the reader can always reserve the right to disagree, which is not the same thing as “this review sucks”.

Justin Hunter Allen September 4, 2014 - 11:32


Paragraph 2, Line 1: *employed critical thought

Paragraph 3, Line 2: *Fig. 8

? x ?
/ \

Richard Bailey September 13, 2014 - 02:35

Justin, thank you for the mention. I have a life-long fascination with unusual and bad behavior, so long as it is formed out of intelligent dissent rather than self-glorification or malice. When I saw Velez’s invitation / warning to the art press about his show in Dallas, I was intrigued in a positive way. But I wound up disappointed and did my best to explain why.

I confess my critical mode isn’t complex. Most of it comes off something Robert Altman said. Altman said an artist isn’t afraid to show you how to kill it. A good artist will reveal the belly, the vulnerable place. I think Altman was speaking about a sacramental and sacrificial role that the artist plays in society. Altman showed an open attitude of disdain for critics, for he thought they went for the easy killing blow, rather than attempt to understand why the artist would open up and risk so much on an object, a detail, or an abstraction. With this in mind, I see my job as a critic to be an active witness. By writing what I see or what I think I see, I am engaging in a larger cultural conversation — participating in something much larger than myself. And I think it’s important that the critic, too, exposes the belly. Not to come at an exhibition armored by theory, and not to act out of an integral attitude that the critic is one who “get’s it” — that is, the currents of philosophy and proper angle at which to wield the blade of dissent — and that artists fit neatly into categories of those who get it and those who don’t. I think it makes better reading, better discourse when a critic speaks from an attitude of meditation rather than an attitude of judgement. Although I am steeped in the amazing, inspiring, and just as often troubling judgements of Orwelll, Trilling, Sontag, Kermode, and many others, I realize there are many more portals of communication now than in the days these critics were active. I argue that what we see far too infrequently on the web are defenses down discussions about what is effective and what isn’t in pieces of art. And I define art broadly and spiritually: it is an allegory of psychological and spiritual processes at work in an individual or group of individuals in collaboration.

I gave my best witness account of the Pedro Velez show. And in the process showed my own belly no fewer than a hundred times. Anyone could have stepped in and attacked my decisions at their weakest points. This would have made lively discourse. But Velez went nuclear. He tweeted to a couple thousand people that I am a racist. And just like that, discourse is over.

I mentioned a sacramental and sacrificial role of the artist. One can opt for a different role, of course, try to ascend in the art market by predicting it, changing locations, looking for that hot zone, focusing on the CV rather than the message of individuality inherent in one’s own calling to be an artist. But this way requires both eyes on the market place, rather than the often thankless (sacrificial) work of creating a specific type of visible, associational relationship between the individual and society. I think that sacramental / sacrificial work is of the upmost importance. What following the art market does is describe the individual as a number rather than a face.

For the artist that feels comfortable working in Dallas and, conversely, the artist who feels he or she is exiled here by social and economic forces, I hope you will both take the mood of these many talks about the way of art in Dallas as the sincere desire to build a city of strong example. The strength of a city lies in that visible, associational relationship between the individual and society (yes, I think that phrase bears repeating.) When the vitality of such a vision is active in the libraries, galleries, theaters, and museums of a city, then you get a terrific place to live, wherever you live.

I worry that too often we talk about art and collectibles as if they are the same thing, and doing so rate the magnitude of an art work’s celebrity or use it to deconstruct zeitgeists and paradigms, rather than accept its human currency, a communion of love, anger, faith, hope, desire, pain. I believe artists ought to have a decent roof and no wolves at the door, and I root for galleries to be profitable. But these work best as *for the love of it* services. A move toward branding distorts too much. Just as critic who considers criticism an integral force (rather than a gateway into discourse) distorts too much.

For the artist who suffers unsettledness and disorder to such a point that the regulating instinct blares “Leave Dallas for New York,” or Leave Dallas for . . . wherever” I hope that the engine driving him or her is inspiration or perhaps improvisation, not CV padding or speculations about the art market. The thing at the bottom of all of this is a conversion of feelings into meaning — a try for the examined life.


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