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?
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