The population of Texas is about 27 million people. The population of greater Los Angeles is upwards of 19 million. If you aggregate the Texas art scene (which is one of the founding ideas of Glasstire), you get a sizable amalgamation of institutions, collections, and—critically—working artists. Statewide, it’s statistically likely that we have as many artists in the state of Texas as the city of Los Angeles, which might mean the same percentage of great ones.
There’s a theory that the Texas art scene is akin to Los Angeles in the 1960s—the late curator Walter Hopps believed that we have the same raw culture of energy that’s relatively undisturbed (and relatively unnoticed) by the rest of the country, globalization or no. We’re certainly operating outside of the major market forces driving the kinds of prices that still seem outlandish here, for better or for worse. Like the artists of Hopps’ Ferus Gallery, the best Texas artists today work with the same freedom from national attention as the West Coast icons of a half-century ago. Sure, many of them are here for practical reasons around the cost of living (as were the artists in L.A.). But many of them are also here because they frankly don’t want to deal with the hassle and bullshit of the art world, which has come to resemble the tumescent blob that engulfs Tokyo at the end of Akira.
And there are many great artists here. Just off the top of my head, an extremely cursory list would include Jim Pirtle, Pierre Krause, Paul Kittleson, Marjorie Schwarz, Joey Fauerso, Jesse Amado, Emily Peacock, Michael Bise, JooYoung Choi, Anthony Sonnenberg, Phillip Pyle II, Forrest Prince, Celia Eberle, Brad Tucker, Dan Phillips, Stephanie Saint Sanchez, Sterling Allen, Jesse Lott… There are others. Some of these artists have the opportunity to show their art fairly regularly; some of them have to make their own opportunities. All could and should be better known, even locally.
Which brings me to Made in L.A., which I saw last week at the Hammer Museum. This is the third iteration of their biennial of local artists and designers, and each version evolved fluidly from the previous one, from an emphasis on emerging artists and a large group of 60 in 2012, to this year’s more focused group of about 26 artists from a wide range of generations and disciplines. I loved the show—ambitious but not overcrowded, generous with space for each artist, it was filled with discoveries. It purposefully avoided trying to encapsulate a “look” or even a generalized Southern Californian attitude (if there is such a thing).The only overarching idea was that these people look at the world differently from most other people, and are making things that are interesting to consider. This is a basic universal (it’s simply what artists do), but it bears pointing out that not all artists can become great, but great artists can come from anywhere.
The first Made in L.A. came a year after Pacific Standard Time, the massive regional overview of Southern California art spearheaded by the Getty in 2011. Many people ascribe the sense that L.A. has arrived—indeed, that it’s the most exciting art city in the country right now—in no small part to PST. It was a revelation that changed the dialogue around “California” art, perhaps more than anything, for locals. California seemed to finally lose the chip on its shoulder about not being New York.
It’s probably not an accident that the Hammer’s follow-up to its PST show, Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960, would be another broad overview of works by local artists. Like clothing labels that proudly declare “Made in U.S.A.” both as a fact and as an entire credo, the first Made in L.A. turned a cornball idea of local civic pride into an unapologetic badge of honor.
I wouldn’t argue that Texas is ready for something like PST—but what we are ready for is our own Made in L.A. Which means some institution has got to step up to the plate with more than occasional solo shows of local artists. True, there have been efforts in Texas over the years—the Austin Museum of Art hosted a triennial for a few iterations, but that was only Austin artists and the pool of talent was too small and itinerant to sustain it. The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston held The First Texas Triennial in 1988 and never followed up with a second one. Of course, the MFAH did Fresh Paint—in 1985. More recently, the Texas Biennial has tried to take up the gauntlet, but with mixed success.
In short: we are ripe for a rigorous, joyfully open-minded, unthemed, ongoing and regular survey of the best work being made in Texas. Consider Bill Cunningham, the New York Times street fashion photographer who died on June 25th. One of the great pleasures of following Cunningham’s work was his willingness to go outside the canon, to celebrate “kids” on the street who were often overlooked by fashion insiders; oftentimes he would end a video saying “These people who say there’s no good fashion—that’s baloney! Just look around!”
Imagine a Texas institution approaching a survey of Texas art with a similar democratic (yet exacting) spirit. The artists are here, and Texas has emerged as the new scruffy outlier that has a whiff of the exotic and interesting. I’m not talking about brainless cheerleading; far from it—but I am also tired of the reflexive dogma often voiced by so-called sophisticates: “There really aren’t any good artists in Texas.” Baloney. Just look around.