This last Saturday there was a pop-up show in Dallas featuring nearly 30 of the region’s best artists, presented in a big University Park pseudo-mansion that has been “staged” (i.e. fake furnished) for the high-end real estate market. (The house is for sale for $4.25 million, which actually isn’t that much by Park Cities standards). Never mind that the show was titled Postcolonial. That dubious title turned out to be the least of the show’s problems.
The main reason I didn’t want to write this is because many of the artists who participated are some of my favorites in the region and the state. I love and respect them. But this absurdly over-hyped, one-day-only event was a misfire. It left me in the foulest mood and made me, for the entire weekend, despair of my city. I kept thinking: “This would have never happened in Houston, or Austin, or San Antonio. The artists in those other places wouldn’t have agreed to do it.” I don’t know if this is true, but it feels true. On the day of the show, it felt like a Dallas problem, though to some degree it’s a systemic problem of how art and artists are expected to engage with a patron class throughout this state and beyond.
The reason I think of this show as a particularly Dallas-ish problem is that I think Dallas-area artists are especially susceptible to the entanglement of “philanthropic” initiatives and art. This issue isn’t anything as binary as “poor artists good/rich people bad.” I think it’s more akin to the frog-in-the-boiling-water allegory. Dallas’ weird, artificial cheerleader enthusiasm about art and “art” has a cumulative, numbing effect. (Witness D Magazine‘s dreadful and misguided Art Slam in 2009, or the city’s desire to import Michigan’s ArtPrize.) As I walked though the monochromatic whitewashed “contemporary” unlivable house, with its bad-dream mix of overly cavernous spaces flushing you like a toilet into weird useless corridors and hostile half-rooms and mysterious crannies, I kept hoping that the strength of the art, and the ability of art to subvert and re-contextualize would kick in. It did not.
Many of the artists tried. I saw signs of small efforts everywhere; some quite clever mini-appeals to the subversive and/or politicized impulse, as in: Hey look: this is my art thumbing its nose at these power structures. This is my art addressing the issues of our day. This is my art pointing out how absurd all of this is. But these gestures were mostly lost in the crowd that was a mix of the artists themselves (many of them stiff, quiet, unsure), the people in charge of the house (non-art people, also stiff and unsure), and art lovers (baffled, bored, restless). There were also people there just to view the open house, for sale through Sotheby’s. I have zero problem with the idea of a house show. I have zero problem with the idea of well-off people staging a house show. (In Dallas, Howard Rachofsky comes to mind, as does Dee Mitchell. The fundamental integrity of those collectors semi-publicly showing art in their houses is their historical deliberateness toward and investment in the very idea of art.) I do have a problem with the idea that artists should agree to put their art in an unoccupied house just because it’s there and someone needs to sell it. I have a problem with the idea that art is meant to simply snap to! to create an artificial sense of intellectual heft and monetary value for a dumb, over-designed space — to fill the vacuum (created by the bad design) that might make non-art people uncomfortable. These artists haven’t given over their lives to the difficult and often thankless work of making art so that it could act as set decor for some realtors needing to move merch.
If the semi-ironic “thesis” of the show was in its title, Postcolonial, and the artists were meant to challenge the status quo (or even more subversively completely go with it), why is that the furthest thing from what actually took place? The art wasn’t allowed to do anything meaningful besides create the occasional hiccup, because the house and the crowd and the news of the show was the thing. Not the art. No one was allowed drill into a wall, no one could install anything that left a mark. Sotheby’s evidently couldn’t (wouldn’t) spring for a preparator to patch a few drywall holes after the opening. I’m sure the artists themselves would have done the patching if given the chance. So much of the work was just sort of propped here and there against walls or furniture, or laying on tabletops, or kind of scattered on the floor. That type of thing was likely meant to be “abject,” but the overall effect was unintentionally truly abject. The work was sprinkled — very evenly — throughout, like obedient little arty quotations, and the house was so crowded and the house’s architecture so disconcerting that I saw very few people even attempt to engage with any art.
Did any of the artists who were asked to be involved say no? How many of the artists saw the house before dropping off the work? I keep asking myself these questions. Why, really, did they agree to do it? I hope to be having this conversation with some of them in the coming weeks, because I’m still feeling a little sick about it all. I realize a couple of the people who organized it have direct ties to the art scene here, but then I wonder what made them believe this stunt could be anything memorable, considering there was a punishingly low philosophical ceiling on the whole affair to begin with, in the form of an overall terrible and conservative misunderstanding of what art can actually do.
Like the artists themselves, I too can be oblivious to just how much the powers-that-be in DFW (and in Texas and everywhere else for that matter) can co-opt artists and their art in the name of credibility and cool, while insisting that artists behave, that the art itself behaves. The problem of Texas art patronage and its chilling effect on Texas artists has been going on for decades. (Texas art patrons love the art of enfants terribles, as long as it’s being made by artists who live somewhere else, or who are dead.) I wonder how many of the artists in this show really just wanted to drive a big truck through the plate-glass window that overlooks the pool. “There’s your art. The house looks better already.”
When I write about the breakdown in the relationship between galleries and artists, or the need for artists to work with wild abandon outside the established art scene, a show like Postcolonial is not what I mean. I realize that the fire marshal problem and lack of venues is a real concern in Dallas. I realize artists are looking for novel ways and places to show, and that for some of them, Postcolonial was just another bullet point on their CVs. So why not do it? There’s a sense that anything that “adds to the conversation” or simply presents more art around here must be a good thing. But that’s not how it works. Bad initiatives like this undermine and demean art and artists. Bad initiatives derail real conversation, and give dumb people dumb ideas about how to go forward. The mood and personality of Dallas and its ‘international’ self-image acts something like a constant, low-level bacterial threat to real art by its own artists. Many of us just pop another Cipro and get on with things. But for me, Postcolonial was a full-blown, unexpected, overnight septic infection that requires at least a few days on the ICU and a lot of soul searching. It was worse than depressing. It was like a particularly bleak health report — a really bad State of the Union. I’d hope to never see anything like it again. I wonder how many of the artists in the show feel the same way.