One hundred and three years ago, the East Dallas substation at 3816 Commerce Street was newly operational, generating 600 volts of DC power for the electric trolley buses of the Dallas Transit Company. The trolleys remained active until the mid-60s, after which the substation’s chief function consisted of power distribution switching — adding or removing generators as necessary for the city’s power loads. In 2011 art collector Alden Pinnell revamped the building into a venue for contemporary art, hosting an inaugural exhibit by Oscar Tuazon. Aptly dubbed The Power Station, its current show features veteran artist Robert Grosvenor, whose work was included in the infamous Primary Structures survey exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1966.
Ascending the exterior stairs to the second floor, a visitor enters an industrial room containing a series of four-by-six-inch photographs. These pieces document Grosvenor’s material experiments — depicting mounds of snow altered with colored flocking. Evoking hued cloud cover or cooling kaleidoscopic magma, the imagery conveys otherworldly surfaces. Accumulated flock has the visual feel of pigment powder, undiluted and dense. Pure color wedded to a fleeting material form is at the crux of Grosvenor’s alchemy — an additive process that dampens the snow’s luster by mottling the crystalization into a craggier mass. This additive process is in contrast to the lone sculpture on view, an object transformed by subtraction. While Grosvenor’s photographs are exhibited in a formal manner, the main contribution is presented in a deceptively offhand way at the rear of the building.
Off Commerce Street and onto Willow Street, one enters through an open gate into an alleyway exposing the half-raised horizontal slats of a garage door. Sitting inside at a slight pitch is a fiberglass boat — its topside painted a dusty teal. The initial impression is one of temporary abandonment, as if the owner walked offsite, ready to return within the hour. Proximity to the sidewalk offers up access to any bypassing pedestrian. Grosvenor’s boat appears plucked from obscurity and stripped at the chop shop, awaiting its inevitable sale.
Moving around in the sculpture’s aura, a resemblance emerges to the automotive stylings of the 50s and 60s — specifically Cadillac’s distinctive 1959 Eldorado with its large tailfins — tailfins that recall engine sections of space rockets or jet fighters. For maritime collectors, finned boats occupy a niche market — many models, like the Cadillac Sea Lark, were manufactured in extremely limited quantities. Marine historian Lee Wangstad is quoted in a 2009 New York Times article as saying, “Many [manufacturers] simply ‘pulled a mold off an existing boat,’ made some modifications, and produced perhaps two or three copies.” Grosvenor’s untitled sculpture is likely the body of a 1957 Herter Duofoil Flying Fish. George Herter — an outdoor goods merchant and author — produced the model for his catalog of recreational merchandise. A limited number of these unusual boats were fabricated in-house at Herter’s plant and available through mail order. Grosvenor’s presentational gesture interfaces with the aftermath of this odd period of boat building where small-scale production was commonplace.
At a distance the boat has the look of a bathtub toy — a speedboat whose high-tech heyday is done — reducing it to an oversized souvenir. Installed at the rear of The Power Station in a constructed room composed of metallically painted particleboard, the sculpture takes on the fossilized effect of a holdover. Dislodged from its original context of recreational sportsmanship, Grosvenor’s boat exposes the artifact of a bygone era awaiting an alien future. Like the building it inhabits, the boat has taken on a new form. Stripped of its prior functionality, its potential is unrestrained. Walking around its hull the space becomes electric — there’s the sense of circling a vacated extraterrestrial vessel — a switch flips and the circuit is complete. Out on the sidewalk, previously overlooked automotive minutiae asserts itself anew; surfaces shimmer, buffered by the memory of Grosvenor’s art.
Robert Grosvenor is on view at The Power Station in Dallas through March 2, 2024.