Not many contemporary artists concern themselves too much with anatomy these days. It makes painter Geoffrey Harrison an exception to the rule. The Londoner is so familiar with the workings of the body and proximity of death, that he could teach shark pickler Damien Hirst a thing or two.
Both Harrison’s parents were medical illustrators. Last year he completed a residency at a pathology museum. And this year he is following that with a stint at a veterinary college. So while he might not be procuring corpses from a local morgue, he is quite at home with specimen jars.
“I’ve always been interested in anatomy,” he tells me by phone, “the gorier side of things”. But then he tells me he wants to “rehumanize” his responses to preserved body parts, saying: “I kind of want to get back some of the squeamishness that other people might have”.
Harrison is softly spoken and engaging . For a seasoned observer of the mortal condition, he is ready with considered responses, yet in evident possession of a sense of humour. Surrounded by the body parts and organs of humans and animals, he is working through a sense of desensitization.
At Barts Pathology Museum, this meant digging up a few facts on the owners of those disembodied organs one finds in jars. “In many cases there were background written about them. You just had to find them and read them,” he says.
“That made them much more emotionally powerful and emotionally charged as objects. That was a way to reengage on a human level “. But no matter how close Harrison has got to dead bodies, he is still perplexed by death.
“That’s a very difficult thing to actually really be honest about, or say we can cope with,” he says. So despite what he may have learned about pathology or animal illnesses, Harrison still finds the reaper “challenging”, and that is perhaps more honest than a bravura shark in a vitrine.
But Harrison is nevertheless drawn to the natural world. He says he really likes animals, adding: “They’re a great source of meaning and metaphor, which is why I think a lot of artists are drawn to animals. You can say quite a lot”.
“There’s a type of archetypal mythology with animals so you can, sort of by just employing the image of an animal, you can invoke a kind of coded meaning,” he adds. And never mind the fact that most of the poor creatures he gets to work with are long dead.
Harrison tells me about a recent drawing of a dog muzzle which had been sliced clean off. It seems a strange thing to aestheticize. “I want to make beautiful things. I still think that has currency. But I’m cautious about saying that I’m in the business of making beautiful things. I don’t think I am.”
“It depends on how closely you look at something,” he adds. But the artist also maintains that rather than beauty, meaning is the real currency of fine art: “Those hidden meanings… in what you decide to include in your painting and whether you’re aware of those meanings or not.”
But if a painted dog symbolises fidelity, as Harrison points out, what can a disembodied muzzle tell us? Not many artists traffic in the meaning of isolated body parts. Perhaps the meanings come to us only when confronted by a painting.
“For me painting seems to be this sort of process of allowing lots of accidents to happen and then leaving the ones that you like the most, compared with all the other accidents, and taking the credit for them as well,” says Harrison with a laugh.
Perhaps that is the difference between painter and surgeon. We don’t want our surgeons to leave things to chance.
Work by Oli Rodriguez and Jovencio de la Paz.
Chicago Artists Coalition is located at 217 N. Carpenter St. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Organized by Sabina Ott with work by Alison Ruttan, Alex Tam, Assaf Evron, Joe Jeffers and Sabina Ott.
The Franklin is located at 3522 W. Franklin Blvd. Reception Saturday, 6-9pm.
Work by The Excavating History Collective in Residence.
The International Museum of Surgical Science is located at 1524 N. Lake Shore Dr. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Work by Jessica Taylor Caponigro and Justin Petertil.
Comfort Station is located at 2579 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Saturday, 5-8pm.
Work by Kasia Ozga.
The Mission is located at 1431 W Chicago Ave. Reception Friday, 6-8pm.
Guest post by Jacob Wick.
I met Aandrea Stang in her office, which sits waist-level with passing-by students on their way to the dormitory across the way, twice. The second time, I brought her a raspberry glaze cronut from the donut place near my house, which, like most donut places in LA, is called LA 24-Hour Donut or Donut 24-Hour LA or LA Donut 24-hour or something like that. Their cronuts are truly marvelous, and their donuts are great. Their coffee is terrible. I asked Aandrea about the program she now runs at Occidental College, a small, residential liberal arts college nestled the Eagle Rock neighborhood of northeastern Los Angeles. That program, OxyArts, is currently presenting We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust, a participatory sculpture project by Los Angeles-based artist collective Finishing School in collaboration with artists Nadia Afghani and Matt Fisher (on view through May 9), and The Trouble Between Us: An exhibition organized by Kenneth Tam (on view through April 19). Watch a time-lapse video of the installation of We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust, a full-size replica of a MQ-1B Predator drone aircraft that was covered in mud over the course of two days by participants from Occidental College and beyond, here.
JW: Do you have free reign over all aspects of what you’re doing here?
AS: Do I have free reign to do whatever I want here?
AS: Can you narrow the question please?
JW: I guess that’s just a really roundabout way of asking what you’re doing here. What is OxyArts? What are you meant to be doing? What is its relation to the school? It looks to me like it’s the sort of thing that an art institution—a museum—that’s attached to a college operates, like the Wattis [at the California College of the Arts] or whatever, but there’s no museum here—I mean I guess there’s the gallery, but…so is it an offshoot of the gallery?
AS: Well, the college president is really interested in the arts. He was at the New School before he came here, and he likes contemporary art—he has a stumbling-on-a-Jenny-Holzer story that he likes to tell. He really is interested in seeing the college’s arts programming be more visible, and he’s also interested in the college having a greater relationship to the arts community in southern California. So, as the one urban liberal arts school in southern California, and perhaps in California and possibly—I mean, I don’t know how many residential urban liberal arts schools there are—so the president really wants to take advantage of that and position this school as having a partnership/relationship with the arts community in southern California. There was a strategic plan written for the college several years ago and the arts were really strongly written into the strategic plan, and they saw my availability as an opportunity.
JW: What is the strategic plan a strategy towards?
AS: I haven’t read the whole thing, but it talks about where the college is ideally headed. Before this president came in, there was a lot of tumult; there was three or four presidents in two years. The economic downturn impacted the endowment. The school wasn’t in an ideal place, so the strategic plan was written to move forward—to aggressively move forward. [Occidental College president Jonathan] Veitch wanted to have the arts included. So I’ve been brought in to manage the brand of the arts, and especially the presenting component of the arts, on the campus, to the campus itself and also to a larger audience outside the campus. The overall list of things they want from this office is pretty long…
JW: Were you able to whittle down the list of things? It sounds like you’re asked to do everything.
AS: Yeah. For example they’d like me to be in charge of the college’s collection, which is currently housed in special collections in the college’s library, and given the pressing responsibilities the collection’s going to have to stay there until plans and policies are created. Additionally I am overseeing the gallery program and they are interested in seeing interventionist projects occurring on campus.
JW: Are you supposed to write any curricula or teach any classes? Or is it mostly an administrative position?
AS: For right now it’s an administrative position. We’ve talked about my teaching—and I adjuncted before I came here, teaching a class on how LA became a modern and contemporary art city—but it was agreed when I signed my letter for this job, while it was presented to me as a job description, that what I was signing was the description for my office, not for my job.
JW: It seems like you have some qualms—how much you’re being asked to do. Were you sort of trepidatious about working here, or…
AS: No. I’m not afraid of hard work, that’s fine. I was nervous about coming to an academic institution and what that meant—
JW: What does that mean?
AS: At MOCA, there was an acceptance that anything presented there was art. You know, you’re at MOCA, this is a project that’s being produced by MOCA, usually what I was doing was within the bounds of MOCA—not always within the physical space—but it was a museum project and therefore it was accepted as art. Here, the art department is small. Overall there are about 2000 students and I would say maybe 30 of them are art majors, or visual arts majors, so when you’re putting on a big project like Finishing School’s We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust or Liz Collins’ Knitting Nation, people don’t necessarily know what they’re looking at. Since this campus is used so much for film shoots, half the time the students assume that an artwork is part of a set.
JW: Wow, ok.
AS: Welcome to southern California. This was California University for Beverly Hills 90210, and it’s been every college campus you’ve ever seen in the movies and on TV. Part of my learning curve is understanding that that’s the dynamic here.
JW: I noticed that the first couple of things you did here were in the gallery.
AS: The first thing I did was Liz Collins’ project, Knitting Nation, which I did with the sculpture professor [Mary Beth Heffernan] She and her sculpture students were very involved in the project—one of the course assignments was to work with Collins on the project. I was more involved in a managerial, administrative, logistical role. Going into the project I didn’t know Liz, I wasn’t familiar with her work, but it was a good first project. We got on well and the collaboration with Mary Beth was a supportive way to ease myself into how things work at Occidental.
JW: How is OxyArts funded? Is it funded entirely by the college’s endowment or are there also private donors?
AS: One of my constraints here is budget, so I can’t do a lot of big programs until I have proper funding in place. Fortunately a generous family foundation is supporting an artist-in-residence program that’s starting this fall. Lucky Dragons is going to be our first semester-long artist-in-residence, which we’re really excited about. The foundation was interested in seeing the Artist in Residence program start last fall but since I had just started at Occidental I explained that it was too soon to put an effective plan in place. Their response was remarkable. They asked what kind of projects we could do for the coming year. We discussed these smaller residencies, which they were very amenable to. That’s when I began to consider what was possible.
JW: Do you think people receive these projects differently here than they would have had you done them at MOCA?
AS: Yeah, well the first gallery show [Devon Tsuno: Watershed] was really well received. It was comprised of lush beautiful paintings and other attractive elements. The show that’s up now [The Trouble Between Us organized by Kenneth Tam] doesn’t appeal to a general audience as much, but it starts an interesting dialogue. The students studying time-based media are mostly working in either documentary or fictional narrative, so this show has been an interesting teaching tool for their professors. I don’t know how the drone would have been received had it been sited in an art environment. It may have been perceived as didactic. Here I think it works. Here it is pedagogical. The artists understand their audience. When I was told that there is one military veteran enrolled on campus, that made me that much more interested in doing this project. The airmen controlling the drones—or playing the videogames that control the drones—are the same age as the students here. And if there’s a class thing that you accept about who’s in our military now—that’s not the student body here. It is my assumption that the Occidental student body doesn’t have much of a relationship with our present-day military. I think making that actually tangible is an interesting thing. And there’s the whole making it tangible part, having people come and put the mud on it.
JW: To be part of this celebratory social experience of putting a drone in mud.
AS: Yeah, and having it be this sort of generous, barn-raising kind of moment where you’re patting down hellfire missiles. I think that has had a pretty provocative impact on the community here. On Friday I had an art history student in my office who was asking for some direction about a job after college. It wasn’t a conversation she was particularly comfortable having with me, a stranger. We got to talking about the drone project, and her whole demeanor changed. She went from being very reserved to very honestly and comfortably expressing her excitement about the project. There’s a student in either history or politics doing a paper on it; one of the Diplomacy and World Affairs professors used it for her drone unit. It’s getting some traction. I think in a museum I might’ve pushed the artists away from a project like this.
JW: Because it was too didactic?
AS: Yeah. And here that gets flipped around and handled well. The setting of a beautiful college campus, the fact that every movie gets shot here because it looks like Joe College, that works to the advantage of this project. If you’d put this in front of something that looks like what we think a contemporary art museum looks like, how exciting would that be? I mean it’s still a big giant airplane covered in mud with Hellfire missiles, so it would still be exciting, but I think the setting…
JW: And it’s not even in front of an art building, it’s in front of an auditorium, right?
AS: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I think it works here.
JW: How would you say the work you’re doing here relates to the work you were doing at MOCA?
AS: Engagement Party—how to answer this?—it’s really interesting to look at this from the other side. You know, when we got the funding for the project I was really excited, and I had also been at the museum for eight years at that point, so…
JW: What had you been doing until then?
AS: Public programs. That had started to stretch into other programming. We received funding from the Irvine Foundation, as part of their Artistic Innovation Fund. At the time they were inviting the big cultural institutions in California—not just museums, but the symphony orchestras and the big theaters—to apply for projects that would be innovative in terms of both the artistic program—in how the institution interacted with its audience—and also innovative in a managerial sense. A lot was asked of this program. I had been interested in what we now think of as social practice for a long time. I had been looking at community-based art-making—what it was in the 1970s and 80s, what it became in the 90s, and how that transmogrified into what we think of as social practice. At the time of the application I was very involved in Allan Kaprow—Art as Life, working towards remaking his Happenings as part of the exhibition. For the year leading up to the exhibition opening I had been studying his work. As a result one of the things that I thought was important was to think about the idea of innovation broadly: how in a collecting museum do you support non-object-based work? On the managerial side of things, MOCA had always claimed that it was committed to hiring artists and other culture workers. That idea influenced how I selected the project team. I chose either front-line or junior-level staffpeople—in some instances, middle-management—from most departments. This group collectively was responsible for both the managerial and curatorial oversight for this project.
JW: How long were people on this decision-making board?
AS: As long as they wanted to be. There were some people that were on it from beginning to end, four of us I think. For various reasons other people rotated out and were replaced, usually by people from the same department. We tried to keep a representative balance.
JW: And it was a consensus-based decision-making thing?
AS: Yeah. And you know, museums are pretty hierarchical spaces and it was really hard for a lot of people to accept the flat management within the pyramid, to cut the line thorugh the triangle. It was interesting to me who wanted to be involved, who didn’t want to be involved, and which department heads were willing to have their people be part of the project. In some cases, the people who I thought were going to be totally behind it, didn’t want to give up that much of their person’s time, and…
JW: How much of a person’s time was it?
AS: It was a an hour and a half meeting each week. With each cycle, as we drew closer to project dates, there were more things to do and more of the group members’ time was needed.
JW: How big was the group?
AS: The original group was thirteen people including one full-time staff person dedicated to the project.
JW: How did a typical meeting go? Was it you present a project and then talk about it and then vote?
AS: It was everything from soup to nuts. When we first started, I presented the group with the framework of the program, explaining that as a group we would have to complete the program design. At the same time—because of the limited timeline—we were working on the program design and making decisions about what artists we were going to be selecting. During the selection process for the first artists with whom we’d work, I was scheduled to go on vacation to Montana. I let the group know that while I was gone they needed to make a decision from the final two or three artist groups. It wasn’t a tactic on my part. I was going to be away, my voice was one of thirteen and we needed to keep the process moving. I got back, they had chosen the artists, and they understood that I was serious when I said that the program was a going to be a consensus-based management process and that they were really part of it. It wasn’t intentional; I was just going to Montana because I needed some time away.
JW: Where did the name come from?
AS: One of the educator’s husbands came up with it. We were trying to come up with a good name, and I asked widely for help. I don’t like having my picture taken and I can’t come up with interesting names for projects. Bonnie’s husband came up with it. Thank you William.
JW: It’s a good name.
AS: It’s a good name. It’s sort of a double-edged sword, though, because the artists doing the projects wanted to be taken seriously and if the work is part of something called Engagement Party is it really serious?
JW: Well, for one thing, there’s also political parties and those are pretty serious.
JW: But also I feel like something that’s nice about Engagement Party is that, at least in the social practice environment now, looking back at Engagement Party, it’s nice to see something that isn’t being weighed down by overly—it’s not couched in terms that are only accessible to people that are within this very small niche of social practice within the art world.
AS: That was the whole intention—and I think coming out of an education department had a lot to do with that. We thought a lot about and worked on how to present work that would garner the interest of the younger art world set, but would also will be something that a wider audience could participate in.
JW: Why were these audiences not already going to MOCA?
AS: They were, but the point was to try to get them more invested in the institution, not just as a place to visit but as something they were a part of, and what makes you feel more of a part of something than social practice?
AS: A place like MOCA needs to accept that it is an elitist institution, and I don’t mean that in a bad way—if you have an extremely limited amount of leisure time, unless you’re deeply dedicated to art, MOCA’s not going to be your first choice of what to do. Coming here was stimulating to me because that notion of audience is completely turned around, and I’m really interested in exploring that. Not everybody’s coming to the projects with any kind of aesthetic language, much less the same one—or they have an aesthetic language, but don’t know what it is, and I find that a really motivating challenge.
JW: How to make things make sense to people—how to make them intelligible as art?
AS: Does it matter that it’s an artwork? If a bunch of people are knitting on mechanical knit machines, and students are walking through the same space, what is their engagement? Are they there to watch, are they there because their economics professor wants—to talk about things, including labor…
JW: Like labor practices? Like people knitting as labor? Were they being paid?
AS: The artist was being paid, the non-student participants were being paid, and the student participants were there as part of a class assignment and were not being paid.
JW: Huh. Sounds like that would make a good class about labor practices.
AS: With Devon’s exhibitions, one room was painting, and one room had sculptural objects that looked very mundane, very banal, but were all hand-produced. I think Devon’s show was a really good moment with the students because I think they started to understand that a lot of things are artwork…
JW: Or a lot of things could be artwork…I guess maybe that’s the exciting thing about being here, is that a person can just walk by the drone and not think about it. Like inhabit the same space as it, but not notice it as art or even think to notice as art, not be an audience or a participant or a viewer or whatever—just be walking by.
AS: Last Friday, the senior media majors showed their final projects, their films. They had a reception beforehand in the plaza in front of that auditorium, where the drone is sited. Every person attending the event was forced to interact with the project in some way. Some people were just trying to move around it—in a Tilted Arc kind of way. But many people were really engaging it.
JW: Is that something that you—are you always interested in what’s going to happen? Is that something you look for in projects? The possibility of a scenario where you don’t know what’s going to happen?
AS: Yeah. I think that’s interesting. Maybe that’s the product of too much time spent with Kaprow. I don’t know how happy I would be working in circumstances where I know what the end result is going to be. I like working on projects that have some element of random chance. As a result, working on the exhibitions in the galleries has been interesting for me—exploring how that fits into what I’m thinking about. I like not knowing the outcomes of an art project. That said, I can appreciate people that go to the symphony to see the same piece of music many times. Whenever I go to MOMA I tend to go see the same works. And there’s comfort in that—but I don’t always like to be comfortable. Of course, I say this from this place where…
JW: We’re sitting under a veranda in comfy chairs with birds singing.
AS: Right, I find that a little—I don’t know. Look at what Pussy Riot is doing, or any number of political art groups—you know, they’re uncomfortable! I’m not uncomfortable.
JW: It seems like the experience you’re seeking here, with the projects you’re setting up, is this sort of aesthetic discomfort. Students walking into the gallery and seeing a milk crate that isn’t a milk crate introduces the idea that any milk crate might be a work of art, which is a different possibility. It’s a different sort of discomfort, which I guess is valued differently—because, you know, we like heroes and dying and all that—but it’s discomfort nonetheless.
AS: Yeah. I like experiences that force one to consider the aesthetics of their situation. Sometimes something’s just a shopping cart, sometimes it’s not. Donald Judds could be Donald Judds, but in a different set of circumstances they could be ductwork. Does looking at a Donald Judd make you look at ductwork differently? Kind of.
Aandrea Stang is the recently appointed director of OxyArts, a newly created multidisciplinary arts programming initiative at Occidental College. From 2002 until 2012 she served as Senior Education Program Manager at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) where she developed and produced the museum’s public programming. From 2008 to 2012 she oversaw MOCA’s Engagement Party program, which offered Southern California–based artist collectives opportunities to make new artworks, interacting with the museum in unexpected ways. Stang has held positions at local government and community-based arts organizations and served on the boards of several arts organizations.
Jacob Wick is an artist, writer, and improviser who lives in Los Angeles. In 2013, he coordinated Germantown City Hall, an installation of civic space in a disused structure in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Germantown City Hall was a collaboration with Information Department and the Think Tank that has yet to be named…, and was commissioned by the 2013 Hidden City Festival with generous support from the Andy Warhol Foundation. His recording with guitarist Shane Perlowin, objet a, on tape cassette and for digital download, will be released by Prom Night Records on May 6th, 2014.
Over the coming months, the Bad at Sports blog is featuring quick glimpses of the art world as it exists in smaller cities across the country and around the world. Each glimpse is byway of some of the said city’s local characters, which include but are not limited to artists, curators, creative writers, and critics. In this Dallas Day article, artist Brittany Ransom dishes on what she, a recent Midwesterner-cum-Dallasite, finds exciting about the Big D.
Dallas Is Hot
Guest post by Brittany Ransom
I arrived in Dallas in the fall of 2011 and my first thought was “Dallas is hot.” I happened to move here just in time to land in the middle of a sweltering 60-something day streak of temperatures climaxing over 100 degrees. There was not a cloud or drop of rain in sight. I moved to Dallas to work as an assistant professor in the Division of Art at SMU specializing in Digital/Hybrid Media. After a few years, I now see my role at-large, as both an artist and educator, as straddling many lines institutionally and within my work. My practice depends on being able to regularly engage with engineers, scientists, technology enthusiasts, other artists, and the insects in my back yard (often my favorite collaborators in the mix).
As a born and raised Midwesterner, I naively had never heard the term “metroplex”, which is the word that is used to commonly refer to the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area. Now that I call Dallas my home and the place where I continue to build my art practice, I am invested in this metroplex and its ‘scenes’ in numerous ways. I am often asked by new acquaintances and former colleagues (most those based in the Midwest) where I live and work. I am frequently met with seemingly questionable gazes when I respond “Dallas.” These gazes are generally followed by vague responses that include something to the affect of “Oh, I hear Austin is cool…” And while Austin, Houston, and San Antonio (among many other Texas cities) are also ripe with artists and institutions doing interesting things (the Texas Biennial was a good survey of contemporary art happening throughout Texas this year)there are a number of things that have made me come to appreciate the heat in Dallas.
Dallas is filled with so many driven visionaries, emerging and established spaces, studios, and collectives that it is impossible to name them all here. Important to me are a handful of experiences and resources that I think point to the upward growth of Dallas. This city is undoubtedly filled with many ‘big hitter’ institutions, such as the Dallas Museum of Art, Nasher Sculpture Center, Kimball Art Museum, and the Ft. Worth Modern, among others. I can say that I have had a lot of active engagement with the Dallas Museum of Art and the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, both of which have given me the opportunity to expand my exhibition portfolio as well as my practice. Currently, I am working on a digital mural project with the Team Dallas Learning Lab, a group made up of students from local high schools, all of who are interested in exploring the intersections of science and art. Team Dallas Learning Lab brings in artists like me as guides to produce work that promotes knowledge and skill sharing. More importantly, the model employed by this group encourages various concentrations of creative practices to come together through experimentation and risk-taking. These types of programs exists at institutions throughout the city, and they are instrumental in helping artists engage a multitude of audiences.
As an artist specifically working with(in) “New Media” (dare I use that term…), I do find Dallas (like a lot of small cities) to be a bit behind the times; however, it’s showing promise by supporting artists who use code/computing/digital technologies within their work. The increase in these areas has definitely been at the forefront of many of the universities in town. I find myself among a great number of smart and exciting artists who are also working in New Media and the need for spaces to support this type of work to be growing. I have participated in events like Dallas Aurora since its initial debut in 2011, and it is becoming a truly exciting event that allows artists from all over the world to use the Arts district as a space for interactive video, sound, and performance-based work. There are other spaces and collectives, too, which support emergent disciplines and practices– Oliver Francis Gallery, Beefhaus, and Womanorial, to name a few, have been progressively curating physical and online exhibitions that exist beyond the typical ‘white cube’ shows that one might see in the city’s more mainstream design district.
Of course, this post presents just a skimming of what has been important to me as an artist, especially one who is relatively new to Dallas. Regardless, I will give this statement in summation: I have found Dallas to be a city that is refreshing in its willingness to support local artists, to take risks that make artists’ ideas and visions come to fruition, and to create a community of people who are genuinely interested in and supportive of each others’ work. It may be hot here, but I can say that I am happy to be in the heat of Dallas right now.
Over the coming months, the Bad at Sports blog is featuring quick glimpses of the art world as it exists in smaller cities across the country and around the world. Each glimpse is byway of some of the said city’s local characters, which include but are not limited to artists, curators, creative writers, and critics. In this Dallas Day article, curator Leigh A. Arnold tours the Dallas sites.
Guest post by Leigh A. Arnold
I moved to Dallas over eight years ago, which by all accounts qualifies me as a true Texan. Though, to be honest, Dallasites are so friendly I am certain that the moment I signed my first apartment lease, I was considered one of their own. Regardless of how Texan I may be, eight years is unquestionably enough time to gain some perspective on the area arts community. What is interesting to report is that unbeknownst to me when I arrived in Dallas in 2006, the city’s art scene was on the cusp of a major upswing in activity. Since my arrival, Dallas has seen the development of several key contributors to our current state of affairs: the establishment of the vital CentralTrak: The UT Dallas Artists Residency, the continued progress of the Dallas Arts District, Dallas Contemporary’s move to the bigger digs in the Design District, the Dallas Art Fair, and most importantly: the development of what I would tentatively describe as an “underground” or at the very least, grassroots art scene at the hands of some of the area’s most talented young artists. Lumped within this “underground” development are a variety of collectives, individuals, galleries, and alternative spaces that have built and sustained a community that is grabbing national headlines.
My awareness of the local arts scene was magnified during my tenure as a researcher and curator for the Dallas Museum of Art’s 50-year art scene retrospective titled DallasSITES. The project sought to accomplish for the Dallas area what the Pacific Standard Time initiative did for Southern California, essentially the recovery of recent art history specific to our local geography. Not only did my research for this project familiarize me with the rich history of contemporary art in Dallas, but it also pushed me to explore what was happening in the now. What became increasingly apparent is that history does indeed repeat itself, if in slight incremental improvements. Artists’ concerns are universal and timeless – issues of space and support (financial, creative, emotional) continually plague Dallas artists, as they do nearly everywhere. But for every problem presented to Dallas artists, creative solutions abound.
Take for example, the issue of space. Fortunately for artists here, the old adage “everything in Texas is bigger” is true and unlike New York City or Los Angeles, big spaces do not necessarily come with outrageously expensive rental rates. Thanks to the support of several real estate developers around Dallas, exciting projects are happening. In the area known as Deep Ellum—historically recognized as the birthplace of early jazz and blues in Dallas—the artist duo Jeff Gibbons and Justin Ginsberg, also known as Apophenia Underground, have been hosting the curatorial project Deep Ellum Windows. Through an agreement with the neighborhood property owner, the duo have extended space to curators and artists who in turn have converted otherwise vacant storefronts into challenging and thought-provoking exhibitions. Past shows have included the work of Dallas-based artists Cassandra Emswiler, Stephen Lapthisophon, and Brandon Kennedy, alongside national and international artists Kristin Oppenheim and Rachel de Joode. Active for over a year, Deep Ellum Windows represents the kind of possibilities that can happen when enterprising artists connect with open-minded property owners.
Another example of this kind of synergy is happening in the neighborhood of West Dallas, a stone’s throw (or five minute drive on the freeway) from Deep Ellum. Previously blighted by lead contamination and a history of neglect from the City of Dallas, this area of town has recently undergone a complete renaissance with the development of neighborhoods like Trinity Groves and Sylvan/Thirty. Restaurants, shops, and new dwelling units are helping to gentrify the neighborhood and artist Arthur Peña’s various warehouse projects are making West Dallas a hot spot for the Dallas art avant-garde. Peña is an Oak Cliff native, who attended the Rhode Island School of Design for his MFA before coming back to his home town. Since his return, he has managed to develop the exhibition/performance venue Ware:Wolf:Haus, as well as the concert space Vice Palace, all while pursuing his own artistic career. On any given weekend night (and an occasional weeknight), Peña’s spaces are pulsing with energy, from the art scene regulars stopping by to check out the latest exhibition to the beats from the latest incarnation of Dallas performance artist George Quartz and his band of misfits and back-up dancers.
Apart from Deep Ellum Windows and Peña’s West Dallas projects, the city has also seen a revitalization of artist-run spaces and alternative galleries. By now considered Dallas’ standard go-to for challenging work and off-the-wall installations, Oliver Francis Gallery located in East Dallas, started in 2012 as a labor of love for UT-Arlington grad, Kevin Jacobs. With the energy of a school boy, Jacobs curates his modest space with artists from his gallery roster (which includes Peña, Gibbons, Jeff Zilm, and Moreshin Allahyari, among others) and also willingly hands over the keys to artists seeking to explore their own curatorial concerns, most notably, the artists of DB14: Dallas Biennial: Michael Mazurek and Jesse Morgan Barnett. Jacobs’ day job as the Assistant Curator at the Goss-Michael Foundation uniquely positions him to have access to the ever-elusive institutional support. Through his position there, Jacobs is able to cross-pollinate his artists with those in the Goss-Michaels galleries, in effect putting his artists’ work in front of some of Dallas’ most well-known and deep-pocketed collectors.
Operating outside the concerns of collectors, i.e., commercialism, Karen Weiner’s wonderfully intimate and cerebral space, The Reading Room, located around the corner from Oliver Francis Gallery and facing Fair Park, provides the kind of quiet, yet powerful programming that fills a void in the Dallas art community. With a focus on the influence of language on the visual arts, Weiner’s single-room gallery has hosted exhibitions by artists like Matthew Cusick, Rebecca Carter, Amy Revier, and The Art Foundation – a curatorial collaboration consisting of Ryder Richards, Lucia Simek, and Andrew Douglas Underwood, alongside programs and performances like a reading by Kenneth Goldsmith, a performance of Robert Ashley’s work by the sibling duo Nicolas and Andrew Miller, and even an exotic mushroom demonstration by local produce purveyor Tom Spicer.
What Weiner’s space and those of Jacobs, Peña’s and the Apophenia Underground duo’s prove is that support need not be top-down for an artistic community to thrive. For all of its accomplishments, the Dallas arts community is still a very self-conscious one, as the recent response to Artforum’s society-page-worthy recap of the Dallas Art Fair will attest. Yes, Dallas boasts a very active and internationally-known collector community, but that community is largely absent from any of the spaces/events mentioned above. This is in part due to the city’s persistent need to feel validation, and in the case of the deep-pocketed collectors, that validation must come from the outside, before it will garner any kind of support from them. Until those collectors feel secure enough in their own ability to make decisions about what to acquire/support, this divide between the collector class and the artist class will persist. Fortunately for Dallas, the artists here do not seem too concerned with bridging that gap. They are too busy making exciting things happen.
Leigh A. Arnold is a curatorial fellow at the Nasher Sculpture Center and consulting curator for the exhibition Robert Smithson in Texas at the Dallas Museum of Art, on view through April 2014. She has previously held the position of research fellow at the Dallas Museum of Art for the special project DallasSITES: Charting Contemporary Art, 1963 to Present, which culminated in an exhibition and online publication in the spring of 2013. In addition to her professional endeavors, Arnold is a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Dallas, where she is writing on Robert Smithson’s relationship to Texas.
All images courtesy Andi Harman