A couple of weeks ago, art critic Tyler Green, who writes the popular arts-blog Modern Arts Notes, fired off a Twitter-dismissal of the Cowboys Stadium Art program:
“Provincialism defined,” Green pronounced. “A silly, small, unthoughtful and unscholarly context for a museum to display art.”
The irony with this provocation, of course, is that it was made via Twitter, hardly a medium fit for sustaining a scholarly debate. However, Green’s sentiment is likely shared by many who take a quick look at the Cowboys Stadium art project.
There is something vulgar about the idea of placing high art in a football stadium, especially in light of the fact that Jerry Jones has not simply built a sports arena – he has created a consumeristic abomination, a dwarfing space that subverts the autonomy and identity of the individual so as to overwhelm the visitor with an array of buy-in experiences. Even the primary reason of the stadium’s existence – the sports – is mediated by an enormous television screen, easily interrupting reality with advertisements.
Where could art fit in all of this? And how could art fit into this environment without being distorted or subverted – reduced to mere decoration or an advertisement for the cultural stature of the stadium’s owner?
The new exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art, Big New Field, brings together work by the fifteen artists represented at Cowboys Stadium. The show gives these artists and their work the studied environment Green prefers, and by doing so, it elucidates the stadium’s curatorial design. Seeing the artists together in four museum galleries, rather than spread throughout a giant stadium, a few noticeable trends arise in the work. All of these artists deal in some way with the experience of viewing art, questioning or illustrating how we perceive, take in visual information, and consider it. In this way, the criteria for being an artist included in Cowboys Stadium was to be an artist whose work could confront the limitations of the gigantic setting head on, to create work that considered its own context, as well as the perspective of the individual visitor. It is not enough for art to pop at Cowboys Stadium – it has to make you take notice.
Walking through the first gallery, works by Daniel Buren and Lawrence Weiner flank the room, both artists dominating the space not with size or color, but through suggestion. Buren’s Framed/Exploded/Defaced consists of 25 individual canvases, each no larger than a few inches, that are spaced evenly to the corners of the wall. The lines on each of these tiny objects seem to continue on the next canvas a few feet away, allowing the viewer to make a connection between the individual pieces and understand them as a single work. Weiner’s work consists of a series of phrases, all having to do with the artistic practice, that stretch diagonally across face of the wall. There is logic to the language, and the half-sentences cull associations. However, by way of their visual composition – the colors of the text, the circled prepositions – the wall and the words are fused into a single visual object, embodying the very process the language references.
These two works speak to how the composite whole of an artwork relates to the viewer’s perception of it, and perception play continues in the larger second gallery, which includes work by Garth Weiser, Terry Haggerty, Ricci Albenda, Mel Bochner, and Jim Iserman. Haggerty’s Vertigo is a simple white canvas that contains two oblong parallelograms composed of black acrylic strips. The eye perceives these as singular shapes from a distance, but upon closer view, they become animated illusions that suggest depth and movement. Similarly, in I wouldn’t have worn mascara if I knew I was going to be taking a trip down memory lane, Garth Weiser uses grid-like lines and a solid black six-sided shape that masquerades as a box painted in perspective to draw our attention to the two-dimensionality of the canvas plane. These formal, mathematic markings share space with playful blue scribbles that introduce color, movement, and a sense of human expression and energy in counterpoint to the more cerebral study of space and perspective.
While the first large gallery in Big New Field is dominated by these visual experiments, the second large gallery gives way to another approach the Cowboys Stadium curators took to the problem of choosing art for massive, sensually saturated crowds. These artists deal with luscious and vivid narratives and a Pop Art tenacity for grabbing our attention. In particular, Mathew Richie, Franz Ackerman, and Trenton Doyle Hancock’s work looks wonderful side-by-side – a fizzy visual dialogue. However, getting lost in these works – and particularly Richie and Hancock’s – made me realize how much is lost with their work on the massive scale of Cowboys stadium. What Hancock can’t do at the stadium, and yet what is the prime allure of his Good Vegan Progression #2 at the DMA show, is include a great variety of textual materials – sawdust, fabrics, paper scraps, etc. – that add a sensual dimension that is missing from his large vinyl mural at the stadium. Likewise, the detail of Richie’s work, the scribbled allusions to unexplained systems and languages that inhabit the mythic world of his canvas, is unachievable at the scale of his dazzling entryway mural in Arlington.
This comparison between the way individual artists translate their work to the massive scale of the stadium is one of the most interesting aspect of the DMA’s exhibition. The intimacy of the museum exhibition also allows the viewer to take some familiarity back to the stadium, to become more sensitive to how the artists tackled the idea of installing at the stadium. And while we can assume that DMA visitors will be inspired to travel to Jerry World after seeing Big New Field, the real question is whether the art at the stadium will drive any Super Bowl visitors to the DMA for a closer study of these artists.
That is the great challenge of the project, after all, that of creating work that can engage new audiences and demographics by visually invading their experience of a Cowboys game. We may never be able to accurately measure the success of this aspect of project, but what Big New Field helps illustrate is that the idea for the art project is one that calls into question the very potency of the visual arts. The Cowboys Stadium art program is not a vulgarity, rather it is an assertion of a belief in the communicative power of art. It is no wonder, then, that none of the artists who were asked to participate turned down the challenge.
Image at top: Matthew Richie, The Idea of Cities, 1998 (detail); Oil and marker on canvas, 82 x 134 in. (The Rachofsky Collection) All images courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art