What Happens When Artists Claim a Derelict Warehouse in the Shadow of the Trinity?

In many cities, there is a common urban principle that if there is a worn-down and crumbling part of town where rent is cheap and the architecture is at least utilitarian, maybe even interesting, to say nothing of habitable, than at some point a pack of wily and resourceful artists will stealthily move in, take over a few joints, make them throb with life, and  cause, by the very fecundity of their presence, a revival or repurposing of the block, the street, the whole damn so-incredibly-ripe-for-something-better-than-demise neighborhood . And though we love to hate it, but love it when it’s hated, Dallas isn’t any different than all those other cities. Even though it’s young by comparison to those other places, Dallas is old enough to have vast swathes of thoroughly neglected patches of the grid all falling to veritable pieces and dying for attention.

Last weekend, in just such a patch, a takeover such as I describe took place. Though not a covert operation, an art show called Sustenance was launched in an old, dark, hot and smelly warehouse on Singleton Boulevard in the shadow of Calatrava’s new, white, swollen archway. Organized by artist Stephen Lapthisophon and curator Anne Lawrence, the show brought together a long list of disparate artists and let them have their way with the place. The results were myriad, though certain trends in thinking about the project were clear.

The Calatrava Bridge from the Sustenance building (Photo by Stephen Lapthisophon)

Most of the artists chose to regard the building itself through their work, calling attention both to the dereliction of the place, its undescribed history, and the mysterious mood set by those things. On the first floor, Kimberly Aubuchon suspended a flock of handmade black felt birds/bats from the ceiling in a far corner of the space which lent a campy spin on what was a palpable eeriness in the warehouse. Jeff Zilm’s three pieces: one, a white canvas sprayed almost undetectably with mace; the second, two stenciled quotations about art shows and lost sheep and hmmm….?; and the last, a small vertical canvas painted with the word “SICK” in the absolutely just-so bathroom upstairs all pointed to the complex relationship between the building, its history and its slated, uncertain future. Brian Fridge’s video sequence in a low, vaulted room on the second floor relayed fuzzy images of shifting squares, reflecting back a tattered and abstracted digital portrait of the space. Iris Bechtol covered countless drain holes in the upstairs floor with goldleaf, an action that both honored and questioned the uncertain prior purpose of the warehouse. Her piece was among my favorites, as it added a luminous levity that sliced through the banal creepiness in the place: grime and residue were masked in precious-hood.

And then there was Ludwig Schwarz, who conjured a ghost in a far back office. Old, black cowboy boots are suspended in a cross-legged, seated position. Speakers set on pillars of old coffee cans play nondescript 70s music. The piece is an articulation of a kind of nightmare about the place that follows just over your shoulder the whole time you’re there: a narrative so nondescript yet cinematic it’s shudder-worthy – the Texan, booted-boss that oversees labor you can’t define. In my mind, I kept hearing Tom Waits’ gravel-truck voice sing “What’s he building in there?”  Schwarz captures a sense of locality so steeped in mystery and Texan identity that he makes Dallas seem as old and haunted as Rome.

In a few pieces there was a calling-out of the building’s potential – a let’s-just-say-it approach to both the artistic project and the wider, urban one, that is, its real estate. It bears mentioning here that said warehouse in the shadow of Calatrava’s bridge is part of a major play for revitalization in the Trinity River Project. The warehouse, and many more on Singleton and its environs, is owned by an investor group that hopes to redevelop the area because they rightly see its possibility, though little is there to show for it yet, save a widened, cleaner road and newly (brightly) painted abandoned buildings. The area is surely ripe. The bridge, perhaps, can attest to it.

A building of uncertain use. (Photo by Stephen Lapthisophon)

Most notable among the work in Sustenance dealing with notions of real estate was artist Darryl Lauster’s work on the second floor. He covered an interior window of an old office with a map outfitted with Monopoly and Battleship game pieces and scratched with handwriting telling the rules of the games. The piece reads like a boardroom visual aid, strategizing a complicated financial trajectory. The artist brings up an interesting point. Certainly, one can not overlook the undercurrent of real estate prospects and money exchange that lie on the land where Sustenance is held.  That being a factor in considering this show flips the artist-born urban revival idea on to its head.

A few artists in the group understood best this complicated relationship between the financial prospects on Singleton and the rich cultural seedbed it promises to be by making work that focused on community. Husband and wife team Linnea Glatt and Jim Cinquemani are intimately connected to the area, as their longtime home and studios are just a few blocks away. The couple did a piece for Sustenance called Social Circle, a watermelon social that took place in the parking lot adjacent to the warehouse. The artists had picnic tables built for the event by the local West Dallas chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous using wood salvaged from an old, closed-down lumber yard near-by. They arranged the tables in a pinwheel shape under a starburst canopy of café lights. They invited visitors to sit together and eat locally grown watermelon with donations benefiting Hunger Busters. The pair acted as host and hostess to their piece, welcoming viewers into their little ethereal circle of community effort, fruitfulness and light, serving as delegates for their own neighborhood.

"Snow Cone" by Tom Orr (Photo by Tom Orr)

Artist Tom Orr’s installation of colored cellophane on the windows of the building, a piece called Snow Cone, cast colored beams of light on the ground near Social Circle, playing with Glatt and Cinquemani’s notions of fruitfulness. By casting shadows from the interior of the warehouse, Orr suggested that what happens inside the buildings on Singleton should effect what happens outside: that real artistic effort of this kind renders change, alters environment, and brings something essential to a place, something sustaining.


  • bill holston

    thanks for this excellent review! I haven’t been yet, but I will. This is a very exciting thing going on over there. I love how you put this in terms of the effect this could have on that part of the City. Art Con will be there, right

  • Laray

    The paradigm set out in the beginning of this article is mostly correct. Artists are drawn to affordable industrial spaces. Sometimes they cultivate them to a degree that realtors/developers begin to see The Next Big Thing. What usually follows is the area is consciously cultivated for a certain type of clientele. Following that, artists must begin anew, looking for affordable industrial space elsewhere.

    What is missing from this paradigm is that most artists who seek neglected spaces are also practitioners of tolerance. That, in short, means tolerant and respectful for what is there: the existing neighborhood, its history and people’s sense of place (for which there is no buy-out price). Practicing assimilation and tolerance is different that seeing the marketable potential of an area that will make way for The Next Big Thing.

    The city of Dallas needs the full panoramic advantage of the modalities of artists. Is it possible that our city–that mostly turns on a dime to make a dime–will begin to see the advantage of learning to love what we have and not what we think others want and will pay for?

    Kudos to the artists in this show.

  • I have already bought the place next door and plan to flip it for a tidy profit in five years.