Dallas Art and the Need for Social and Spatial Compression

Over on Glasstire, a couple of familiar names, Lucia Simek and the great Dutch artist/philosopher Toojerstraap, use the summer heat as an excuse to hash out the problem with Dallas art and artists. In short, we live in a city that has too much space and not enough compression. Compression creates tension and tension creates art.

“The hardest thing about being here,” Toojerstraap writes, “is creating a space to act out within and then defining a format.“

(Sidenote: Lucia has obviously translated the Dutchman’s usual indecipherably broken English and removed some of the expletives as well. For a taste of the full uncensored ‘straap, check out the conversation that broke out in the comments of this FrontRow post between the Dutchman and another shadowy Dallas art world figure, the erudite Frenchwoman, Marianne Laflange.)

There is, of course, the problem of physical space. The lack of proximity and frequent interaction of artists and thinking folk in general creates a city whose intellectual class exists as a long archipelago. There is occasional cohesion, and sometimes, as was the case with the Modern Ruin exhibition last year, actual action. But sustaining any activity or social effort is very difficult.

Geographic space is just one issue, there is also psychological and cyber space to contend with. Again, van Toojerstraap:

”Arguably, in fact,” Toojerstraap said on this topic, “ the idea that Dallas might even be suffering this delusion of having/getting art, or that it can, or does, even have its own micro-art world, is a manifestation of the new ‘too much space’ world of the internet where aesthetics, philosophy etc. have no real consequence because they remain untethered to the convergence of a particular time, place and identifiable set of individuals. In effect… we have all turned ourselves into machines. Art has simply become information. Which to the collectors is of no real concern, since everything and nothing is leverageable so long as you can give it a name or a number.”

Lucia then shares her own recent experience of working on a public art project that brought to the table various representatives form Dallas’ multiple art “worlds.” We don’t talk about this too often, but the local art community is a wildly segregated bunch, with various individuals falling under such contrived subcategories as “local art world,” “activist art world,” “over-emotive, interior designee smooth jazz rich guy art world,” “the real art world,” etc. etc.

Perhaps some of those divides, Lucia proposes, are more a function of the rifts in Dallas’ abundant cultural space and not so much insurmountable divisions of quality, taste, style, or ideology. From Lucia:

I have lately, though, had the pleasure of sitting on a public art committee with a group of artists from various camps, all at the same table carving out a project we collectively believe in. Through discussion and sometimes real vehemence, we’ve tackled what I had begun to believe was an a tremendously vast chasm between different ways of thinking about art and all its facets. The friction, I think, around that table has shaped a much more dynamic project than would have been made among like-minded fellows. It’s been a real lesson to me in the power of compression – that activating tension that thumps out a reverb, change, into a too quiet city.

The problem, in many ways, remains politeness. We are too eager to let ideas go unchecked, debates un-debated. Too many striving individuals merely receive a momentary pat on the back and a quick forgetting. Toojerstraap concludes the exchange:

”If Dallas is truly upping the ante with its arts district on a national stage, etc – but it’s essentially a bit crap and lifeless – then we – as artists/writers, etc – we have to provide the life somehow or other. . . .Politeness doesn’t really come into it. In fact, there’s no need for politeness, because the doorway we’re all about to collectively step through is to an unoccupied room, so no one will care if we’re all buck naked.”

Image: Cornelia Parker, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991)


  • JasonM

    Wow, that dialogue between Marianne LaFiange and Toojerstrap is really something. I guess, in a small town (which is any local art scene) it’s useful to use pseudonyms when you want to say what you really think — as I am doing here of course.

    I’m guessing Marianne is: 1) gay or metrosexual guy 2) Anglophile, Francophile, British, or some combination of these and Toojerstrap is a contributor to FrontRow.

    But really, what’s so wrong with Dallas artists wanting or needing to test themselves against the wider world? Isn’t that what you want to do? Let’s consider the show by Annabel Daou, closing soon at Conduit. The artist is born in Lebanon, based in New York. Exhibitions in Providence, Philadelphia, New York — and at Conduit in 2004, 2007 and 2010. (Also Cairo, Venice, Doha…)

    Obviously Dallas is good enough for Annabel Daou to show here every couple of years. So what’s wrong with Dallas artists feeling like they should try to show in Austin, Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, etc.? That’s just how you build a career nowadays. You don’t have to be one of the Hot Young Things in New York or London to succeed. BUT: almost no one in any city outside NY or LA — not just Dallas — thinks you can be a big success while limiting your sights just to one city. That’s just not how you build a career.

    Words to ponder from Roberta Smith:
    “David Bates is having a perfectly interesting career without any attention from the New York art establishment, thank you very much.”

    Discussion question: what does this imply should be the advice to ambitious Dallas artists?

  • I think your question is rhetorical, but to make it explicit, the advice is to get out and show, get out of town, to do, do, do and not wait for the hometown cheering section to cheer for anyone but the A-Rods of the art world. Because they never will. The trick, though, how do you keep up the ambitious energy in this heat?

  • Jan van Toojerstraap

    What is dis ‘metrosexual’ mean? Is dis someone who does de sex in between Dallas and Fort Worth? Maybe de truck drivers in de giant 18 wheels trucks who drive from Czechoslovakia on dere ways to Austin? Maybe in Arlingtons? You are saying Ms Laflange is from Arlingtons? I’m to be thinking a grejt food critic is not to be living in Arlington, but hey, I’m not to be my home towns here so maybe JasonM is to be right to be metro-plexing. Dis is a bit like de hybrid cars maybe?

    Jan is to be guessing JasonM is actually a female pursuit cyclist from Belgium – I haff definitely been seeing a lot de babes on de fixed wheejl bikes in Exposition, so dis is proof.

    And Toojerstraap has two ‘a’s – you are saying it totally wrong. De word ‘Toojerstrap’ witte one ‘a’ means tight underpanten in de Nederlands, so you haff to be getting de right sayings.

  • Marianne Laflange

    Can someone delete the ridiculous Dutchman?

    Clearly the point about compression is not to do with limiting one’s artistic horizon to Dallas or having no outward ambition. The point is that the creation of art under any circumstances requires tension, and tension comes from critical mass, proximity and a sense of freshness and urgency.

    Citing Roberta Smith’s comments in this instance might be somewhat confusing, although her points are gratefully received, now, as they were then. It might be worth pointing out however, that if the tide turned in the opposite direction and a bunch of parochially-minded regional artists (I do not refer to David Bates – and for how many years will Dallas chew on that particular bone lofted from the high table, by the way?) were all to descend on NY in a group show right now, she might conveniently have to find herself in the Hamptons getting some sea air. Her argument, in this instance, was merely dish du jour.

    It is worth noting also that Dallas resident, artist Ludwig Schwarz, lived and worked for many years in NY and is showing at Leo Castelli over the summer. Personally – while I’m pleased for Ludwig – the NY validation doesn’t alter my appreciation that he is the same artist he always was: i.e. a good one – he didn’t just suddenly blossom or ‘get discovered’, he just got ignored for most of the time that he was here – by much of Dallas itself, who await external validation, despite their lofty aspirations as Art City. While it pains me to say it, I hope that following the impressive NY validation, Dallas now conveys upon Ludwig the seriousness as an artist that he has always deserved.

    No, the point is that cities need artists. They need good universities and good art schools. Together they breathe life into cities. The notion of compression is not to do with isolation or limitation, it is as the word implies. Compression alters the structure of things. It is the equivalent of adding heat to an experiment, it changes matter from one form to another. It creates bone density in humans. The other aspect of compression that is crucial is the component of time. Where activities are too spread out over time and space they simply don’t interconnect in a meaningful way. The web is no substitute for this. In fact, the web simply dissipates energy and makes things worse by removing all of the crucial physical components – like talking to people face to face, seeing the actual art, understanding the circumstances in which it is being seen, made and understood. This is all too obvious.

    The analysis that Ms Simek outlines has as much to do with the collective state of things than as advice to individual artists. But it is too easy (although not necessarily wrong) to simply say to artists (or anyone for that matter) “You need to go to NY/LA if you want to be an artist”. At one time, not so long ago, LA had virtually no art scene either, so it made itself one. Such a statement (‘go west/north young man/woman’) lets Dallas off the hook from providing a decent university/art school. Dallas, taken as a city, is intellectually lazy, there can be little doubt. It values success in business way above education. Hence SMU’s focus on its business school. Of course artists should travel, of course they should pit themselves against the best from elsewhere.

    But the implicit aspect of Ms Smiths’ article that I whole-heartedly agree with (if I’m right in detecting it), and have in fact been saying for over a decade, is that NY – as a place for artists to work – has increasingly led to a sort of ‘professional mediocrity’ among artists and curators (and critics?) alike that is sometimes in danger of becoming far too solipsistic – it reflects back into itself to such a degree that NY might be perceived as becoming an inward spiral of narcissism since the 1980’s. As a market, it of course offers art from around the world. But what Ms Smith doesn’t explore, is the fallibility embedded in the casual notion that seeing various artist’s work from the other side of the planet, again and again on a daily basis might be automatically and instantly fruitful, and therefore makes for an increasingly mannerist approach to making and looking at art. Smaller cities might at least have the advantage of not being overly self-conscious about the market. While a plethora of art-making styles may exist, it doesn’t instantly follow that there is a plethora of new ideas. Ms Smith had grown tired with the post-minimalism, she could get easily tired with the alternatives too. Bell bottoms are in. Then they’re out. Then they’re in. Then they’re out. In, out, in, out, you shake it all about, you do the hokey cokey and you turn around, and that’s what it’s all about. Oi. My old man’s a dustman, ‘e wears a dustman’s hat….Mary Poppins. Stone the crows…

    …And more Peter Doig? Clearly Ms Smith doesn’t get to Dallas very often. Maybe we could do a citywide swap?

    As my painter friends tell me – the residual paint sludge that gathers in the solvent from all the unused oil colors always returns to a very similar set of purple/grays – as Brice Marden was to illuminate for the world in his early encaustic paintings. NY’s art, taken broadly, is doing a parallel thing on a giant scale, and it is this proclivity for market-driven reductivism that Ms Smith complains of – and so, the possibility that a particular ‘other’ place may offer the potential for something rooted in something perhaps brighter, fresher or just different, is an appeal toward the possibility of resonance and meaning. The Catch-22 for Dallas is in getting from the point where LA used to be, to where it might be now, but without just giving up and moving there. Germany has many cities with significant cultural output – so does Britain. There is every reason why Dallas ought to strive toward this idea, but the notion of compression relates to the idea of energy, and energy is the coming together of many factors.

    Notable Dallas philanthropes of the past made significant efforts to address some of the issues relating to education and bringing art in front of a public, but the relay baton sometimes gets fumbled, if not completely lost in the areas that have yet to be properly addressed here. There is progress in some aspects, and stagnation in others. There is far too much hoorrah over elite charity auctions that might represent only the facade of city-building and not nearly enough focus on the issues that will ultimately count. Or put more generously, if one took away all that hoorah, what would we have left? Not very much perhaps.

    It might be too absurd to suggest the intellectual equivalent of Beyonce (inspiring sock/shoe/shorts combination) and Michelle Obama’s excellent ‘Let’s Move’ campaign, but the recognition that focusing input into drawing higher numbers of artists into a specific section of the city might be a useful first step. This would at least provide an element of geographical compression.

  • Laray


    There is no Czechoslovakia: there is the Czech Republic and Slokavia. Combined with the use of “dis” to mean “this”—which would be plausibly in spoken language, but not in written form—I say you are a big phony and should come clean.

    I get why people post under nom de electronica. There are consequences to speaking one’s mind—which is the most compelling reason for doing so. I was recently at an art event and a person commented, “You make people uncomfortable.” The response was off-the-cuff and irrelevant to the situation at hand. I suppose it was something that she had been meaning to say to me for some time. Well, the role of the artist in society, as I see it, is much like Edward Said’s axiom that an “intellectual is a responsible agitator.”

    Where there is big money involved in the arts (or business or politics or all three), a responsible agitator is not what you want around but, rather, a long-term paying patron who is in agreement with the way the system works. (There are exceptions, of course. I suppose if you were an agitator of international stature like Ai WeiWei,* anything goes.) It is very freeing to give up notions of exhibiting in the Great Palaces of Art in Dallas. Or even galleries, so much tension associated with sales. I wonder if people post under an avatar because they believe there will be consequences that amount to lost opportunities. If that is the case, perhaps an evaluation of what “opportunity” means should be part of the mix in a discussion of space, compression, tension, and social engagement.

    I don’t necessarily believe it has to be external conversation. Hierarchical arrangement in the art world is of no great consequence when considered side by side with the enormity of problems facing the modern, global community. And I don’t believe it is necessary to have a large confab of artists to start the ball rolling; smaller groups (pods or nodes) who are aligned in common outlook can be quite effective in planning events, projects or whatever can be creatively conceived.

    *Keep giving ’em hell WeiWei. Thanks for reminding us about the true costs of speaking out on issues that matter.

  • Yes, Laray. I, too, am tiring of the Gilliganesque characters and would much prefer the otherwise thoughtful discussion not be thinned out by so much witty reparte on the part of The Dickman (aw, damnyouautocorrect.com) or rather Dutchman et al. I’ve stepped on my own enough around here to assure everyone the consequences, be they good or bad, are not all that extreme. I’m still alive.

  • Now, guys, you know better. Even if Toojerstraap is a pseudonym (and I’m not sure we can rule out the possibility that he is real) there is a long and time-honored tradition of pseudonyms in political discourse and their adoption has not always been for reasons of cowardice. Where would we be without Publius or George Orwell?

    Certainly the adoption of identities on the internet has often been a way to throw punches and hide from the counter blows. But in this case, deal with the issues that are being raised and find a sense of humor. Dallas could use more of that for sure.

  • Laray


    Are you saying “lighten up” on Toolstrap and others? Sure. FTR, I was exerting a sense of humor as well as a sense of seriousness. Perhaps I am not funny.

    Some say “lighten up,” I say “tighten up.” The people you mention who had employed nom de plumes made serious contributions. I hardly think affecting a written Belgium-like dialect adds much to the conversation on the human condition. (Honestly, it comes off as stereotyping.) I will most willingly concede that there maybe confusion about what the role of public conversation—and it may not be confusion as much as competing agendas.

    Really my only point is that if someone is going to make the effort, either put your real name and some torque behind the words or work a little harder on your agitprop. Write some commentary, make some sticky flyers and post those babies in public.

  • Dallas fills its cultural insecurity with brand-name artists and architects like a 22 year old woman scarring her face with Botox and Collagen implants. It smacks of desperation and does not age well.
    I do love to gripe about how foolish and Provincial this makes the elite class of Dallas appear, but you make a good point that they are never going to change and we artists cannot expect them to help create a ‘real’ art scene, whatever that term implies.
    If nothing else the lack of support for lowly Dallas artists offers a prime opportunity to define ourselves outside the Rubrick of the establishment. Since they do not support us we are not pressured to fit our work into their Aesthetic or Philosophical framework. While the DIY sensibility can be limiting it also encourages much freer creative output.
    When you got nothin…

  • I think the conversation here is a distant step-cousin’s baby to the piece I actually posted on Glasstire. In that piece, I refer to a friend by the name of Toojerstaap. That was my choice. I could very well have called him “a friend” and never given him a proper name at all because what his name is, in real life, has little bearing on the points he made in conversation with me. That he has appeared here on FrontRow wearing a different hat, if he in fact even has, has nothing to do whatever with the intelligent, spot-on comments of his that I highlighted on Glasstire. The point of publishing those comments, if you’ll look again, was not to highlight their author, but to highlight his insights, in hopes of provoking thought, not insighting a quibbling banter over identities.