The Visual Arts in 2011: Giving Thanks and a Wish List

This past year in the visual arts, there was much to be thankful for; we also have a few wishes that we hope come true in the next.

Thanks For individual collectors. From the Gardner, Frick, and Barnes collections on the East Coast to the Rachofsky House in Preston Hollow, houses showcasing the tastes and interests of a single patron are invariably distinctive in a way that larger, encyclopedic collections can’t be. In the best case (e.g. the Barnes Foundation) the founder’s vision, the site and the artworks combine into a whole greater than the sum of the parts. In the worst case (e.g. the Broad Contemporary Art Museum in Los Angeles), the works appear to be assembled more by checkbook than by an identifiable taste or vision. Now, with The Power Station in Fair Park, established by the Pinnell Foundation, Dallas has another opportunity to observe a unique program develop, unencumbered by the bureaucracy and politics of a larger institution.

Thanks For Painting and Sculpture. With Ed Ruscha and Richard Diebenkorn at the Modern in Fort Worth, Mark Bradford at the DMA, and Tony Cragg at the Nasher, it was a fine year for both two- and three-dimensional work in the metroplex. If you include the programs of the commercial galleries too, there was a vast wealth of painting to enjoy—from the rough-hewn minimalism of Otis Jones at Holly Johnson to the wry anecdotes of Kirk Hayes at Conduit. Both the DMA and the Modern are catholic in the range of contemporary painting they collect, from a Callum Innes monochrome to a Susie Rosmarin grid to a Rosson Crow interior scene. Painting in particular is well supported by our local institutions, and the Nasher single-handedly makes Dallas a major venue for sculpture. 

Wish: For More Video and Intermedia Work. Unfortunately, Dallas’s strength in painting and sculpture is countered by a comparative weakness in less object-based, or intermedia, work: video, installation, performance, conceptual and otherwise. Aside from the odd Bruce Nauman video at the DMA or the Modern, and the excellent Brian Fridge video at Marty Walker this fall, intermedia work is very hard to find here. To throw out a few names almost at random, and considering only very well-known examples: Ryan Trecartin, Pipilotti Rist, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Dara Birnbaum, Tino Sehgal, Maurizio Cattelan, Marina Abramovic, and Rirkrit Tiravanija have all had major exhibitions elsewhere in recent years, but their work is almost non-existent in Dallas. Why? Altogether the range of media on the Dallas scene is quite unbalanced; it’s as though the cataclysmic revolutions in artistic practice of the past 40 years had simply never happened. For 2012 and beyond, I wish for institutions in Dallas to make a major commitment to supporting intermedia, time-based and conceptual work. For those looking for a place to start, I suggest Danh Vo, Taryn Simon, and Haris Epaminonda. Who will be the first to bring these artists to Dallas?

Thanks For Guerrilla Shows and Events. It’s a basic sign of health in an art scene when the art breaks out of dedicated institutions and finds a home in a building designed for another purpose. I’m thinking of Modern Ruin and Quick and Dirty, as well as Sustenance and Love Come Down. The specific, compressed nature of these events creates an intensity of experience, and their uniqueness creates a shared bond, and set of memories, with the other people who were there too. These events are confirmation that art can, does, will, and should exist outside of an institutional superstructure. 

Wish: For More Documentation. I’m professionally biased here, but the essays that go into catalogs, brochures and websites are not only a crucial part of the historical record. They also help novice viewers understand material that might otherwise be utterly perplexing, and they help expert viewers gauge the contextual claims that are being made for the work on view. To be sure, full-scale catalogs are expensive, which is why they accompany only a tiny fraction of exhibitions. But catalogs are not the only way to document work. Printed brochures are less expensive, and essays published on the web are less expensive still. Both the Focus series at the Modern, and the Sightings series at the Nasher, deserve a lot of credit for making the effort to publish a brochure for every exhibition in the series. But too many high-quality exhibitions have little or no written interpretive material to go along with them (I’m looking at you, Dallas Contemporary and Goss-Michael Foundation). For 2012, I wish for more textual interpretation and documentation: more catalogs, more brochures, and more essays published on the web.

Thanks For University Art Galleries. To mention only a few, Fort Worth Contemporary Arts at TCU, The Gallery at UT Arlington, and CentralTrak at UT Dallas do yeoman’s work in presenting innovative, challenging work that falls outside the purview of the commercial art market. Often operating on modest budgets, they present wide-ranging and frequently updated programming that is also vital to developing the next generation of artists within the university community. Anyone who wants to see how dynamic a nonprofit gallery can be should start here.

Wish: A University Contemporary Art Museum. In the U.S., university museums are crucial in supporting ambitious, challenging contemporary art that might be too edgy and non-commercial for more populist museums, on a grander scale than the galleries can do. Archetypal examples would be the Wexner Center at Ohio State, the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, or the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston. With the resources to publish full-scale scholarly catalogs and support multi-city tours, these institutions do a lot to set the agenda for contemporary art beyond their home towns. This year, for example, the Blaffer organized an exhibition of the difficult Belgian video artist Johan Grimonprez that will travel to Edinburgh and Ghent, and published a reader of his texts and interviews. The Wexner, meanwhile, was responsible for the shows of Mark Bradford and Luc Tuymans that toured nationally through several cities including Dallas. Their catalogs, meanwhile, landed in thousands of libraries and bookstores. That’s the kind of generative impact that just a handful of institutions can have on the larger art world. For 2012 and beyond, I wish for one or more of the Dallas-area university art galleries to be granted the resources to organize large-scale touring exhibitions with catalogs, and make an impact on the scale of the Wexner or the Blaffer.

Ben Lima teaches modern and contemporary art history at UT Arlington.

Image: Brian Fridge, Sequence 11.5, 2009 (detail), black and white silent video, 1 minute (via Marty Walker Gallery)