Martin Iles works on an episode of WOODS at his home in Sanger. "Literally I sit at that stupid computer with my head in my hands, and just make shit, on the computer, so," he explained to the photographer. Andi Harman

Arts & Entertainment

With Texas Fine Arts Theatre, Martin Iles Gets A Static Space For His Curatorial Mind

The gatekeeper of programming at the historic theater on Denton's Town Square will engage a community he's known well for almost 30 years.

A stranger slides $30 for lottery tickets over a gas station counter, sweating in overalls. The cashier smiles. “Good luck,” she says dryly, a recurring scene. In a nearby booth, one guy confesses loudly to another he “had a slip” between the deaths of two close friends. A door opens to heavy heat and a whir of trucks speeding north on the highway, past the rural town of Sanger near the northern edge of Denton County, sure of where they’re going. The sun won’t set for another couple hours.

To find the house Martin Iles built with his dad, visitors need written instructions.

BE AWARE THAT MOST GPS MAPPING SERVICES GIVE LAME, INACCURATE DIRECTIONS TO THIS LOCATION

This addendum is printed in small red type on the stock paragraph that Iles and his partner, Heather Grace, send to guests. It’s in the same cleanly spaced Helvetica used in messages from the Good/Bad Art Collective. Its heyday of mischief and surprise was in nearby Denton throughout the nineties. The group Iles helped found is behind the nationally successful community ritual and benefit Rock Lottery, which shuffles musicians in a one-night-only performance to raise money for charities local to each host city.

After two long turns down farm-to-market roads to the unincorporated community of Bolivar, the dust settles at an enclave of stark bronze sculptures. From this hill Iles sends his collage radio show WOODS to the rest of the world. It’s broadcast twice a month on Saturdays at midnight: a sonic letter of found comedy, haunted fascination, sinister histories, and a theatre of warning. The Denton community station KUZU 92.9 gave WOODS a home on its low-power FM broadcast and online stream. It carries on a great tradition of deep night radio findable in remote stretches of America, the kind of show that reaches listeners who are hungry for something they’ve never heard or felt before.

“There’s a few key things there,” Iles says of the time slot. “A lack of visual information. When it gets dark, you’re able to absorb things better. And most of the people who might complain are asleep.”

Iles fills this space where the day turns over with cases of obscure audio woven in concert with the drone of crickets—“the sound of boredom and things not working out,” he laughs. There are 36 excerpts in the Introduction episode alone. Jonny Trunk blathers to prostitutes in the “Martin’s Letters” series. David Koresh sings of his lonely reign on “Sheshonahim.” A woman identifying herself as “Curly Toes” threatens to take off her pantyhose in a blaring, high-pitched tone, rhyming in a simplistic scheme all the way. The voice is from a bizarre anonymous tape featured on the outsider music compilation Songs in the Key of Z (Vol.2). Curly Toes sounds more like she’s about to burn someone alive than pull them into bed. (Not that she wouldn’t do both.)

“I’ve really always been attracted to audio that when I hear it, something happens back here,” Iles says, gesturing behind his head.Like the hair on the back of your neck. There’s a narrative there — there is so much going on when you listen to that, it takes you out of yourself, completely. And that, to me, is so big.”

Lately Iles has been thinking about how people listen and watch. He’s phasing out of the family business—Bolivar Bronze, an operation he runs with his sculptor father David—to help run an arthouse theater in downtown Denton. Last week the team that runs the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff announced they’d bought the historic Fine Arts Theatre on Denton’s Town Square and that Iles would serve as the gatekeeper for its programming. He launched the Facebook page on Thursday, a promotion attentive to the history of the building and the town. The Texas Fine Arts Theatre’s opening night is projected for 2020.

It will be quite the shift from the manual labor Iles has been doing near Sanger. He and Grace have lived on this hill since 2011, when life in downtown Denton became strange. Not good-strange, but scrubbed and crowded— unlike the hippie-founded eateries and counterculture outposts that someone like Iles, who’d lived on the Square intermittently since 1990, first recognized as home. 

“It was kind of amazing living there, in those old buildings, when nobody was there, at all,” Iles says. He rented ample space for $400. “The only people that lived on the Square were weirdos.”

His favorite weirdo had a beard that turned bright yellow from so many cigarettes. And the guy loved movies. Joe Dodd ran a shop called Downtown Video in the spot where Little d Guitars on Elm Street is now, nestled behind the Square’s mainline of foot traffic. He kept films on the shelves like F.W. Murnau’s 1926 silent classic Faust, about the alchemist who tries to save his village from a plague and instead meets a demon out to corrupt his soul. There were experimental films, old Hollywood gems, and rows of adult VHS tapes wrapped in Dodd’s own exhaustive notes on their plot lines. (“The sex was secondary,” Iles says.)

This guy had, like, a personal vision,” Iles says. “Joe was actually a hero of mine. He never said goodbye or hello. You’d walk in and he’d just start talking to you.”

Iles has been collecting small ephemera since he was 17. He’s now 46, and continues to add to his collection kept in rows of glass jars opposite his study. PHOTO BY ANDI HARMAN

Eventually Denton’s conservative political core made such a venture impossible to sustain. Taking the context out of counterculture and regarding it as somehow “dirty”— a “seamy” aesthetic Mayor Euline Brock famously (and clumsily) compared to Austin’s Sixth Street— has misguided Denton’s powers of development for decades. He points to when the city tried to eradicate the Fry Street aesthetic from the funky thoroughfare just north of campus. Spike the bubble-machine-on-the-corner, nix the fliers advertising socialist meet-ups, get rid of the loitering. The city wound up dealing a blow to many different communities and axing businesses founded by students or longtime residents.

“These people people who were constantly talking about the ‘negative’ culture of Fry Street had no idea that all of that stuff was going to move to their town square,” Iles says. “Nobody understands it, but [people with bohemian sensibilities] gravitate to old places, places that have history.”

The Fine Arts Theatre was in Jason Reimer’s life before he led the rehabilitation of the Texas Theatre, the Oak Cliff movie house where Lee Harvey Oswald was famously arrested. The Denton building was used mostly as a church for decades and hosted little else. This confused and frustrated musicians and advocates in town who saw a great need for higher-capacity venues.

The first iteration of the NX35 music and arts festival— a “conferette,” as founder Chris Flemmons used to call it— pressed the issue in 2009. Famed jazz critic and author Harvey Pekar was a keynote speaker, and Reimer, then a Denton resident and musician who played with Flemmons in The Baptist Generals, booked Pekar’s appearance at the Fine Arts Theatre. Iles, too, was in the circle of planners and programmers trying to get the festival off the ground. 

Around that time, Iles was running a video series at Dan’s Silverleaf called Three On Sunday. He showed rare films and shorts, an outgrowth of another event he’d run for Good/Bad at its old location across the railroad tracks near the Denton Police Station. (Good/Bad was there before the police, Iles laughs, and the collective had worried its presence might mean trouble. They were fine.) One night Iles remembers screening a milder scene from the famously shocking documentary about brutal rituals around the world called Mondo Cane, from 1962. In this section, a group of people get progressively drunk in a German bar. People sipped their drinks at Dan’s while they watched strangers get slowly inebriated onscreen. Iles watched them all. 

“All the air got sucked out the room, and I loved it,” Iles says.

Reimer and Iles share an appreciation for film as a way to bring people together and around the cause of preservation, which factors heavily into both of Reimer’s projects. The multidisciplinary success of Texas Theatre has depended on the Oak Cliff community’s input and independent curators who book shows and promote them within their circles, Reimer explains. At the Texas, there are concerts and Q&As and film festivals and stand up comedy. He brought Iles on board to make sure the same thing could happen in Denton.

“Anything I’m gonna say [about Martin] is almost not enough,” Reimer says. “He’s kind of a lion tamer. When you’re the center of all those people as him and [Good/Bad cofounder] Chris Weber were, for so many years … he used to orchestrate it all, and was the filter for everyone’s opinions.”

In 2014 Reimer joined members of Good/Bad to direct a film commissioned by the Nasher Sculpture Center as part of the museum’s XChange project. They invited the public to participate in the taping of an infomercial that attempted to sell eternity itself. The 28-minute film aired twice in the middle of the night in multiple CBS markets over one weekend. The process of decision-making leading up to Forever was astoundingly democratic with Iles at the helm, Reimer says. It’s one reason why Reimer and his partner Barak Epstein brought Iles on to help. 

If the Denton theater sees the same kind of expansion Reimer has overseen in Oak Cliff— Texas Theatre will host the seventh annual Oak Cliff Film Festival next week—then Iles will have his work cut out for him. He’s already imagining a week in the life of the Texas Fine Arts Theatre in concrete terms: on Saturday night, Iles says, experimental musician Rob Buttrum could DJ with an Italian movie behind him. An African-American church could rent the space on Sunday. On Monday an experimental animation class would screen their work at the theater. On Tuesday Indian exchange students from nearby Texas Women’s University could watch Bollywood films. Wednesday, folks could hear some country and western from a popular band in Sanger.

“The perfect situation is appealing to every single person that you can,” Iles says. “I’m totally aware of how conservative some people are. I want an army of people who are totally on opposite ends of the political spectrum but like to go into movie theaters.”

Iles’ experience in New York will also inform his approach to programming. He worked at a gallery called PaceWildenstein from 2000 to 2005. Controversial art dealer Arne Glimcher made one of his biggest sales ever, of three Rothko paintings, during Iles’ tenure there.

“I was present for that sale. I stood behind a giant Rothko, holding it up, while I listened to a legendary art dealer make one of his largest sales. And it was fucking stupid. It was just so stupid. Everything about it was so stupid,” Iles, who has an art degree, says.

“The whole time I was thinking, this painting looks no different than a painting on the third floor of the UNT art building. You pull them out, they—the backs of those paintings—look no different than something some undergraduate made and left up there to be thrown in the Dumpster. You know what I’m saying? Just seeing that kind of stuff existing in that world for a while, after going through Good/Bad and tearing shit up, it was just kind of like, what the fuck is this?”

This bag’s pins are a collage of the offenses of history, which amount to a sense of derangement. This tote weighs 25 pounds.

So now Iles is holing up with audio he’s hoarded since the ’80s, culled from Miscellaneous sections of record stores, thinking about how he might translate the theoretical space he’s created with projects like WOODS and Good/Bad for the theater. This will be the first static space in his charge, ever, as an artist and curator. He knows how to physically build a house and a collection. And as a collector, he does not flinch at extremes or the horrors of American history; Iles disclaims for me and Andi Harman, who’s come to take photos, to keep perspective when scanning the spines of books about white power (near a ceramic figure of Hitler hanging from a noose) and violent cult rituals.

“It’s just like a movie where something terrible happens. Just because I own that movie doesn’t mean I believe in those terrible things,” he laughs.

We know, but there will be times when others need convincing. The Joe Dodd types of Denton are hard to find these days. It isn’t easy, in this part of the country, to balance being a truth-telling iconoclast as well as a peacemaker. But Iles is ready to try. After all, the power of the outsider art he so loves is found in its ability to have survived even when no one was listening.

“I love the context of that—the driven force,” he says. “People that feel compelled to make stuff.”

Listen to WOODS this Saturday at midnight, on KUZU 92.9, or stream it at this link.

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