SEW HIP: James Gilbert, who lives and works at Centraltrak, explores issues of celebrity and loneliness with translucent underpants. photography by Joshua Martin

UTD’s Centraltrak Is Melrose Place for Artists

UTD’s residence program invites the world’s best to live better here.

At 29, Reunion Arena bit the dust. By November, its posts loomed like vigilant dolmens while the ceiling’s covering rippled over the waste beneath. From the Houston Street bridge, the ceiling rubble looked like a warped canvas or an excoriated skin. It was as if the fragile and wounded ceiling was shrouding the rest of the building from further infraction.

Reunion’s dimpled structure came to my mind after I heard about the current work at Centraltrak, UTD’s artist-in-residence community. This month, an exhibition there called “Transitive Pairing: Body Objects” unites three Centraltrak textile artists (James Gilbert, Gabriel Dawe, and Sunny Sliger) with three Dallas-based architects (Sharon Odum, Gary Cunningham, and Russell Buchanan). The three groups have designed creations that respond to an artistic motif and an architectural structure, crafting a marriage of built shapes and fabric.

Since opening in the renovated Fair Park Station post office building, on the outskirts of Deep Ellum, in April 2008, Centraltrak has itself merged art with the urban. “The idea is to be able to compete with the country and the world in terms of artists,” says Charissa Terranova, Centraltrak’s former director and a UTD professor of aesthetic studies. (She left in December to pursue her scholarly work and the completion of her manuscript. Kate Sheerin is the new director.) Terranova, whose arts journalism at the Dallas Observer and work at SMU and the Dallas Morning News attracted the eye of UTD, thinks the city needs an arts dialogue to match its style. Rather than talk to adults like children, as current art education programs often do, Centraltrak aims to “educate the public in a sophisticated way because Dallas has such sophisticated things. Being showy makes Dallas great,” she says, “but the city also needs intellectual bravado. Dallas is all about potential forever, the new, but people here need to be aware of art history and theory and criticism when they study art.”

To provide this forum, Centraltrak houses four UTD grad students and four resident artists to live and work in its loft studios. Though UTD is the aegis for the group, much of Centraltrak is privately funded. The director’s salary is from UTD and there is a development office that helps raise money. Other than the director, Centraltrak has no staff, and outside of rent costs, Centraltrak artists receive no stipend. Terranova would like to see these items ironed out so that Centraltrak can continue to vie for top artists nationally and internationally.

Centraltrak finds itself in what Terranova calls one of Deep Ellum’s “sleepier moments.” Though Fair Park has gained the new DART station, many clubs and music venues in the area have closed. James Gilbert, a recent Centraltrak artist, says being in an isolated area is good for getting work done. But on first arriving in Dallas, he spent a day walking from South Dallas to Downtown to Uptown and back to Deep Ellum (it took him eight hours). When he got back to eat dinner in Deep Ellum, the old “it” place, the restaurateurs rued Deep Ellum’s emptiness. Though Gilbert has a car to get out and about, fellow Centraltrak artist Gabriel Dawe doesn’t. Dawe uses DART, and he doesn’t always get where he needs to go. Deep Ellum has no grocery store.

Nevertheless, both artists have enjoyed Centraltrak and their participation in the Dallas arts community. Dawe, who hopes to stay here after completing his master’s of fine art degree at UTD this year, feels that Dallas’ arts community is far more easily penetrated than Montreal’s. Los Angeles-based Gilbert says, “Dallas feels like a very small arts community. LA museum curators wouldn’t come to a gallery show, but here everybody is so open.” Still, he feels that Dallas collectors should work to help regional artists reach larger audiences, and they should explore more international work.

So what sort of work have these two artists done here? Long before the Susan Boyle kerfuffle and Tiger Woods imbroglio, Gilbert looked at issues of celebrity, loneliness, and privacy in social networking. He gauges the point between too much and just enough exposure. Works involving effaced figures or translucent underpants represent this denuding. For “Transitive Pairing,” Gilbert’s work will accompany Sharon Odum’s structure to address the invasion of personal space.

Dawe started off as a graphic designer in Mexico City, became a painter in Montreal, and began working with textiles as part of his MFA at UTD. Interested in “the burden of pain we each have in our own lives,” he has created a pain series using pins on shirt cuffs as a tribute to Gunther Uecker’s nails. Dawe’s work in “Transitive Pairing” complements architect Gary Cunningham’s, dealing with the inner and outer gaze.

Further to these fluid structures, Centraltrak is also hosting a symposium on urban sprawl this month. In a city notorious for its unabashed sprawl, top theorists on urban planning will debate whether sprawl is rightly demonized. Centraltrak, close to old railway lines, the new DART line, and I-30, finds itself cinched between Dallas’ competing realities: sustainability and expediency. New structures can quickly implode into obscurity here. Centraltrak attempts to process these evolutions by its symbiosis of art and architecture. Like all processes, it’ll take some time to know if it’s raised the bar or if we’ve reached it.

Events: “Transitive Pairing,” February 13 through March 30; opening reception, February 13, 6 to 8 p.m.; “Kinetics of Urban Sprawl,”
February 19 through 21.