Why 7 local artists say the Dallas art scene is a sham — and what they are doing about it

by | Culture, People

There is a tiny collective of artists in Dallas that thinks the whole art scene is “a fake, fitted out with a tremendous affectation” writes scholar MICHAEL CORRIS. Are they right? Is there an antidote? Meet seven jagged little pills.

There is a joke that circulates in the art world, and it goes like this: “The first work of art was a painting. The first piece of art criticism was on the death of painting.”

This sort of paternalistic doom-mongering can be applied to anything, really, but the conclusion is always the same: Things were better in the old days. Everything’s gone downhill since. Why are you folks wasting your time?

If I told you that a number of artists in Dallas have banded together under the moniker Socialized Contemporary Art Bureau, you might be forgiven your skepticism. After all, it is not exactly bracing news that artists, seeking to make a world of their own in an art world not of their making, might decide to cooperate rather than compete with each other. Furthermore, how good could these folks be as artists if they don’t have the bottle to go it alone? Well, if you believe that, you are wrong.

Eli Walker, Kelly Kroener, Justin Hunter Allen, Lucy Kirkman, Joshua von Ammon, Samantha McCurdy, Alexander DiJulio, Michael Alexander Morris and Frank Darko — seven of whom are in this story — are young artists who are doing a pretty good job of carving up the Dallas art scene and serving it back to us on a silver platter. You might say that the chickens have come home to roost, since some of these artists are native to Dallas.

The art world we have known up to now appears to S.C.A.B. to be a fake, fitted out with a tremendous affectation. “Let us take leave of these precincts of counterfeit social and intellectual engagements,” they cry. “Let us make ourselves a world and fill it with art that is fit-for-purpose in our world.” So, to know their art, you must know their world. And to know their world is to know ours; to reconsider ours remade with equal parts improvisation and recrimination. The world of S.C.A.B. is a world of people, art and spaces. It is a world in motion: New faces appear and bond to the group; new galleries and display sites spring up overnight; and all the while the artists of S.C.A.B. bring the materials of art to life.

It is part of the challenge of being an artist today to find a subject worth pursuing. But there is a paradox lurking in this prosaic charge: The range of an artist’s legitimate subject matter is expanding hugely, while the artist’s métier is dissolving in a haze of improvisation. The de-skilling of the artist is a trend that really took hold in the 1960s, when the idea that one was a painter or sculptor or printmaker, et cetera, imploded and left us with a new and puzzling thought: The value of art was not dependent on either traditional craft skill or a devotion to the exploration of a specific medium. When artists broke out of the traditional constraints of art, art ceased to resemble art. It began to look like nothing so much as the furniture and fixtures of everyday life.

Placing S.C.A.B. within this trajectory — a historical context that appears at first to be nothing other than the longue durée of the avant-garde — illuminates and obscures their purpose, pleasures and predicaments. The members of the S.C.A.B. collective spiritedly inhabit the role of contemporary artist as makers of worlds that sit uneasily between the known and the utterly mad. I read their project as one of survival fused with aesthetic jobbing. Seek out their work in venues such as Homeland Security, Studio Don’t F*** This Up or the Angstrom Gallery, a commercial gallery that S.C.A.B. appears to have colonized with the blessings of its owner, David Quadrini. Drench yourself in the bombastic paintings of Eli Walker, the delicate typographic pictures of Lucy Kirkman, the faintly distressing constructions of Alexander DiJulio, the radiant intimacy of Kelly Kroener’s soft furnishings and the testing digital interventions of Michael Morris. Expose yourself to Joshua von Ammon’s punctured shamanism and conversations in the void or Frank Darko’s warming approach to documentary filmmaking. Enter the icy frame of Samantha McCurdy’s vogue and Justin Hunter Allen’s melancholia.

The subject of these artists is sincerity spoken through materials that cannot help but falsify. Still, the spirit of S.C.A.B. does not entirely force the material into submission. As Jiro Yoshihara, the founder of the Gutai group, wrote in another country at another time: “If one leaves the material as it is, presenting it just as material, then it starts to tell us something and speaks with a mighty voice. Keeping the life of the material alive also means bringing the spirit alive, and lifting up the spirit means leading the material up to the height of the spirit.” Of course, Yoshihara’s manifesto proclaims an art that is based on performance and participation. Yet if I were asked to generalize about the art of the S.C.A.B. collective, I’d say that they also yearn to break free of the constraints of a moribund culture of art. In S.C.A.B.’s world, spirit and material are having quite a natter: unscripted, distracted, alive.

MICHAEL CORRIS is an artist, writer and educator. He is the chair of the Division of Art at Southern Methodist University. He is an editor of Transmission Annual, a thematic anthology of art and culture co-published by SMU and Sheffield-Hallam University in Sheffield, England. His email is mcorris@smu.edu.