Art: Wednesday, September 12, 2002
Fort Worth Biannual

A whole lotta good painting going on from Fall Gallery Night 2002.


Just for a goof, from now on let’s look at Gallery Night as Tarrant County’s version of a biannual — major art “events,” like the biennials put on every two years in Venice, New York City, and elsewhere, that are basically good excuses for locals to get out and into the galleries. Except that here, instead of being held in one really capacious museum, Gallery Night happens all over, in different-sized and just plain different spaces. There’s also no consensus as to what art goes where. The event is “curated” by a committee that never meets and never discusses anything. So, Fall Gallery Night 2002: the Fort Worth Biannual. How’s it look this season?

Well, pretty damn fine. Now, let’s remember, we’re not talking high-concept art appreciation-building here. The people running the 40-plus exhibition spaces that participated in this Gallery Night are concerned with generating foot traffic and maybe selling a piece or two, not making grand pronouncements on the state of the art world a la the Whitney Biennial or the Venice Biennale. We think this Gallery Night iteration is top-notch because we, however tipsy on free vino, ran into a lot of quality artwork — and (insert sigh of relief) not all of it was related to Sept. 11.

A cynic would say that most of the material on view in most of the galleries is smooth jazz compared to, say, the Mingus Big Band at Art Space 111 or the Jazz Messengers at William Campbell Contemporary Art. But, you know, it doesn’t take a lot of brain power to dismiss a painting of a fireman with his head hung low just because the piece is hanging in a soccer-mom gallery like Art on the Boulevard and just because it’s early September 2002. We will even risk our necks and go on the record as saying that this particular work by Darla Schneider is legit. There’s no overt reference to Sept. 11 in the piece, just the torso of a fireman, in his jacket, his face obscured by his hat; only part of his figure has been filled in with paint, the rest is all outline. This dour-looking man could be lost in deep thought over dinner plans or engrossed in a parade of ants at his feet. A person reads maudlin sentiment into the work only when he associates all that he’s heard about firemen over this past year with every fireman, real or painted — but not every fireman is a “victim.” And don’t hold it against Schneider that another painting of hers, depicting an American flag and an explosion, hangs directly over the canvas of the firefighter: No one said artists were above exploiting tragedy. We all have to eat.

Sherry Owens’ installation piece, “Bearing Witness,” at Four Walls is billed as “a response to September 11,” but the work itself is more a tombstone than an expression of an artist’s inspiration. Which doesn’t mean “Bearing Witness” is not visually striking. In the middle of Four Walls’ small space, three bundles of tree branches have been painted white and assembled in such a way as to give the impression of three dead trees growing upside-down (branches on the bottom, reaching into the “ground”; trunks on top, stretching like pinnacles toward the sky). Tiny votive candles line the outer walls, and an arrangement of small, white pieces of painted wood that bear the names of everyone who perished in the attacks covers one entire wall; the pieces of wood “grow” out of the wall on arms of twisted wire, and are stacked almost like bricks, one on top of the other. The names and the “trees” together create an air of noisy introspection, a tribal rhythm that grinds you into contemplation. And, like a dance beat, the installation, unfortunately, repeats the same few notes over and over. The only things that kept us engaged with the entire work for longer than two seconds were the ages of the deceased, printed next to their names. Too many died too young.

At the other range of the emotional spectrum is “Cabeza Grande” by Steve Cruz at Gallery 414, where Latino heritage and myth gets smacked down into caricature and cartoon. The big-waisted women Cruz paints never wear clothes, his bull-headed men walk around with erections, and the all-male choruses sport tubular noses that look like animal snouts. Interspersed among images of cartoon Hispanics fighting and lusting and praying are ancient-looking patterns in refulgent colors and large, papier-mâché beer cans and heads. Now, taking potshots at one’s ethnicity is nothing new, and behaving like fools is not endemic only to Latinos, but Cruz’s work here is so damn lighthearted and so damn funny we can forgive him for rehashing the time-honored gimmick of “making a statement.” (I mean, does he really think someone is going to view this exhibit and say to himself, “Gee, I’m really gonna stop fetishizing Latina women now that Steve Cruz has told me it’s bad”? Probably not.)

The best stuff coming out of Fall Gallery Night 2002, of course, leans toward the mature and the expository: notably, Stephen Daly’s “Synchronicity” at William Campbell, and Susan Harrington’s “Traces” at Art Space 111. The figures and faces and scribbles Daly relies on for punch in his paintings scream Jean Cocteau but without the pretentiousness of Cocteau’s work. Daly’s people never meet eye-to-eye (Alex Katz, anyone?), and they’ve apparently resolved to spend their lives contemplating life’s “simpler” pleasures, like plant life and a child’s jacks. What’s cool about Daly’s work is that no one in his right mind would buy any of it to fill space over a fireplace. This is personal, pure, aggressive, emotional art. Same goes for Harrington’s nightmarish concoctions on paper. Images of teddy bears, real live (and angry) bears, children, and silhouettes of dogs’ heads make absolutely no sense and wear their subconscious qualities proudly. Reality, surreality, it’s all a mixed-up game, anyway. Just ask the fireman hanging his head.

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