Art: Wednesday, July 4, 2002
Arlington Museum of Art
‘You are Here’ thru Aug 24; ‘Dingle’ and ‘Natural’ thru Jul 20 at the Arlington Museum of Art, 201 W Main St, Arlington. 817-275-4600.
Chances Art

The work inside isn’t great, but big props to Arlington Museum of Art for seeking thrills.


There’s a little bit of trendy, conceptual New York City at the Arlington Museum of Art this month — and it isn’t pretty.

I know, pretty or ugly doesn’t really matter anymore, anyway, as long as whatever’s rendered by an artist’s hand is truthful or accomplished as opposed to gratuitous. But the majority of material now occupying space at AMA, in both the museum’s Allan Saxe Mezzanine Gallery and the Arista & Howard Joyner Gallery, is not only ugly, it’s blah. Original and memorable and specific even, yes, but quite bereft of energy and lazily constructed.

What you see when you walk into the building is a tall stack of nine thick, huge, pink-and-white partitions, lying on top of each other and leaning on one another in no particular logical arrangement. Thin strips of silver reflective tape hang along the edges of the space near the ceiling and the top edges of the four columns within which the monolithic partitions pass the time in the center of the room. The word “here,” a few inches high, is stenciled in black into the white floor at the entrance, and an equally unassuming nautical compass, also in black, lies at the farthest point from the front doors within the exhibition space. The walls are sinisterly bare. Ah-ha! you’ll say. Conceptual art! Prepare to be pissed.

Bored is more like it. The name of the exhibit, by Janet Tyson and Jim Malone, is “You are Here — a site-specific installation,” and behind the effrontery there are a couple of legitimate, AMA-specific ideas lurking in the sheetrock: For one, as it was explained to me by Tyson, the museum never gets to utilize its enormous ceiling space, so constructing a moderately lofty monstrosity in the center of the main gallery fills a void of sorts; And, two, Arlington gets no respect, so reminding viewers (mostly from Fort Worth or Dallas) of their immediate whereabouts through a word and a compass will hopefully trigger some sympathy for the old town. But to say this installation is the best that two intelligent, inspiring, gifted Texas artists could come up with would be a lie.

As for the form of the work, the partitions are dirty, in a bad way. They’re smeared and chipped, and they look cheap — though I’m sure they do fine work holding nails. They’re so chintzy-looking and stacked so haphazardly that your first thought on entering the building may be that you’re looking at a bundle of refuse. (I thought the museum was in the process of breaking down a show on my first visit.) And the reflective tape? It’s such a subtle stroke that it’s subterranean. You can’t blame anyone for not examining the outer reaches of a place where everything is supposed to be at eye-level and, obviously, accessible. So even though I understand all of Tyson’s points, I still don’t think this is “good” conceptual art. The concept — Arlington is a nice place; the AMA is a nice place — never really comes through on view. And a work of art should stand on its own — with minimal or no accompanying text. “You are Here” doesn’t articulate much.

And then there’s the upstairs gallery, where two-thirds of the space is filled with Christopher Hart’s white sculptures. Talk about mute. The only redeeming quality of this exhibit is a wall-sized work called “Autobiography.” It’s a bunch of small rectangular metal panels assembled in neat rows, not all of which are completely filled, like a page of computer code. The panels are covered in various amounts of Floamyduff, a synthetic insulation substance, and, chipping or decaying, they’re all evocative of small tableaux of dying trees in deep snow. This enormous montage moves quickly, frenetically. There’s logic and disorder vying for attention, and the mix proves intoxicating.

The name of the exhibit is “Dingle,” after the town in Ireland, and there are supposedly lots of references to the peninsula evident in the myriad pieces on view here. But don’t even ask me what they’re supposed to mean. Is Hart trying to do us a favor by turning us on to Celtic history? Frankly, I could care less. I thought I left my didactic professors at school.

In the one part of Allan Saxe not burdened with Hart’s personal paeans to being green is “Natural,” a group show of good ole-fashioned paintings of various degrees of good and bad. The good: Janet Chaffee Petersen’s oil paintings, which are so sumptuous you might be tempted to take a bite out of one of them. Soft, rich colors — from bone whites to deep reds and oranges — swirl and twist in the impastor, like lines in marble stone. The next-to-good: Carol Benson’s “Umbrella,” a panoply of primary colors splashed in the trace of what could be an open umbrella on a brilliant yellow background. And the bad: Marilyn Jolly’s small, flamboyant, childlike yet not innocent concoctions.

The upside to all this is, of course, the fact that the AMA is at least trying to be adventuresome, especially by exhibiting “You are Here.” The danger is that installation art is largely verboten around these parts, and anyone who dares exhibit such work runs the risk of alienating North Texas’ humongous constituency of plainfolk. What to do? My vote: Keep on pushing those boundaries. To hell with plebes like me.

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