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SCAB in FDluxe by Michael Corris

April 5, 2013

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

Posted by on Friday, March 29, 2013

For full article and more pictures click here.

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.

produced and photographed by NAN COULTER

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.

“KELLY KROENER is a native of rural Ohio. She studied sculpture and fashion at the School of Art Institute Chicago and worked with at-risk students in Baltimore, an experience that has profoundly marked her work as an artist. Using textiles as her medium, Kroener has created knit cozies for videocassettes and a stunning group of abstract paintings masquerading as pillows. Her work often starts from a position of great humility, creating objects that are generally overlooked — because they are found in every household — but impossible to do without. Kroener is in conversation with a long tradition of artists for whom the domestic setting is a place of comfort and confrontation and a platform for reflections on gender and class. Kroener’s work reminds us that one must be mindful of straying too far from either studio or home; hence the title of a recent solo exhibition, “Groundwork.”

JUSTIN HUNTER ALLEN studied art at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York, then spent a few years on the Continent, as one does, taking a well-deserved break from the intrigues of the art world’s trading floor. Allen presents himself as an enigma, but his art is anything but the strong, silent type. Like so many of his peers nurtured in the hothouse of the New York art scene, Allen’s art gravitates toward modest, yet consequential, gestures. A smallish work titled Wave, 2008 presents an animated square of acrylic color on cardboard mounted on a stretcher. It could be a riff on Blinky Palermo or Richard Tuttle, except the lower right corner of the cardboard is migrating from its base as if acknowledging our presence. I am not certain if the painting is waving or drowning. His Darling, after all these years (Is there sex after T.V.?), 2012, above, is like a visual noises-off, an entombed bit of interference that one imagines could have taken place slightly offside of an erotic tête-à-tête.

ELI WALKER was born in Dallas and studied painting at School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Hoffberger School of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Walker talks about the Chicago painter Ed Paschke’s practice of inviting people over to mess up one of his paintings. The after-party is the scene of a solitary artist working to cure the surface and to restore his balance. This is an approach that Walker has adopted, but he has dispensed with the booze and the invitations: He is a one-man band, playing the role of creator and destroyer. That’s why Walker’s paintings look like the artist has gone just a bit too far in the land of failure. It sounds contrived because you might think that it’s easy to ruin a good painting. Well, not really if you are an artist; the tendency is to down your brushes before you even get close to that point. Walker’s time in Chicago also left him with a profound love for the ethos of do-it-yourself. Along with Kelly Kroener, he moved to Dallas, where the couple quickly began to attract like-minded artists around them. A circle formed and S.C.A.B. was born, the name coined by Joshua von Ammon. Walker and Kroener christened their first studio Homeland Security. The name stuck and now graces their new home in the Cedars, where the public is invited to encounter art in a space that is clean, but not necessarily well-lit.

My first encounter with LUCY KIRKMAN’s art was her jewel-like delicacy, Ab-Ex, 2011, above. Kirkman’s model for this work is a sheet of commemorative United States Postal Service postage stamps depicting iconic works by post-war American painters, which she dutifully repaints at the same miniscule scale. We have seen the domestication of high art masculinist display before, particularly in the art of Sherrie Levine during the early portion of her career where she reworked in watercolor textbook-sized reproductions of the iconic works of Modern (male) masters; Lucy’s iterations, however, are not about negation in precisely this sense. As we follow her more recent work, a profoundly literary sensibility begins to make itself felt. Her aesthetic is one that owes as much to Borges as it does to Louise Bourgeois. These are works of interiority, resonant with the act of reading or rummaging through the libraries of others. Lucy discovers quite a lot by reading other’s well-read books; their absent-minded marginalia is more often than not her main course.

ALEXANDER DIJULIO’s Crito, 2012, above, is quite the neo-Romantic emblem, all beauty and the beast, gravity and grace. Even though Damien Hirst killed butterflies forever for art — achieving, perhaps, what Hallmark cards could never do in the common culture — DiJulio’s work offers the order Lepidoptera amnesty. Titled after a dialogue by Plato on the nature of justice and the social contract, Alexander’s collage shows us tar, Texas linen and wildlife in an impossible ecology that screams: “Talk is cheap!” DiJulio, a native of Philadelphia, is another Maryland Institute College of Art alumnus. His working method is to gather found objects. While the resultant work seems to be rather well-behaved and aesthetically pleasing as allegories of the real, his intention is to recover the real from our befogging-image world — a world that a ponderous art historian once assembled for all to marvel at, under the name (and book) “A Forest of Signs.” One might say — forgive me, Alexander — that this man can see the forest for the trees.

SAMANTHA MCCURDY, a bachelor of fine arts graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, makes paintings that are really polychrome low-relief sculptures. She has a history of working in performance art, which explains why she also posed semi-nude models rather provocatively displaying her paintings. The women in these photographic tableaux have their modesty: Painted jumpers or knickers camouflage their partial nudity. The illusion of the fully clothed model mirrors the dishevelment of the part-painting, part-sculpture object offered to our gaze. Macy’s, 2012, above, a collage with wax on canvas, is all disembodied legs and pumps, referring once again to a partial body. These are fantasy images that trade on a certain kind of fetishism while allowing for peaceful coexistence between some otherwise quite perilous psychological states. Détente meets Dior.

JOSHUA VON AMMON plays with words, inventing ingenious, purpose-built monotype devices to create large-scale texts. The texts are usually just fragments, painstakingly inscribed character by character. They are always provocative because of how they self-consciously intersect with text-based work associated with artists concerned with race or identity. Von Ammon has also produced a series of mask-like small paintings, each one a burlesque on the figure of the shaman. The masks fashioned from paper bags by Saul Steinberg come to mind, mainly because I detect a shared sense of whimsy. Combined with the text-based works — also a favorite pastime of Steinberg’s — I find Von Ammon’s recipe of typography and mock-terror nicely dark but not overly so. He also spent time studying art at the School of Art Institute of Chicago and then lived and worked in Prague, a celebrated nexus of satire. Alongside Frank Darko, Von Ammon is a co-creator of “Conversations in the Void,” an Internet program featuring interviews with artists in and around Dallas.

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

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