Dallas Contemporary’s new executive director Peter Doroshenko opened a divergent trio of exhibitions this past weekend — the first shows he’s curated here — with an additional, ‘off-campus, on-site’ installation by French artist Michel Verjux to be unveiled this Saturday evening. It’ll go up the side of the old Dallas County Services Building at 601 Elm Street (below).
For some 30 years, Verjux has experimented with light and light projections as an artistic medium. He creates basic geometric shapes — circles, half-circles, squares, rectangles — by shining intense white light on walls, floors, ceilings and buildings. The average person viewing these may find them — as with much of minimalist art — a case of “So what?”
But with Verjux’ outdoor settings, like 601 Elm Street, the effect can be highly theatrical, particularly with the contrast between the bright, crisp negation of the huge white-out and the worn, architectural details of an older building. In its own small way, it’s like I. M. Pei’s gleaming minimalist pyramid set against the ornate walls of the Louvre.
For his indoors show, “Breathe, Walk, Look” at the Dallas Contemporary, Verjux has up-ended several tables and planted an ordinary pedestal in locations around the main gallery. He shines carefully calibrated theater spotlights on them, producing looming shadows across the wide-open space. But because Verjux’ spotlights also have irises cut out in the exact shape of the table or pedestal, the shadows on the walls are outlined with a thin, brilliantly-white halo.
The optical effect is not unlike a “glory” — the rare, natural phenomenon that occurs when a shadow is projected onto a mist (generally a cloud or fog bank) and, given the right conditions, has a shining corona and rainbow around it. Verjux doesn’t create a rainbow — that requires water vapor — but he does produce a thin, secondary, separate stripe of blue light (visible in the image below). The glowing result may resemble a halo but it also looks ghostly, like a visual effect out of a sci-fi film.
Although Verjux’ set-up seems simple enough — and inspired the kind of playful shadow-puppetry from viewers one might expect — it actually entails a fiendish amount of careful placement. It also surmounted the spatial challenge of the Contemporary’s vast, empty gallery — by simply filling it with light and shadow.
In this current trio of shows, Verjux represents the international part of the mix that Doroshenko wants at the Contemporary. The other two, very different shows are by locals: Fort Worth artist David Willburn‘s ‘The Overuse of Everything” is his first solo outing, while “Rest in Power” is by the Dallas graffiti crew, Sour Grapes 13 (in the video uptop).
Sour Grapes has two disadvantages with its show. First, “Rest in Power” is a collection of tributes to the deceased graffiti artists who inspired SG13′s members, artists like Beno (aka Jayson Fleenor from Miami) and Tie (aka Jonathan See Lim from San Francisco).
Yes, somewhat surprisingly, it’s a graffiti show as a historic retrospective and hall of fame. But unless a viewer is well-versed in the graffiti canon, he might have cause to wonder: Are these individual pieces intended as homages to the original styles of these artists? Or are SG13′s artists employing their own styles to honor their heroes? This is a case where some background would have been helpful — to appreciate either how a particular style was appropriated and incorporated or how the artist struck out on his own, saying, in effect, the best way for one artist to pay tribute is with the best art he or she can produce.
More importantly and more frustratingly, “Rest in Power” fills one lengthy wall down the corridor spine of the Contemporary — thus making it impossible, in most cases, to step back far enough to appreciate an entire, big, bold, individual work. Graffiti has come a long ways from the bubble lettering and ‘throw ups’ of the ’70s and ’80s (so called because they’re quickly done to escape police or security). SG13′s work is extremely crisp and clean even with all the crowded lettering and rubbery, cartoon characters (overheard conversation: “Well, they must have used wide markers over the spray paint.” Ah no, that’s not the way this works.)
So yes, up close, the pieces look sharp. But this kind of graffiti is deliberately a crowded, layered mass of swirling, clashing energy, and that only comes across when you can take it all in at once. Outside on a wall of the Contemporary, SG13 has put up a tidy row of its trademark, candy-colored, pop-art-ish paletas (popsicles). But inside is where we can catch their different influences and styles — in bits and pieces.
Ironically enough, David Willburn embroiders comparatively small works (they’re on pieces of felt a little larger than a foot square), but he also displays them on pairs of bare, wooden frameworks, one with the embroidery clamped on it, the other with a bright clamp light illuminating the work from about five feet away. It’s ironic because he’s playing with light like Verjux but on a more intimate scale: It looks as though his pieces are being individually interrogated. Willburn has said that collectively, these ‘embroidered drawings’ (of chairs, a sink, a window) constitute a narrative. I can’t say I discerned a narrative thread (pardon the joke), although knowing that the stationary items portrayed are also from Willburn’s own home, I tried to figure out if the way they’re laid out reproduced that house (entranceway, bathroom, etc.).
What can be said is that Willburn’s pieces conjure a sense of delicate decay (his title, “The Overuse of Everything,” also suggests this). Willburn leaves the ends of his threads dangling loose, emphasizing their ‘unfinished’ state’ (the objects themselves are often not completely detailed either). Did he never finish them or, conversely, are they slowly fraying?
Despite the time-consuming sewing involved, his embroideries do evoke marvelously quick, pen-and-ink studies. But the threads also make the objects appear to droop or to be literally tied down. (Remember the interrogating lamp.) So we get the squiggly energy of a sketch or a humorous caricature with almost a kind of weariness. Walking by these works, it’s easy to make them tremble or flutter; they’re that delicate.