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Wherefore Art Thou, Tejas?
The Texas Biennial Exhibition

© 1994 by Lee Murray
Photographs by J R Compton

Kelly Klaasmeyer 
True Arkansas Tales, 1991
installation ( detail ),
mixed media, 70 x 31 x 20"

The Texas Biennial Exhibition was held at Fair Park in November. It was a big show with 3,000 visitors that gave the DARE artists organization a state-wide presence in one grand gesture. Eighty artists were represented and over four hundred works exhibited.

It was indeed a cross section of art made in Texas, but was it Texas art, and is there any such thing? The first indication that this was not an assertion of native roots was that the creative force behind the show and the principle organizers were Jerry Janosco, Barbara Simcoe and Jeanne Chvosta, a coterie of Slavs from back (or up) east. But then Dallas has long considered itself to be the last city in the East rather than the first city in the West (that's Ft. Worth). Dallas is in fact about as close to Birmingham or Memphis as to El Paso or Brownsville.

Nonetheless, some of the work in the exhibit was about Texas or could be interpreted as such. First there were the diverse peoples. Felipe Abrego had references to his Hispanic heritage which does bind and forge Texas character. John Dryer included a photograph of an Indian, but the presence of Native American culture in modern Texas may be more of a travel agent's fantasy than contemporary reality. Kelly Klaasmeyer builds installations with pictures of stupid white people, of which Texas has its share but which is not definitive. Besides, Kelly said in the catalogue that the stupidest white people in this piece are from Arkansas.

Then there are the places. Philip Lamb shows photographs of folk installations and unintentionally ironic juxtapositions of text and objects in Texas locales. Mark Monroe included a fountain made of major and minor kitchen appliances that could remind an old timer of driving Texas highways through hundreds of miles of junk yard. But Ladybird made most of the junk move away from the road and, like Klaasmeyer's stupid white people, Texas has plenty of, but not a monopoly on, junk.

And finally there is myth. Hills Snyder exhibited a giant contour drawing of a '59 Cadillac which is old Texas to the core; opulent, ostentatious, wasteful and reminiscent of the oil culture. But oil has lifted us up only to drop us on our heads one too many times to have much of a place left in our hearts. A bumper sticker in Odessa read, "Lord give us just one more oil boom and we promise not to piss it away." The Lord has spoken, "You had your chance."

James K. Orellana
unidentified painting

James K. Orellana gets back to basic myth with Texas funk; a waltz of cactus, pickup trucks and Texas license plates that could have harmonized well with Bob (DaddyO) Wade's cows, boots, and armadillos fifteen years ago.

Bob Wade and the other cowboys who never saw a cow established a paradigm of Texas art in a simpler time when the hard drinking, macho, anti-intellectual, white male was considered strong, vital and marketable as a regional curiosity, rather than narrow, exclusionary, bigoted and an example of everything wrong in the world. Times have changed. The paradox of identity is that something that changes remains the same. It would be a shame if in the new Texas art the great diversity of Texas culture were turned into just a new set of faddish regional curiosities.

Texas art is not a self identical object with an essence or invariable intrinsic quality but is like a personality with variableness within uninterruptedness. Do we recognize contemporary Texas art like someone whom we have known in earlier times? And like a person whose body has changed, is there a collective Texas mind which has remained the same?

Sharon Kopriva
Little Boy Lost, 1991
(detail) paper mache, bone, steel,
wood, mixed media,
70 x 31 x 20"

Texas has been virtually a colony of the East Coast since the Civil War with Dallas, like the medieval Moscow princes, acting as administrator and tax collector for the eastern masters. Like any colony, raw materials are exchanged for manufactured goods and legitimate European culture. Local culture provides the East with the usual list of quaint colonial characters: the untamed rube, the childish peasant, the rustic, the bandit, and the savage, all overseen by the wealthy but dependent and essentially powerless local prince.

But beyond Dallas' illusion of the master's favor, Texas has absorbed very little of an aristocratic, heterogeneous European civilization. The great majority of Texans have antecedents who were renegades, fugitives, sharecroppers, gamblers, slaves, horse thieves and other assorted half-breeds. Of course it has been hard to maintain our integrity as horse thieves under the impact of immigration, public education and electronic media but we could try.

I suggest we need a General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) between Texas and the rest of the country. Under the European GATT France has maintained the right to continue development funds, tax breaks, quotas, subsidies, and minimum prices for commodities with impact on French culture.

It would be a simple matter to establish similar rights for Texas. All culture crossing the border would be subject to a tariff. Television and film in Texas would be required to have a percentage of local content. Only then would the region be safe for the vaqueros, biker carpenters, deep water Baptists, and cowboys who found the hat that makes up the real Texas.

But I have drifted back into essentialism and cultural stereotypes haven't I? I was trying, hoping to avoid that. Let me start over again. The Texas Biennial Exhibition was held at Fair Park in November. It was indeed a cross-section of art made in Texas but was it Texas art and is there any such thing?

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