Small Sculpture in Texas

Foreword by Gerald Burns

Yesterday I got my copy of Dallas Arts Revue #32. Good paper, trick graphics (screened page numbers in odd fonts at the foot of pages), little notes from Compton tucked in everywhere, one of them praising a new gallery on Haskell "because its soul is co-op and neither non-profit nor bureaucratic." That description holds for Compton, who has been describing, praising, quarreling with Texas artists twelve years or so, for a while reading on radio scripts that became Arts Revue pieces because he writes like he talks.

As a presence he's bulky, curly-haired, a bit bear-like, warm brown eyes like a Polish scientist's and a trick of the mouth that's always a little quizzical. He takes himself seriously but you only know that from whatever paper he edits coming out, then again, then again. Persistence is a sign of love, with him, that he keeps doing this thing. It's an odd niche. He could, I suppose, have written up art for the Morning News or something, taking his own photographs, becoming week-end entertainment (I don't know if that would count as "bureaucratic"), but by issuing his own opinions in his own magazine I think he underlines his independence, even from himself.

A critic becomes a figure to himself, a flavor one markets like property. J.R. (I don't remember ever knowing what the initials meant) sells judgments about the goodness or badness of art, gallery management, whatever ought to matter to working artists in a rich but not over cultivated town. He's not selling Compton as a rival to the art he describes, the way failed painters may vent their hatred on museum shows they hang.

He doesn't exhibit envy. That he thinks of himself as a photographer of sorts may help, one of the elect, and his photographs of art, especially when he had an 8 1/2 x 11 format, are enormously instructive. I think for instance of his plain unvarnished daylight shots of Linnea Glatt's plain unvarnished cinder-block installations, so much allowing her her use of space that the effect becomes his, very nearly co-opted.


Compton, that's to say, has an attitude. It's more than affection, or a shepherd's care for his sheep. He goes to galleries, catches the openings, munching a cookie or cheese dip in passing, his manner something between a prospective buyer and the gallery cat. He ambles about, stopping dead still to look at a picture, leaning forward a bit if it's a big sculpture, maybe weaving his body unselfconsciously to get a notion of its knobs and angles in space, and everything he knows about stuff, chicken wire and velvet, paint and steel, cement and graphite, is there for him--along, you can see, with everything he knows about the sort of generalized question everything he hopes that artist might do.

It's that wanting the exhibitor to excel that pulls him away from the Sunday supplements, into the restricted class of great curators and commentators, genuine critics who with any luck help produce what they discuss, very nearly summoning the quality of it by their longing. It is a little spooky to watch, and one thing to do if you follow Compton around is see how he handles the disappointments. There must be theater critics like that, somewhere. Maybe John Lahr. If they weren't basically humble, hadn't so genuine a love for the forms, genres, you'd mistake them for the people who imagine they made what they merely describe.

But it's as a describer Compton shines. I know no better sculpture critic anywhere. He always tells me what the piece is made of, what it feels like to walk around it, and how much it probably weighs. If it smells he says so. If it lights up he's right on it. Consider what it takes to describe, say, a big Mac Whitney girder sculpture, some giant thing he's roller-brushed red and installed in a park. Those angles could be different, and worse, the sticking-out ends four inches too long. Whitney's missing fingers testify to the difficulty of big riveted pieces, but if he were a worse artist the pain would be about the same, so it's not as if you praise him for wear and tear.

How do you praise the piece for not being four inches too long. Compton very nearly knows how to do that, or how to write a piece so you know he's considered the possible ways a successful piece might have failed. When he describes a good one he makes it sound like an achievement--something salvaged from the swamp of good intentions and bad art.

Further, Whitney makes (I hear reported) little models, maquettes, for some of his pieces. If he gives a show of those there they are, just like his big ones only smaller, like an H-O scale train you can stick in your pocket. It may be "to scale" but the mass is gone, the gravitic weight like a Death-star of so much steel right next to your body. Compton describes little sculpture as if he's turning it over in his lap. But big sculpture, or Glatt's installations you sit in like a little chapel, he greets with his body as fellow bodies. You can hear the air echo off them. That's quite wonderful, because it means his measuring, calculating mind is including muscle and memories of being-contained-in as part of his calculation. His body, confronting sculpture, gets very prudent--very like what Whitney's does, probably, when he fiddles with his cranes.


I believe J. R. hates injustice but loves the spectacle of it. It was my good luck to know him early, when he was reporting for Dallas NOTES (from Underground) when you could still be subversive and maintain an SMU connection. Others might know more politics, but J.R. could really get hypnotized by, say, a green hurricane fence put up to keep Republican conventioners safe from the people of Dallas. That was 1984, and I see in this (October '91) issue of the Arts Revue he's still writing about it. He'd rather, in a way, photograph it than tear it down.

This comes to be a strength in him when he's writing about bad art. It too is a human product, vanity and folly not to be discounted. Consider in this book his ambivalent relation to public-access galleries and local museums. He can be the Ralph Nader of Art-goers, if you allow extension by analogy from Movie-goers. He likes to exist in warm relations to people, but he likes truth more. If he were not himself so personable he wouldn't have half as many friends.

And I, who keep a sort of eye out for him, almost a Compton-watch, have noticed over the years that the Dallas art scene as a whole isn't as grateful to Compton as it should be. The lesson of spirited eighteenth-century villages like London is that prompt and spirited criticism is very nearly the life of art, that you need, if only in some cafe, a forum more interesting than appreciative silence, what the magician Jay Marshal used to describe as "intellectual nods and deep breathing."

Any fool can make a good piece of art. It takes a special fool to persist in packing, showing, applying for grants, snagging work-space (that I'm sorry ever got called "studio," the way I'm sorry if provincial art schools still fabricate still-life arrangements for students incorporating wine bottles.)

Painting, sculpture, dance, poetry are riddled with folk wisdom that isn't, things your art teacher was told thirty years ago that weren't true then, vestiges, hold-overs, fossil injunctions. Seeing around even one of these takes energy and the stretch of time required to make habits of persistence. Rodin squiggled little figures in wax or clay as he talked in restaurants, perhaps even while he ate. He was probably a sexist jerk, but he was making art all the time. My point is that as you read a Compton piece it helps to see the ones you're not reading, to imagine as dimming vista the galleries he's not at that moment in, but has been and will be.

It's not accident that he's here, now (in 1984), photographing a politicians' fence decorated absurdly in British racing green-was that the color, J.R.?-Because he's doing that, employing those habits, painting a kitchen chair with a model plane flying through its vertical space, referring like King Kong to the Dallas building with hurricane fly-way that wasn't even built in '84. Critics, like painters, generate themselves. You think of how long Cézanne painted, badly, his persistence very slowly creating his art.

If you look at Dallas art, as I do, with long breaks away from it, you can see how the spirited teens have aged into spirited (or bitter, sometimes defeated, sometimes diligent by rote) middle-aged crafts-men and women with layered social histories, years of going to each other's openings, being selected or ignored by token or serious museum exhibitions of local talent, the mystery of genius fading, on daily view, to a kind of competence the result of persistence, sometimes no more than the TV commentator's understanding of affairs that's really the dim memory of words they have seen before, acquaintance making do for comprehension.

Artists, like any subculture, must live together in a situation not quite competition, though it gets touchy if the water hole dwindles. My wife just learned to swim in her health club pool undistracted by cawing women by imagining them as edible. One's sight, she says, is clarified when you see yourself as predator. It is a mental trick to tone down distress.


But there is something in the way J.R. Compton approaches art, lurking by the cheese dip, padding up to an Orr piece on graph paper, sniffing at a big sculpture, that suggests he could be rendered (and it's a wonder the artists haven't severally and collectively done so) as Art Bear or Sculpture Possum, something with a low center of gravity and corrosive notions of what you think you've done this year, a beast that remembers like a parent every bad piece you made learning the trade.

There's no reason he can't be a theme show like the Flying Red Horse, be offered ceramic food on plates at a Testimonial Dinner, event to be written up in ArtSpace. To render J.R., you see, would be like reviewing him, and the only suitable revenge for years of his reviewing people by rendering, as honestly as he can, what it is they have made.

Gerald Burns, 1991


DARts Contents
Art Calendar