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Other DallasArtsRevue Storeis by James Michael Starr
Dallas doesn't have genuine feelings for art. Just look at our public art and you'll see we're trying a little too hard to get it up.
Robot on the Rampage
Everywhere else the saying goes, "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." In Dallas our version is, "We don't really like art, but we know what it can do for us."
As you approach Deep Ellum on Good-Latimer Expressway, between Swiss and Elm, watch for a trio of monumental sculptures under construction. It's the $1.3 million public art installation that enhances Dallas Area Rapid Transit's new Deep Ellum light rail station. Nicknamed "Traveling Man," what was once just a concept on paper is well on its way to becoming a genuine erection.
Okay, so I'm unable to completely hide my disappointment with the project. And in the spirit of full disclosure, I should reveal that a proposal I submitted was among those rejected. However, I bet I'm not the only one underwhelmed by Traveling Man, and that should make harder to dismiss as sour grapes what I'm about to say.
But first some background.
Traveling Man Traveling - image from www.deepellumgateway.com/
The three-part Traveling Man concept, a joint venture between Reel FX Creative Studios and Brad Oldham, Inc., was first unveiled as conceptual renderings in the spring of last year.
But from the moment the Gateway competition was announced, and way before the winning entry was selected, many considered DART's project a bone tossed to Deep Ellum residents, businesses and other Dallasites who'd loudly mourned the transit agency's demolition of the beloved Deep Ellum Tunnel. The colorful murals covering the railway underpass were the original gateway to the grungiest, punkiest, R.I.P. snortingest 'hood between Corinth and Round Rock, and served as official road signs to every Plano kid's wet dream of tattoos, piercings and convenient curbside urination.
The Deep Ellum area of Dallas as it appeared in the early 1960s. Within a decade, Good and Latimer Streets would be connected to make Good-Latimer Expressway, and the concrete pillars of US 75/I-45 would create a no-man's land, amputating the thriving neighborhood from downtown.
In DART's defense, they state the already flood-prone Tunnel was smack-dab in the middle of their most cost-efficient and least destructive route to Fair Park and Pleasant Grove. Secondly, public art is in fact a very egalitarian bone they'll toss to any community signing on for a station, complete with expensive sculptures: local artists selected for the agency's Station Art & Design Program can opt to devote their entire budgets to commissioning such monumental pubic art. Not always a $1.3 million budget, but anyhow.
Besides, even if DART has desecrated the grave of a prehistoric sea worm or two, they're not the only ones with skeletons to closet. Good-Latimer itself, Tunnel included, has been blamed in part for the demise of a neighborhood of African-American-run shops and businesses that thrived in Deep Ellum decades ago, until construction of that expressway and the adjacent Interstate 45 fly-over combined to effectively cut it off from the eastern edge of downtown in 1969.
Back to the present. Lately, hyperventilating over anything large and arty, the Dallas media has mostly gone "awwww" over Traveling Man's irrepressible cuteness. And while a more balanced post by Peter Simek recently appeared on the excellent art and culture blog, Renegade Bus, along with a comment by Jerome Weeks of KERA's Art&Seek Blog, their voices, too, sound a little more charmed than I would have expected. Am I being Mr. Snooty?
First of all, it's significant that in his comment the only examples Jerome could think of to compare to Dallas' latest public art are the State Fair's Big Tex, Planet Hollywood's T-Rex and Bob Wade's stuffed frogs he remembers on top of Lower Greenville's Tango club. Significant not only because Dallas doesn't seem to get public art, but also because, like those three installations, DART's sculpture falls less in the category of art and more in that of commercial signs.
The Deep Ellum Gateway's Traveling Man could be mistaken for an auto repair shop Muffler Man with a glandular condition. Our thanks to Bronco Muffler, Oak Cliff Wheel & Tire and Tire Town Auto. Photographs by James Michael Starr.
I mean, Traveling Man is a dead ringer for the "Muffler Man" assemblages in front of car repair shops. No, I take that back, the muffler men are closer to being true art. Folk art.
Maybe a better example would be those flippy-floppy tube men you sometimes see convulsing in front of tire stores and pawn shops, held up by hot air blowing from a fan on the ground. Not folk art but commercial art.
Traveling Man Playing to His Peeps - image from www.deepellumgateway.com/
Still, those Tube Men are pretty cute, leaning first to one side then to the other, momentarily going limp and seeming to almost collapse before jerking upright again. Traveling Man could be Tube Man after he gets off work from the pawn shop: here's Tube Man striding down to Deep Ellum for a beer. And here's Tube Man after his beer, reclining in a limp, semi-deflated state, serenading birds with his ukulele. Tube Man is waiting for the train because a caring friend took away his car keys.
But Tube Man comparisons aside, if DART's Traveling Man is more a sign, more commercial art than public art, it may be the biggest sign of what land men plan — and the agency hopes — for the new, revitalized, super-gentrified Deep Ellum Historical District-cum-mixed-use development (what new urban planners call live/work/play, as opposed to drink/dance/puke).
Does it also twist the knife in the back of those who'd hoped Deep Ellum, or at least the public art DART promised, could retain some hint of its legacy? That commercial sign aspect of Traveling Man sure seems to flaunt the sell out. It at least pours salt on the wound.
Bell Bottoms and Training Pants — August 1 2009
Here's how Brandon Oldenburg of Reel FX, co-creator of the sculpture and itself a Deep Ellum business, explains their intent: “The concept behind The Traveling Man is not a representation of a single element of Deep Ellum." Yeah, I thought the same thing. Not a single one.
Oops, wait a minute, he goes on. "Rather, it uniquely encompasses many aspects of the community. It was important to us that our design not only celebrate Deep Ellum’s heritage, but also represent what we hope for the future: a resurgence of traffic to our streets and businesses and a thriving artistic community for decades to come.”
I'm not sure how many aspects of the community Traveling Man uniquely encompasses (other than the steel and concrete aspects, since that's what he's made of) or what part of Deep Ellum’s heritage he celebrates (other than the district's deep ties with the ukulele).
I'm not even sure Mr. Oldenburg is being completely honest when he pines for a thriving artistic community. Several years ago, I had my first real working studio in the old Continental Gin Building in Deep Ellum, the closest thing to a thriving artistic community I've experienced in Dallas, outside of the Cedars. It's still struggling there and could be revitalized with minimal effort, for starters by not tearing down the Gin or turning it into expensive residential property. But I don't think that's the kind of artistic community they have in mind for the new Deep Ellum. Nurture that sort of real-life artist community and Traveling Man could be stepping over beer bottles and cigarette butts all over again.
But the rest of his statement actually rings pretty true. For one thing, it's evident the creators were, if not cynical, then smart enough to have stuck their finger in just the right place. Not necessarily in the eye of those who wanted to remember the best of Deep Ellum, but for sure on the pulse of those who wanted us to forget it all. That is, the real estate developers and DART, who would gladly pay handsomely for an image more wholesome than the one Deep Ellum has had the past several years. And what better way to sell lobotomy to the masses than with a friendly giant who's trailing stainless-steel Peeps?
Traveling Man in Progress - Central
Detail July 13 2009
When I consider Deep Ellum Gateway's healthy budget and widespread call for entries, the optimism we all share that Dallas will generate genuine cultural vitality and, most of all, Deep Ellum's own cultural DNA and historical significance, I find DART's installation embarrassing. I'll drive my visiting friends all over town to see the over-the-top, Texas fun of Big Tex, T-Rex and other tongue-in-cheek promotional mascots that don't claim to be anything more before I'll expose anyone to a marketing campaign pretending to be public art.
But then, here in Dallas, where money talks and culture networks, we don't quite get public art or even "art" in general, except as it relates to doing business. And I'd say the hoped-for, thriving artistic community Mr. Oldenburg describes is very like the pretend one extolled in April of 2007 when the Dallas Art Dealers Association hosted a fantasy on the theme, "Dallas Fort Worth: the next New York City?" Now, two years later it's reached a fever pitch. And "thriving artistic community," "great city for art" and "Dallas' future as a cultural mecca" are catch phrases that continue to roll off the tongue, or keyboard, of anybody who thinks that saying it makes it so.
Because we have our own version of another saying about art. Not art for art's sake. Art for the sake of economic development.
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