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Big Time Art Person
From Outta Town
Weighs In On Local Arts;
Locals Breathe
Sigh of Relief

Charissa N. Terranova is Assistant Professor of Aesthetic Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas and Director of Centraltrak: The UT Dallas Artists Residency. She was an art critic at The Dallas Observer and The Dallas Morning News. Currently she regularly publishes journalism in regional and national venues, such as Sculpture Magazine, Art Lies, Art Papers and THE Magazine. She has also published scholarly essays in The Journal of Urban History, Urban History Review, and OASE and is writing a manuscript on Conceptual Art, the car, and technological mediation.

John Pomara, Barry Whistler and Charissa Terranova - Photograph Copyright 2009 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

unnamed person, John Pomara, Barry Whistler, Charissa Terranova
at Scott Barber: A Retrospective at The MAC in February 2006

Charissa Terranova says Dallas arts culture is as 'strong as anything you'd want to compare it to.' Terranova is Director of Centraltrak, UTD's Artist in Residence program located in the juncture of Deep Ellum and Fair Park.

Of course, we already knew that, but getting verification is always nice.

'That would include Chicago, Paris, New York, Boston ...' she said. My ears pricked. Terranova is an unreconstructed, hyper-educated intellectual with a PhD in Architectural History from Harvard. The University. Hah-vud. She grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, the child of classical musicians, and has lived in all the cities mentioned, including a long stretch in Paris, working on or being educated in Art History and Architectural Theory. Among the many things she says of herself, she is a Francophile.

In New York and places like that, people arent making paintings anymore. There, art is no longer about the object, its about the ideasthere is a lot of talk about how art is dead. So when I came down here, I was excited because there were so many people who liked to collect paintings; and people who were actually making great paintings. There is a lot of important and valid culture being made in Dallas ...’

Terranova sits in her stark office at Centraltrak located just off the darkened gallery space in which current video work by Robert Flowers is projected on all walls. She holds a tiny, placid dog in her lap and regards me through large, round, heavy rimmed spectacles. The kind Phillip Johnson wore.

She is an imposing woman in a white garment that is somewhere between a dress and a ... tunic, toga? with the dress part being quite mini. In the white and navy heels she is wearing, her eyes meet mine level, and I am six three.

'There are things going on here that rank with really interesting things going on in the world.'

I ask her if she is aware that the perennial local consensus among many, but not all Dallasites, is that there is no art or culture scene here, that the great stuff goes on elsewhere.

Dallas has a fantastic art scene,’ she says. Really intelligent and hard working and open minded people come here from all over the world to live and work here at Centraltrak, and we work hard to show them this community. And when they finally get it, and get plugged into this community, they love it, like we love it.’ 

This person makes me curious. Here is this Big Time Art Critic person, from Hah-vud, Yurp, and points beyond, been there, done that, seen it all — and she is totally puncturing the long held myth of Dallas' provincial status in the Art World. I don't personally believe the myth, and never have, but it is so completely drummed in from all directions that I simply assume that someone with the breadth of experience and education that Terranova has will be looking down on us little Dallasites from a very high place. And she is not. Not at all.

Red Boots, Red Sox - Photograph Copyright 2009 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Red Boots, Red Sox: Barry Whistler and Charissa Terranova in 2006

'There comes a time in an artist's life, anybody's life, really, when its time for them to go. And I think that if some of the locals who think these things would go to New York, or wherever and see what's goin on out there, they would come back with fresh eyes and would see the high level of accomplishment going on here'

I was impressed with the high art argot Charissa threw at me when we first sat down. I was immediately back down the Wayback Machine to graduate school where ideas were three dimensional objects in space and we handled them like gemstones, handing them back and forth to one another to see what the other would do with them. I'd forgotten that Academia still existed. It's been a long time since I'd spoken with a fresh Ph.D. still accustomed to unedited acada-speak. It was bracing.

Linguistics, semiotics, the death of art, art as idea, conceptual art...we blew through all of that in the first five minutes of Hi, how are you? Charissa's Big Project is a book in which she explores our sense of space as framed by a car's windshield, jumping off from the notion of technology as an extension of the body.

She is a specialist in space, being a 2004 Ph.D. in Architectural Theory and History. Architects don't design buildings, they design spaces that are defined by buildings. So she is asking, 'How are we defined by these buildings, and cars, and the spaces we've built for them i.e. highways, toll roads, parking lots, ramps, garages? What is our embodied sense of the space around us, given that we experience almost all of it through the windshield of a car?'

I asked Terranova if she considered herself an artist, or had ever attempted art. She pretty quickly asserted 'No, I'm a critic. I have a sister who is seven years older than I am who makes things. She's the maker, I'm the writer.'

She went on to give a perfectly ambivalent, ambiguous response that sounded like No, but really wasn't. Nevertheless, I left with the impression that she firmly saw herself on the critical theorist side of things, not the maker/doer/creator side of things.

Her job as Director of Centraltrak is a people job — interacting with people, helping people, surrounded by people. Centraltrak is a program of the graduate school at UTD. It is an artists-in-residence program where enrollees are given living and working space at the Centraltrak building near downtown. The living spaces are tidy, modern lofts that look out over the courtyard off the loading docks of the old textile building it once was.

Terranova says she is cut in two, as her job on tenure track at UTD also requires that she teach one course per semester, and also work on her book, which, she says, requires quite the opposite of her director's job. She must withdraw and write. So, she is doing the job of two, not one.

Big Hat - Photograph Copyright 2009 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Pink Bunny Waiting Area at Centraltrack, January 2009

'It's like living a negative dialectic...' she said, laugh laugh, ringing with just the faintest tinge of irony.

I decided to not chase that one down, but went on to ask who is it locally that's been getting her attention.

'Sunny Sliger and Keri Oldham' she said, pointing to one of Sliger's ribboned textile pieces hanging from a wall.

And what is the most provocative movement going on nationally in the arts?

'There is no one thing...'

And locally?

'Trying to coalesce a community'

With not too much time left, we got up and walked around the old textile building, down a long, impersonal hall with doors right and left, behind which were the loft residences for the artists. Then we were out an exterior door and into the heat, and walking across what had once been a loading dock and was now a pleasant patio and gathering space overlooking a nicely, but minimally landscaped terrain adjacent to the parking area.

It was encouraging to know this degree of support for the visual arts still existed. I was impressed. Charissa and I made a few more minutes of easy chit chat, getting to know one another just a little better, and then I was out of there, wondering how I would untangle the Gordian knot of information I'd just taken in.

As I drove home, I thought about the world in the windshield, a world made flat and spread out by the machine I operated without thought, automatically, as if it were a part of my body. Of course, she's on to something.

Jim Dolan is a Professional Coach to Legal and Medical Professionals and Psychotherapist.
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