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Lee Baxter Davis and The Lizard Cult Grows Up


Drawing Under the Influence - Lee Baxter Davis & His Proteges, also including Phil Bennison, Georganne Deen, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Ric Heitzman, Greg Metz (curator), Robyn O'Neil, Gary Panter, Monica Pierce, Walter Schran, Chris Schumann and Linda Stokes at The Dallas Center for Contemporary Art through June 12, 2004

 

In the 1970s, The Lizard Cult was a vaguely derogatory term applied to East Texas State University (as it was known then)'s Art Professor Lee Baxter Davis and many of his most talented students. It was called that because so much of their work closely approximated his — rife with comix sensibility, lush textures and lurid details.

Lee Baxter Davis   The Fool   1983   (detail)    watercolor and ink on paper

Davis' work has grown in the intervening three decades — I might dare say it has matured. But it has not lost his wild textures, amazing color sensibility or juxtapositional diversity. Part of the derision heaped on both teacher and students came from the deep mistrust educators had — and many still have — of those who allow their students to emulate their personal work. In this case, at least, it has worked to the benefit of nearly everybody involved.

Lee Baxter Davis    St. Obe   1994   ink, watercolor, graphite

Once viewed with condescension, The Lizard Cult has not only grown up, many of Davis' students have prospered and become regionally and nationally prominent. Although none of their or their teacher's early work is in this show (alas!), we can clearly see how Davis' rich textural style and abandonment of traditional subject and treatment has informed much of their work.

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Lee Baxter Davis   Drop-Off   1992   (detail)   ink, graphite, watercolor, collage

The preponderance — and perhaps the best — work here is by Davis himself. Some of his students' pieces, perhaps because the curator couldn't get better samples from now much more famous artists, suffers by comparison — especially Georganne Dean, who had a luscious and wonderfully witty show at the MAC recently, but whose raw, pixelated pieces here fall flat, although in a contemporarily sarcastic way.

Gary Panter   Naked    2000   ink on paper

Gary Panter, who was propelled into national art star status after his work appeared prominently on PeeWee's Playhouse and in the movies that followed, is represented by spare few drawings here, and those are small and timid.
 

Trenton Doyle Hancock   Judgement    2000   (detail)   paper and acrylic on canvas

Best other work in the spacious galleries of the Dallas Center for Contemporary Art are large pieces by Trenton Doyle Hancock (detail, above) and curator Greg Metz(detail, below), both of whose work still show amazing similarities of style and texture.

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Greg Metz   Who's Your Daddy?   2003   (detail)   graphite
 

Don't get the idea that these photos show the full sweep of variety in this show. The work runs the spectrum from realistic through all sorts of comix to wild and muddy abstractions, but I tried to limit my photos to the work that showed his students' strongest visual similarities to teacher Lee Baxter Davis' work.

Perhaps I should note that the term Lizard Cult is not mentioned anywhere in the exhibition, nor in any of the publicity materials I saw. I was a photography student at ETSU in the mid 70s with great interest in visual art, so I knew about and was fascinated by the whole reptilian mystique.
 

Christian Schumann   Palm Bridge Platform   2003   acrylic on paper
 

Still mind-boggling is the DCCA's practice, under Director Joan Davidow, of placing kindergarten-like think-about-it notes below the i.d cards for each work — purportedly for the benefit of clueless young collectors. My favorite was the one under a large and deeply ironic drawing depicting a wintery peak with the dark, partially silhouetted hulk of an unspent missile crashed in the foreground, vultures circling high overhead. The simplistic card neatly sidesteps any inkling of irony or cynicism by urging the viewers to ponder the lovely wildlife atop a snowy mountain scene.

 

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