By DAVID BEARDEN
Texas is too big for its own britches: sprawling farmland, countless small cities dripping with nostalgia and charm, shiny steel and glass jutting to the heavens, an ever-expanding list of craft breweries, thriving live- music scenes, longhorn cattle, mountains, canyons, swimming holes, and more varieties of culturally significant foods than you could ever taste in a lifetime. You can drive 12 straight hours and still be within its borders. It’s huge. And diverse. And never short on pride. Welcome to Texas, y’all.
I’ve spent more years of my life in Texas than any other state, so with pride I state, “I am a Texan.” I celebrate tacos, farmers’ tans, backyard BBQs, rusty tractors, and Willie Nelson, but of course that is not all Texas has to offer. The state is divided into seven regions. You can enjoy the Piney Woods of East Texas, the salty air of the Gulf Coast, the rocky terrain of the hill country, marshy woods of the prairies and lakes, the dusty expanse of the Panhandle, the mountains and valleys of Big Bend, and the rolling tumbleweeds of the South Texas plains.
And while this list encompasses most of what this great state is known for, it is limited due to lacking a long–standing subversion of conventional iconography that includes layers of subcultures and art/music scenes. A trip to Austin, or Denton, or any number of current cultural hot spots might find you surrounded by language, style, music, and art not befitting of the Texas mold.
These precise breakthroughs and pushbacks are what make this state great, in my humble opinion. No offense to or dismissal of Texas “culture,” but the times I’ve stumbled into a punk bar or witnessed the contemporary trappings of a local budding art gallery I knew I was experiencing something unique. A communal force created by like-minded individuals longing to be heard, or not. A space carved out from the surface–level country aesthetic in search of a more genuine representation of its inhabitants. That space is what I found missing in The Visual Art League of Lewisville’s current art exhibition, Strictly Texas, at the MCL Grand Art Gallery.
To be fair, I wasn’t expecting to see works paying homage to Houston’s southern hip–hop history or the speed-punk-metal stylings of D.R.I., nor was I expecting works draped in Austin’s hipster aesthetic, or Denton’s well–established neo-hippie throwback, but I felt the imagery was insufficient for the show to be called Strictly Texas. But then again, maybe I was wanting too much, too much inclusivity and wasn’t focusing on the ‘Strictly’ part of the title, so I did my best to shake off any elitist tendencies and proceeded to the gallery with fresh eyes and a supportive heart.
I’ve seen many shows at the MCL Grand and this was no disappointment. The gallery was packed wall to wall with paintings, photographs, 3D works, and mixed media. The show is abundant with obvious choices of Texas subject matter represented: weathered fence posts, barbed wire, historic architecture, large land animals, and tips of the ten–gallon hat to western fashion.
As with any local art group show, there are varying degrees of craftsmanship and knowledge of formal qualities of visual art-making like color, composition, shape, line, space, etc. Overall, the show authentically represents most of what is special about the great state of Texas to native, transplant, and onlooker alike.
Due to the sheer number of works and the level of craft, it was tough to pick three works to draw attention to. Awards had been given for first, second, and third place and a few honorable mentions. The subjective nature of visual art makes judging art shows difficult to say the least. And at the end of the day, certain works speak to certain people. While I didn’t necessarily agree with the awards, I chose the following works as standouts from the rest.
Curating an art show is a misunderstood process. The general public doesn’t (how could they, right?) understand how much thought can go into where, and sometimes how, work should be hung to create a positive (or troubling if the work desires it) and interesting flow to the viewing experience. Sometimes the curation process is more dictated by practical issues of space.
The first few works the visitor encounters sets a standard, or flavor, for the rest of the visit. I’ve learned to walk the entire gallery space glancing at pieces quickly until I’ve laid my eyes on each one. I then slow down and look for specific works that speak to the title of the show.
Valerie Corwin’s painting “Balance” caught my eye for both its formal qualities, as well as its title’s double meaning. A young rider sits atop a horse caught in the moment of a riding lesson. Riding horses is an obvious and appropriate nod to Texas culture, which was the initial hook for me. Once I stopped and gave it a longer look, I realized the complexity of the composition. The vertical orientation of the rider’s position and the angular interior of the stall keeps the viewer’s eyes moving about the piece. I then noticed Corwin’s admission in her explanation of the title’s double meaning, which for me solidified my assumption that it was intentional. I appreciate the subtlety of the work; it grabbed my attention and required I look deeper.
My family gets together for a reunion of sorts at a different Texas location every June. My favorite spot so far was a rental property on the Frio River called The Tree House. The house is located on a cliff overlooking the Frio River with a separate back patio space and firepit located high in a tree. A bridge connects it to the back of the house. Hanging from the massive tree is a rope swing.
I knew immediately the location of Pepper McCarty’s photograph “Frio Swimming Hole” before I read the title. I’m not 100 percent sure the photograph was taken at the exact same spot, but I’m sure at least it’s close. I will admit my bias for choosing to spotlight this piece. My fond memories of spending two weekends at The Tree House and Frio River created an instant bond with the photograph. But, in addition to a personal connection, the composition is awonderful example of asymmetrical balance.
The massive tree occupying the right side and foreground at first glance seems to overpower the composition, causing it to visually teeter. Then the viewer notices the cliff area jutting out from the left side of the background. Ah! Balance is achieved beautifully. The river winds to the right behind the tree, begging the viewer to wonder where it leads. It is a wonderful photograph of a perfect Texas outdoor scene.
I’ve been a fan of traditional country and western music for as long as I can remember, so when I saw Maurice Leatherbury’s photograph, “Seen Better Days #1,” and learned it was taken in Turkey, Texas, (home of Bob Wills) I felt an instant connection. The photo depicts a small, flat abandoned building in a stark palette of white with a splash of red provided by an old truck bed.
The composition is perfectly static, like layers of sediment of history gone by.
I’ve come to appreciate compositions that don’t have to try so hard to be dynamic or exciting. The framing of the building speaks volumes about how decaying old Texas towns look, slow and withered. The older I get, the more I’m intrigued by and appreciate abandoned spaces. How was the building used? Who inhabited the space? What does it look and smell like on the inside? These are just a few questions I ask myself when confronted with small Texas town history. If a goal of visual art is to hook the viewer’s attention and encourage them to stay a while, this piece is a giant success.
I mentioned earlier that I would like to have seen more variety of what Texas is and could be. Regardless of my opinion, the overall show is a huge success. I tried to imagine how someone not familiar with the great state would experience this exhibition, and in all honesty, I feel The Visual Art League’s art show portrayed Texas with a genuine and authentic spirit. Sure, Texas is more than rural scenes of horses and ranchland, but no matter what Texas means to me, can we really deny our western heritage?
Strictly Texas is on display at the MCL Grand Art Gallery, 100 N. Charles St., until June 18.