Impressions of Dallas

When Leon Harris, Jr., the vice president of A. Harris & Company commissioned German satirist George Grosz for a series of works portraying the young city of Dallas in 1952, we can only assume the art world was taken aback.

Grosz had made a name for himself in Europe and even America as an acerbic satirist, caricaturist and an oftentimes overtly political painter. He was famous in the 1930’s and 1940’s for series of drawings such as Interregnum, a chronicle of the rise of German militarism from 1924 to 1936. An avid hater of Fascism and an open communist, many of Grosz’s paintings had been banned in America during the 1940’s and 50’s due to his subversive political ties.

How did it come to be that a young (and seemingly conservative) city such as Dallas would offer such a controversial artist his first commission? Regardless, commissioned he was.

Specifcally Grosz was commissioned to commemorate the 65th anniversary of A. Harris & Company Department Store (later to become Sanger-Harris), and the resulting works were meant to illustrate the landscape, economy and society of Harris’ city. In a broader context they were also intended as a public relations campaign; tying Harris, his clientele and his city to a broader and international cultural context.

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In 1952 Grosz, the German artist who had always been fascinated by the allure of the West but never thought he would see Dallas himself, travelled to our “Flower on the Prairie” to see what the city was all about. Twenty works from the series are currently on display at the Dallas Museum of Art for the first time in sixty years; twenty works that at least attempt to portray a city in transition.

Naturally Grosz expected a frontier outpost full of horses and cowboys. What he saw instead was a city in flux. A modern metropolis of tall buildings, freeways and business-people, and his paintings convey an element of that surprise.

The final watercolor in the exhibit, “Flower of the Prairie” for which the exhibition is named is the best example of this surprise. An image of Dallas’ skyline seems to magically emerge from a yellow backdrop and blue “flower.” The beautiful image illustrates Dallas’ reputation as a city in the middle of nowhere (at the time) with no obvious reason for its existence and success.

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Throughout the exhibit it is clear Grosz was not only surprised but enthralled with the culture, the people and the buildings of Dallas. Images of Dallas in the 1950’s will fascinate locals, and serve as an education for others as the Dallas Museum of Art’s curatorial team has painstakingly re-created the history of each of the building’s Grosz portrayed from the Adolphus Hotel to Republic Tower to the Mercantile Building, the only “skyscraper” built in the country during World War Two.

While serving as a gorgeous illustration of a beautiful city, the paintings also serve a larger purpose and inspire more questions than answers. What, really, were Grosz’s impressions of Dallas? And why Grosz anyways?

Flower of the Prairie: George Grosz in Dallas will be on display at the Dallas Museum of Art through August 19.  Visit www.dallasmuseumofart.org for more information and don’t miss this beautiful snapshot of Dallas history.

How I Began Contemplating a More Serious Study of Buddhism

Okay, deep breath.

I’m a self-admitted religion skeptic. Who isn’t these days? And for quite some time Buddhism has drawn my most potent skepticism. Consider that changed.

The Crow Collection of Asian Art opens their new show, Noble Change: Tantric Art of the High Himalaya this weekend. The exhibit contains eleven gorgeous copper Buddhist sculptures as well as one embroidered silk panel and represents work acquired by Trammell Crow last year for his private collection.

While I guarantee you’ll get lost amongst the glistening pieces, this exhibit is about much more than aesthetic pleasure. This is part of what will be over the next several years an important project for the Crow Collection; introducing Dallas museum-goers to the hyper-relevant practice of Tantric Buddhism. Spoiler alert, this is not an article about sex.

According to Crow Collection Curator Dr. Caron Smith, the principles of Tantric Buddhism have in the past been dismissed as “titillating erotica or stultifying ritual” and during the 1960’s, were appropriated by the Hippie culture as a justification for their pursuit of un-inhibited sexual pleasure. Smith states, “The time is ripe to reveal tantra for what it is truly intended to be.” And what exactly is that?

The answer isn’t simple, but if you find religion and human nature even remotely interesting, you’ll be fascinated.

The teachings of tantra are part of Vajrayana Buddhism, a form of the complex and constantly evolving teachings of the Buddha that arose in the 6th or 7th centuries and is especially prevalent in the Himalayan countries of Tibet, Nepal and Mongolia amongst others.

Like all forms of Buddhism, the base of tantric teaching lies in the four noble truths: The truth of suffering: the truth of the origin of suffering: the truth of the cessation of suffering: and the truth of the path of the cessation of suffering.

Contrary to the sound, people who practice Buddhism are not consumed by depression. Especially so in tantric Buddhism, where students or followers use suffering and other negative aspects of existence in order to achieve a higher state of being, one in which the goal is to reach a simple life through reflection and the emptying out of themselves.

Becoming a student of tantric Buddhism is reserved only to a select few, similar to a mystic Christianity or Judaism for example. Students of the official practice work with a guru and study secret texts in monastic settings. Free of worldly influences, they tame the mind through reflection, begin to question the “real world” around them and empty themselves of temporary reactions to feelings and emotions, admitting the world around them is not “real” as we tend to define it. It is only after this that man’s compassion for others can expand. (Sidenote, the Dalai Lama is a practicioner of tantric Buddhism).

Tantric Buddhism is essentially a reaction to previous forms of Buddhism through its embrace of ordinary experience and human instinct, not as ends in and of themselves, but as means to inspire change. No longer is the negative ignored, instead it is embraced, all of humanity is embraced in fact, to incorporate change not for our own self-gratification but rather to foster compassion for others.

The dualities of traditional Buddhism and Hinduism are shunned while the idea that the deities are not here to help but rather to inspire remains integral in tantric practice. Students learn that the potential for change is within themselves and our lives are fulfilled through their own, unique evolution. Tantra, in its simplest form, means continuity. Continuity of actions, impulses and desires in a constantly evolving state of being.

At least that’s my brief summary from my very brief study in an attempt to better understand these intricate and highly symbolic pieces of art that were created in the ateliers of Tibet to inspire the followers of this unique not religion per se, but rather science of the mind. A science of the mind which, might I add and assume many will agree, represents more closely than many other “religions” the psychology and mentality of modern man. In the opinion of this writer, Smith could not be more right in assuming that “the time is ripe” to expose the West to the tantric notions of openness, compassion and self-sufficiency.

Now on to the art.

When exploring the intimate gallery space at the Crow it’s vital that the viewer leave preconceptions outside. This work is highly symbolic, overtly sexual and complicated, but don’t let that intimidate you. Keeping in mind the philosophy behind this exhibit while viewing should at least make the works accessible enough to enjoy for more than aesthetic beauty, as they were intended to be.

The deities on view in the exhibit represent various Buddhas. Two Vajradharas, in other words the first Buddha, are represented here, each signifying the unity of male and female. Part of the “revisionism” of tantric Buddhism allowed for a stronger role to be played by the female in the “story,” and in these Dorje Chang (in Tibetan), there is rampant symbolism indicating male aspects in the female, and vice versa. The sexuality of the two will be obvious.

There are also two Dakinis represented amongst the scultpures. Dakinis in tantric Buddhism are the female embodiment of wisdom and energy. The Sarva Buddha Dakini, or Dakini of all the Buddhas is represented as a young female, innocent and therefore able to serve as the protector, provider of wisdom and home to all. The symbolism in the Naro Khandoma (in Tibetan) is throughout as she treads on Ignorance and Ego and drinks the defilements of all in order to liberate.

The other Dakini in the exhibit is Kurukulla or the Dakini of flowers. Using her feminine seductiveness, Kurukulla is able to subdue and pacify demons. She treads on a naked body representing her dominance over desire and the skulls surrounding her are reminders of death. A quick note on the skulls. Buddhism is stringent in its embrace of the ugly, the dirty and death as parts of life, just as the religion does not shy away from sexuality as so many others (Christianity and Islam for example). Buddhism embraces the disgusting as part of life, as it is.

One especially meaningful piece in the exhibit is the unadorned Samantabhadra, the supreme Buddha and the primordial form of Shakyamuni or the historical Buddha. The union of man and woman is honored in this gorgeous, simple sculpture.

Viewers will also encounter the Jambhala, the Buddha of wealth.  He looks out for the wealth of others while seeming to greatly enjoy the corporal aspects of the flesh, yet another example of Buddhism’s rejection of the demonization of human desires. It is assumed, however, that the embrace of the wealth and sexuality of the two in union will be used to inspire the attainment of the next level of existence, as each of these pieces is intended to do.

You may not need the reminder but this is religious art, not in the sense that it is to be worshipped or even instill reverence, but rather to inspire. It is not “art for art’s sake” in the words of Smith. Dissolving duality (namely that of male and female), embracing the unity of ourselves and using our human form to achieve these aims are central tenets of tantric Buddhism. These exquisite pieces were created in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to arouse a desire to improve the world and those living in it.

Although you may not begin living your life in pursuit of Buddhist principles following an exposure to this unique and high vein of Buddhist practice, I think most viewers will recognize aspects of their psychology in this difficult but innately human “science of the mind.” Thanks to the Crow Collection, westerners have an opportunity to discover it through beautiful, artistic representation.

The Culture and Assumptions of the American Midwest

The second show in Chris La Bove and Steve Walter’s Second Thought Theatre’s season is a combination of theater and film presented in conjunction with Aviation Cinemas, Inc., the operating company for the ultra-cool Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff.

Eric Steele’s The Midwest Trilogy, in a not surprising vein for Dallas theater, presents a critique of Midwest culture through three brief vignettes. Each mini-play presents issues characteristically associated with the stereotypically backwards folk of the middle of the country, which yes, includes Dallas. Where Steele surprises however, is in his ability to overturn our assumptions and in the process, create a memorable piece of theater.

Eric Steele

In the first (and weakest) “act,” entitled “Cork’s Cattlebaron,” Jon and Brady sit down for a meal at a fancy Omaha steakhouse. Brady’s incessant chatter is obnoxious and the audience commiserates with the younger Jon who seems utterly embarrassed by his business associate’s brash mannerisms.

After several minutes Jon snaps, and instead of any number of accusations one might assume Jon to lash out with, he fires Brady on the spot; a task he had apparently been attempting to accomplish all night. Despite an initial lack of respect for Brady’s unsympathetic character, the audience finds itself sorry for Brady as he leaves a painfully emotional voicemail for his wife.

After we travel to Omaha, Steele takes us to “Topeka” in a film where young New York businessman Layne Edelman encounters a group of locals in a coffee shop. In this short film Layne tackles the perceived prejudices of the Kansans as he chats with his fellow customers.

Typical issues of city versus country and the stereotypes that pervade the relationship appear but the audience is never quite sure whether the group is indeed predisposed to dislike Layne because of where he comes from and his religion, or if the bias is all in Layne’s head. The dramatic ending again turns our assumptions upside down as it would appear that Layne is the one placing too much stock in a societal narrative, rather than vice versa.

The third and final installment of The Midwest Trilogy is “Bob Birdnow,” the only live action portion of the saga. Dallas audiences saw Barry Nash as Bob Birdnow in last year’s Festival of Independent Theater and Nash excellently reprises his role here. Second Thought and Aviation Cinemas, Inc. plan to eventually turn this portion of the Trilogy into a film as well.

Barry Nash as Bob Birdnow - Photo Credit Karen Almond

Birdnow is a “reluctant motivational speaker” who relates to the audience, acting as a group of salesmen at a conference, the story of a dramatic plane crash and his survival. While seeming to serve as a critique of the practice of rote motivational speaking, this section of the play also toys with the notion that human existence is based solely upon survival. Nash’s acting is emotional, raw and excluding the plane crash, utterly relatable.

Second Thought is preaching to the choir with this production of Steele’s work. Steele stated he received inspiration for these stories from his days as a “traveling salesman” in the American Midwest, a career in which a pervasive isolation lends itself to ample time for observation.

The stories in the Trilogy are based on circumstances he was confronted with and the stereotypes, narrative of the “culture clash” and the danger of buying too much into both, are ideas anyone even remotely familiar with this area of the country will be able to relate to oh so well. Go see it. You’ll understand exactly what I mean.

Kafka for Dummies

“Time in Kafka is always broken. Every moment leads back to itself. Chronological and eternal.” The opening (and closing) lines for Len Jenkin’s new play “Time in Kafka” could not be more concise in their description of Kafka and the play itself, a fun romp through a plot as confusing and twisted as any Kafka ever concoted, although maybe not quite as philosophically challenging.

Undermain Theater’s world premiere production of Jenkins’ play treats the subject with the lightness it merits. Professor Spellman, recently fired from his teaching position at a university due to his inability to divorce his cerebral philosophizing on Kafka’s life and work from his job teaching freshman literature, is visited by Kafka in a dream. Kafka reveals the existence of a forgotten manuscript hidden in an Italian clinic Kafka visited in 1913.

The play follows Spellman as he abruptly departs to the Italian clinic only to find a group of ridiculous, and in Undermain’s production, hilarious patients and staff who take Spellman on a convoluted and nonsensical journey to understand the nature of the clinic and find the lost manuscript.

Little of the play makes sense, from the “healing dances” Dr. Hartungen advises his patients to perform, to Boothby’s (a patient at the clinic) relationship with his “niece” Charlotte.

The melodramatic music and ridiculous characters make the play fun, but with the overlying sense that life is farce.

Time in the clinic is interminable, no-one seems to know how long they have been there or have any intention of leaving. Their laissez-faire attitude towards checking out is implied explicitly in their participation as the voyeuristic audience for Boothby’s attempted murder of Spellman; events in the clinic repeat and repeat.

Has Spellman come in search of Kafka’s lost manuscript before? Has Anna, the tubercular young woman who has mistaken Spellman for Kafka (or discovered Spellman is Kafka) been here before?

As in a Kafka novel, events repeat in an endless cycle and the plot is not meant to be accessible, just as our word Kafkaesque has come to describe; the play is senseless, and exhibits a disorienting complexity.

That doesn’t make Jenkins’ ride any less enjoyable. With the humor implicit in the script and Undermain’s interpretation of Jenkins’ characters under the masterful hand of director Katherine Owens, audience members would be in a sore mood if they did not enjoy the ridiculous nature of the play.

And just as Spellman opens and closes the play with the prophetic words, “Time in Kafka is always broken. Every moment leads back to itself. Chronological and eternal,” Spellman’s, and supporting characters own experiences in the convoluted plot support the fact that life for Kafka is surreal and distorted, it doesn’t have to, and most likely won’t make sense.

The Anti-Celebrity Celebrity Photographer

Russell Young was always fascinated by America. He admittedly observes that it is far more common for Americans to wind up Anglophiles than vice versa, but Russell Young isn’t normal.

Marilyn Crying Diptych, acrylic paint, enamel and diamond dust on linen, 2011, courtesy of the artist

After a career photographing celebrities throughout England Young turned his focus towards creating a different form of art. Art that he kept to himself until his first exhibition in 2003.

Now, less than ten years later, Young has made a name for himself throughout the world as a young British artist working in a unique vein; melding screen printing, photography and the assertion of himself as artist into his occasional photographic appropriation.

At the retrospective of sorts the Goss-Michael Foundation currently on display throughout the gallery, Young’s critique of celebrity, which has characterized much of the work he created in his post-celebrity photographer phase, is glaringly evident.

The exhibit contains examples from several of his earliest series of paintings which include “Dirty Marilyn” from his Dirty Pretty Things series, images of Muhammad Ali and Jackie Kennedy from his American Envy series and “mug shots” of Elvis Presley and Sid Vicious.

Perhaps the easiest way to sort of define Young’s work, especially these early screen shots usually manipulated in some way; (his use of diamond dust is signature and in the case of the Vicious and Presley shots, the use of off-beat coloring), is as reaction to his career making celebrities look good.

Vicious, having just been brought in on the charge of murdering his wife looks like a killer, and Monroe, crying, is clearly immune to the country’s infatuation with her celebrity. Kurt Cobain is another image Young used in the Dirty Pretty Things series, a series perhaps intending to indicate the danger of the celebrity obsession and the lack of fulfillment found by the celebrities themselves.

Despite the “warnings” that seem to be implicit in these depictions of ours, and especially America’s obsession with the stars, Young remains a dedicated lover of America.

In 2010 Young endured a serious illness and was hospitalized for days as friends and family worried about his chances for recovery.

Post-illness, Young’s work, as will be obvious in the exhibition, took on a new form with political paintings such as “Helter Skelter” and Young’s use of the famous image of the Hell’s Angels at Altamont in 1969. Young called the event the “start and the fall of modern America” although his choice of image for his massive paintings in the series, seems to have taken place without significant reflection. Listening to Young speak, it seems as though his aesthetic notion of re-printing the photo over and over again onto the canvas, then proceeding to walk through, or crawl over the canvas with paint, is more integral to the finished product than the photo itself which is often unrecognizable. Although perhaps the aesthetic notion of distortion lends itself to a deeper critique of the incident inside the photo.

The exhibition includes one other notable series of paintings, the most recent set Young completed, entitled Only Anarchists are Pretty.

It’s almost as if these works were added as an afterthought, placed in the front room of the exhibition with no clear ties to the rest of Young’s work on display. To hear Young describe the rationale behind the large-scale canvases featuring photographs of women in various positions of bondage, is to hear the emotional rememberings of a childhood spent in the London council flats, the equivalent of the projects. Enduring beatings at the hands of schoolmates and living in what he equates to a feeling of entrapment even in his own home, led Young to create these images and name them for the projects themselves.

Perhaps the images are not as sexually indulgent as one might initially think, but even after the artist’s philosophy is revealed, the connection of nude women in various positions reminiscent of torture to a young boy in the London projects seems tenuous at best.

Despite a few moments of weakness, the Young show is valuable and will be especially appealing to anyone with even a passing interest in celebrity culture. His “anti-celebrity” paintings as he calls them, have certainly become more “beautiful and iconic” than he may have initially intended.