Traveling Bodies: Comparing the Artistic Framework of Austin and Dallas
"Sometimes you have to break up to see if you fall back in love." A boyfriend once told me this as I was trying to end a three-month relationship gone sour. I remember thinking that was the strangest last-ditch plea I'd ever heard. Of course, this idea of appreciative hindsight makes sense, it's given the English language cliches like, "absence makes the heart grow fonder." So while my ex-boyfriend might've been leaning on a detached sense of destiny, the necessity to escape a place to return with new affection was the impetus for a quick road trip to Austin this weekend.
The framework of Austin is different than that of Dallas. The trees are bigger and the streets are older, not because Austin is a much older city than Dallas, but because the city embraces the past. This, of course, is where the city's hipster vibe came from, long before Bon Iver and plaid shirts.
Lamar Boulevard is peppered in vintage signs - many of them in place from decades of use by the same company or repurposed for a new company. Other businesses, P. Terry's for example, install new signs with a retro vibe. But signage is just one example of the continued presence of the city's past - and it's a sight you'll have to drive down North Harry Hines to see in Dallas.
Less steeped in the city's topography is the art scene. The city does well with ephemera; theater and music are thriving. That fleeting artistic pursuits would prosper while the visual art scene is middling can be interesting considering the unspoken argument that unlike Dallas, Austin better handles the continuance of culture. Conversely, perhaps what the comparative lack of galleries in Austin points to is less interest in the commerce aspect of art.
Whichever side of the coin you choose, the cities are two different beasts and in the arena of visual art, the Dallas beast wins the fight and here's why: the museum programs. If you need something to be grateful for or proud of in Dallas, take a moment to admire our local museums. Not only does the Dallas Museum of Art secure huge national shows, it's currently demonstrating the impressive permanent collection. Plus, in the same block you have the Nasher Sculpture Center and the Crow Collection of Asian Art. And these are just the three worth mentioning before making comparisons with Austin institutions.
Down south there is The Blanton Museum of Art, which is on the University of Texas campus. While it's inarguably one of the best museums on a university campus with a much wider scope than the Meadows Museum on the Southern Methodist University campus, what Meadows does in Dallas is provide an alternative perspective, supplementing the arts district roster with a focus on Spanish art.
Then, The Contemporary Austin is the downtown museum that bears close resemblance to the progressive West Dallas Dallas Contemporary. The current exhibition, A Secret Affair: Selections from the Fuhrman Family Collection investigates the relationship between the human and the human body, with art that ranges from hyperreal to abstract.
The lifelike sculptures by Ron Mueck look as if they might breathe if you stare long enough, while the sewn fabric figures by Louise Bourgeois in Couple seems to comment on the feeling of being trapped in this human shell. The exhibition's bent on the abstraction of physical humanity eventually fixes the viewer's attention to need to live life in one own's body, even as it changes, develops, attaches itself to another's body, and ultimately deteriorates.
Even in times where it doesn't make sense, the body is the human framework through which we intake everything, including art. Much the same way, the city streets are the framework through which the city intakes us. As Austin grows, the people who love the city are complaining that it's growing too corporate. Shiny box houses are being built atop one another into skyscrapers downtown, changing the landscape and slowly pricing out the people who make the city so Austiny.
As the landscape changes, these human bodies may need a shift in their landscape, if only to fall back in love with the city they leave behind. The buildings here might be a bit too shiny for your taste, but the art inside of them is pretty damn good. And that's the funny thing when we're comparing framework, it's really only important what's within.