At the Laura Rathe Gallery, located in the Design District and a mere 15-minute drive from campus, there is a comprehensible and fun assortment of contemporary art. The gallery is currently featuring “Suspended Fiction,” an exhibit by Tara Conley and Karen Hawkins.
Tall windows shed natural light on Conley’s exhibit of intriguing, puzzling and often sassy phrases that she casts from bronze, electrical wire and other materials.
“People like the phrases because they have their very own idea in mind, unlike lots of other art where people feel like they need it explained to them,” Conley said. “With words, people feel very comfortable with what their ideas are on the meaning of words.”
Four whiskey glasses are inscribed with sayings such as “It’s a lot of work pretending it’s all ok.”
“There’s something that makes it accessible when you can use it. Its art but it’s also a glass,” said Conley.
Her work invites the viewer to interpret it himself.
“I can pick different phrases, I can put them in different ways, but it’s out of my control what you then do with them,” Conley said.
Conley’s work demonstrates an appreciation for the power of words and how just a tiny variation in tone can completely change the meaning of a simple phrase. “I’m hardly ever disappointed in gin” resonates with each of us in an entirely different way.
With minimalistic white walls and black accents, the gallery devotes a clean, spacious chamber to Hawkins’ totem poles made out of books. Suspended in the air, these bizarrely-shaped structures are made of anything that is literary and vintage, such as yearbooks, novels, brochures and newspapers. Parting any one of the hundreds of pages on each totem reveals a sound bite from history, a chunk of writing that would have otherwise been thrown out.
Who would have thought that books could make art? Hawkins, apparently, who also coats vintage volumes with beeswax and sets them in a wood frame as a testament to the waning physicality of books. To some University of Dallas students, this may seem like blasphemy against the vessel that has held the sacred words of Homer, Virgil and Milton. But books can be art too. This gallery celebrates materials — not only books, but also metals, oil, resin, wood and even superhero comic strips.
What is art? This is a question that has produced countless answers and passionate arguments. Regardless of individual definitions, the creative work of another human being is an experience. And I think it is safe to claim that the intrinsic element all art shares is experience for the viewer.
Contemporary art can evoke a wide range of negative reactions, from confusion – “I don’t get it!” – to disdain – “My five-year-old could paint that!” Conceptual, abstract, and contemporary art tends to leave some viewers feeling uncultured and frustrated as they stare, dumbfounded at what looks like visual vomit. They ask themselves: “Who cares? And why is this thing worth more than my car?”
Classical art is easy to understand and appreciate, such as Michelangelo’s David, which is clearly a beautifully chiseled man. However, beyond the great wealth of classical art the Western world is graced with, there are alive and breathing artists with fresh, fascinating work right here in Dallas.
For those who feel they still have to warm up to contemporary art, the Laura Rathe Gallery, which features midcareer and established artists, is a great place to start. There, observers can enjoy the exhibits and hopefully grow in appreciation for art that evokes interpretation and occasionally causes them to say, “Gosh, I just don’t know.”
“Suspended Fiction” runs until Feb. 14 at the Laura Rathe Gallery.