One of the tough tasks for a catch-all institution like the Dallas Museum of Art is reaching a broad audience while continuing to stimulate its more knowledgeable visitors. With a pair of related exhibitions now on display, the museum seems to have this balancing act about right.
All the World’s a Stage is the more grandly presented of the two, following in the exhibition footsteps of Tut (complete with its own gift shop). And, like the Boy King, it’s a crowd-pleaser. The show mines the DMA’s permanent collection and mixes in a few borrowed items to celebrate the performing arts. It also sports a cool sound bar, where you can slide on a pair of headphones and listen to the music associated with the performers on display.
The real star of the show, however, is the museum’s curatorial staff. Many of these works have been on display in the museum for years. This show lets viewers make new connections among pieces from different styles, time periods and cultures. Picasso’s muted The Guitarist hangs a few feet away from the Richard Lindner’s psychedelic Rock-Rock. Performance costumes and masks from around the world are grouped in another gallery.
But all the links aren’t quite so obvious. In the last gallery, a series of Degas’ ballerinas (right) resides next to Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust’s neo-classical Oedipus at Colonus. Though the dancers and actors are engaged in different activities, they share a style of movement and a performer’s focus. The feel is the same.
This show, with its largely literal spin on the performing arts, is one that most will enjoy. Kids and adults alike will be awed by Abraham Walkowitz’s graceful watercolor series depicting dancer Isadora Duncan (below). And for that reason, this is the place to start your museum two-step.
If you are feeling adventurous, move along from here to Performance/Art in the Barrel Vault and its four adjoining galleries. It’s here that the M.F.A. holders among us will find a place to truly stretch their art brains.
The exhibition collects six contemporary artists who have at least some tangential relationship to theater, opera or both. How firmly you make those connections will depend on how loose your definitions of those genres are.
Of the six, the one that really feels out of place is Finnish video artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila. Her contribution consists of a 15 minute or so installation of three videos projected onto separate screens, one in front and the other two flanking on the sides. Charles Wylie, who put the show together, says that the piece is similar to a monologue performed by an actor. That’s true in that the installation features one person talking, telling us of her slow descent into madness. But little about the piece seems theatrical compared with, say, Yinka Shonibare’s installation across the hall (more on that in a bit).
If there is something truly mesmerizing, it’s the inventive use of the three screens. The positioning puts us more squarely in the action than any 3D movie can. When our protagonist drives through the woods, we see the view out the windshield in front of us and the trees passing by on our right and left. Cool. The main problem is that nothing all that remarkable happens in the first several minutes to hold our attention until the (sort of) interesting stuff arrives near the end.
That stands in stark contrast to Shonibare’s vibrant video, Un ballo in maschera, based on Verdi’s opera of the same name. Here, the British-Nigerian artist strips away the music and allows his colorful 18th Century costumes and the dancers’ movements to shine. It’s a wonderfully conceived reminder that, while the opera or the play may be the star of the show, there are other artisans at work who create the costumes, light the stage and build the sets that allow the star to shine.
And you’ll feel like the star of your own show when you cross over into the Lamont Gallery. Inside, Dallas’ Frances Bagley and Tom Orr have put together Si Bella e Perduta (So Beautiful and Lost), an installation based on the sets they designed for the Dallas Opera’s 2006 production of Verdi’s Nabucco. Among the pieces are a six-foot-tall rodent with carefully shattered colored glass beneath it and a series of dozens of thin pipes representing the reeds near the banks of the Euphrates. But you don’t have to know the opera’s plot to walk around the set pieces and get a sense of what it feels like to be onstage. You’ll even get a little spotlight shining in your eyes, depending on where you stand.
The last two parts of the show also involve opera. Argentina’s Guillermo Kuitca was commissioned to design the curtain of the Winspear Opera House. Two series of studies that he worked up as he imagined the final product are featured in the Barrel Vault, as is a series of giant canvases based on the four parts of Wagner’s Ring cycle. This is a visual artist clearly inspired by what he hears.
Consider ending your walkthrough by taking in David Altmejd’s The Eye (below), a gallery-filling sculpture comprised of precisely cut mirrors formed into shapes that at times evoke staircases, DNA structures and any number of architectural elements. Altmejd created the piece in response to John Adams’ recent opera Doctor Atomic, about building the atomic bomb. That explains the scientific feel of the structure, but I’ll leave it to you to read into the significance of seeing ourselves in every flat surface of the piece. Kids looking at this would probably just be awed by all the light thrown around the room by the hundreds of mirrored pieces assembled in front of them.
They might be on to something.