In the early ’70s, Oak Cliff had a small group of artists who gained national acclaim for their irreverent, quirky, often Texas-themed art. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports, 40 years after their heyday, the Oak Cliff artists are featured in two Dallas exhibitions.
- Brendan McNally’s history of the Oak Cliff Four (or Five)
- KERA radio report:
- Expanded online story:
Saturday night, the east Dallas storefront gallery called Gray Matters is packed. It’s the opening of the show, Made in Oak Cliff. The artworks include large drawings of talking cockroaches, ceramic plants with female breasts and a pair of old cowboy boots sunk into a block of clear acrylic resin. Much of the talk is about how the art doesn’t feel 40 years old. Vance Wingate, the owner of Gray Matters, helped put the show together.
“It’s really shocking,” he says with a laugh. “It’s like I hung it up and I’m like, Wow.“
Made in Oak Cliff is a spinoff of the current Dallas Museum of Art retrospective called DallasSITES. DallasSites covers 50 years in local art history. Leigh Arnold is the DMA’s research project coordinator, and she contacted Bob Wade to learn about Oak Cliff in the early ‘70s. Wade — aka ‘Daddy-O’ — is the best known of the Oak Cliff artists. It was Wade who suggested a satellite exhibition – to showcase the Oak Cliff artists — and it was Arnold who suggested Wingate and Gray Matters.
The artists – Wade, George Green, Jack Mims, and Jim Roche – lived near each other because of Oak Cliff’s cheap rents. It was an easy matter to stop by, swap ideas, critique each others’ work. In a 1993 retrospective at the University of Texas at Arlington, they were dubbed the ‘Oak Cliff Four’ – which is how they’re often referred to today. But it was actually a loose constellation, says Wade — who had the Gray Matters show include a fifth, Mac Whitney.
The artists also shared a dislike of New York minimalism. Their art was often riskier, funkier, more counter-cultural, more pop-experimental — from Roche’s ‘Big Mama’ plants to Mims’ self-referential, mythic collages and Wade’s larger-than-life Texana.
Bob Wade (above, in front of an acrylic sculpture by Whitney), says, “That period, ’69 to ’74, that’s when we were really blowin’ and goin’ there in Oak Cliff, lettin’ it roll and not holding back.”
The Oak Cliff artists won national acclaim, but like many North Texas artists, they soon found they couldn’t make livings here. They left for college jobs elsewhere. But looking back, Wade says that being a group gave the Oak Cliff artists a bit of Texas swagger they needed to make their splash.
“We were able to challenge the world as a group, rather than as individuals, which I think would have been a little bit harder.”