When more is less: looking at Dallas’ “Coastlines”
Of all literary works, Shakespeare’s King Lear perhaps limns most carefully the nature of sight. In the fourth act of that play in which vision is an operative trope, it is, strangely, a blind man who sums up our intersection with the visual universe. When Gloucester is questioned how he sees the world, he replies with three stunning words: “I see feelingly.”
If there is a more apt explanation of how we succumb to the allure of both the world and its mimetic presentation via visual art, I don’t know what it might be. Unlike the arid and Aristotelian notion of machinations regarding taking in sensual information, Gloucester cuts to the quick. He informs us it is our internal senses, so to speak, that invoke and announce the world — they create a hallowed tabernacle of (in)sight that engages us wholly and fully.
I wish I could say “Coastlines,” the current exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art, puts down flares and corrals viewers into that stunning world. But it doesn’t. The DMA is culpable when it comes to “just bringing it.” More is more, and if that’s not enough, surely some confection, some jacked-up fluff, will make your visit seem worthwhile. “Coastlines” has paintings by artists you’ll recognize, such as Odilon Redon and Edward Hopper. However, you’ll readily discover these are not their stellar and pulse-quickening works. Unfortunately, they are “less” and decidedly not “more.” This is unlike the Menil Collection in Houston or some housed magnificence to the west of Dallas in the city ironically dubbed “Cow Town,” where you’ll find meticulously curated shows in which every piece is needed and adds to the whole.
So when a thinly strung-together group of paintings and photographs are vaguely related because water is either seen or intimated—and it becomes apparent the primary defining attribute is the absence of palpable salty air and oceanic bliss—what’s to be done? Well, if you’re the DMA, you add sound. Consequently, if viewers come wanting a seaside reverie, they’re in for land-lock shock. Not only is the show only marginally interesting, there’s interjected noise that keeps one firmly afloat and on the surface. Your alliance is with the buoys and you’re fixed in a life jacket. You’re “saved” from immersion in the ocean’s depth because: one) the works aren’t working and two) that god-awful sound keeps you firmly moored and rooted on the gallery floor. It’s dubbed a “sound-scape” and it’s perhaps the single most annoying thing I’ve encountered in any museum. This is a museum with a Dolly Parton sensibility. I can’t help but imagine a meeting in which someone announced, “I know! We’ll add sound!” Never mind that it keeps one from that enchanted world for which everyone devoutly longs—the world of seeing “feelingly.”
If I sound impatient, it’s because I am. I grew up on the coast and I yearn for that strangely liminal space in which one vacillates between solid ground and a contemplation of limitless sky and water. It’s a well-used and reliable metaphor for the unfurling of our “internal senses.” It’s something I’ve literally tracked down on beaches on four North American coasts, not to mention several in the south of France, Italy and North Africa. I would travel the proverbial horn in search of windy and delicious shores. And that’s what I was hoping to see invoked in “Coastlines.” A Cap Juluca for thinking folk. But I found myself relating far more readily to the gray tonal photographic “scapes” by Hiroshi Sugimoto. Drifting from diluted black to a distinctly coal-colored “finish,” one can’t help but be reminded of the ongoing petroleum fiasco in the Gulf. The time of viewing art without the unfortunate addendum of a tricked out “sound-scape” has arrived. It drifted toward us with the same inexorable pace as that unprecedented and eerily “slick” ecological disaster. And we suffer diminution because of it. In fact, for the moment, it seems as if even art has become decidedly “less.”