This weekend, the maker of the “eye” is coming to town. If you don’t know what that is referring to, that means you haven’t been in downtown Dallas recently. For a number of months, a large, newly-created plaza across from the Joule Hotel has been home to a can’t-miss oversized eyeball, a digitally-scanned and blown-up recreation of the eye of the multi-media artist, Tony Tasset. Tasset will speak at the Joule about the piece as part of the latest in the Nasher Sculpture Center’s 360 lecture series.
I’ve written about the eye once before, and like most writing about the eye, that piece focused on the context of the piece’s perceived contribution to downtown Dallas. It is a kind of funky amulet, a charm that speaks to a new cultural interest in Dallas, a desire to loosen up and feel more “creative,” that ambiguous moniker for progressive urban vitality. It is also an indicator that things are changing downtown, thanks to new investment on Main Street, most of it coming from the commissioner of the eye, The Joule’s owner Tim Headington.
But how are we to understand the eye as a work of art? It is an anomaly, a surreal addition. It derives a bit from Claus Oldenburg’s supersized ordinary objects, but combines that approach with the gory acuity of a horror movie prop. The eye is a powerful image in art. Eyes are prominent in Ancient Egyptian manuscripts; the Eye of Horus, with its elongated lashes, symbolized royal power and good health. Islamic cultures produced blue amulets called “evil eyes” used to ward off misfortune. The power of Byzantine icons is concentrated around the transcendent eyes of the Madonna. Eyes convey light, power, personality, seduction, and life. The Mona Lisa’s wandering eyes animate the painting; Picasso scatters eyes about his portraits, pushing representation into the realms of the fragmented psyche.
Tasset’s eye is something else. It is the real thing, an accurate scan of the artist’s eye made possible by new technologies. That it is Tasset’s eye, though, doesn’t seem to matter. The sinuous veins that run along the ivory white of object lend it a creepy realism, pushing it more into the realm of science fiction or Cronenberg-ian snuff. But it’s the size that seems to lend this object its power (after all, you could probably buy a miniature scaled model of an eye at Froggie’s Toy Store). So to understand Tasset’s eye is to consider the implications of its scale. Sitting in the vacant lot, it is an urban surprise, a novelty. Its largeness pushes an open-ended metaphor. Is it supposed to be, like Fitzgerald’s eyes of T.J. Eckleburg The Great Gatsby, the eye of god, the eye of big brother, the artificial eye that watches in lieu of divine perception, an amoral substitute in an unwatched universe?
Tasset himself insists that it could be all and none of these things, which sounds, at first, like a typical example of an artist wanting to avoid assigning meaning to his work. But the problem with the eye is not its open-endedness, but rather that it doesn’t really point anywhere on its own. It’s openness is a product of its essential banality; its size does little more than transmute a goofy presence. It’s a piece of sensational kitsch, yet lacking the pluck, wit, or light-handed satiric bite that powers the work of the masters of this genre, artists like Oldenberg and Jeff Koons. That the Dallas eye is also a replica of other works by Tasset, such as his Chicago “eye,” also makes the piece something of an artistic brand, a giant, bulbous street tag.
Perhaps this innocuousness is why Tasset’s eye has been mostly remarked upon as an indicator of urban progress, and not as a particularly captivating work of art. Its funkiness does convey a refreshing and less-stayed sense of civic spirit coming from the local business community. But the real insult of Tasset’s eye is not the piece itself, but the plot of land it sits on. That lot is the former home of the Praetorian Building. Built in 1909, it was the largest building in Dallas until 1912, and it is considered the first skyscraper ever constructed in the Western United States. The Praetorian was an important piece of Dallas’ architectural heritage, but it was demolished in 2013 by Headington’s company to make way for an overflow parking lot – and Tasset’s eye.
According to project spokesperson, the plan is to eventual develop a new building on that site. In the meantime, though, the demolition of yet another of Dallas’ embarrassingly few historic structures not only leaves the city without one of its important pieces of architecture, but it destroys what had been, perhaps, my favorite street in Dallas: Stone St., the tiny, intimate alley that ran alongside the Praetorian in between Main and Elm streets. Now that little European-feeling pedestrian way has been reduced to a path that runs alongside an empty lot covered with artificial turf and boasting Tasset’s oversized art-prop.
If Tasset really wants us to simply assign our own meanings to the eye, then I can’t help but see the sculpture as a substitute for a building demolished. It has become, for me, symbolic of the ever-gazing eye of the powers that watch over and look out for the people of Dallas — the civic and business leaders who, despite their best intentions and the lessons of urban history, continue to work to make Dallas a better place by tearing it down piece by piece.
Here are this week’s openings
“Omnibus” by Linda Dee Guy at TCU Moudy Gallery – January 16, 5-7 p.m. 2800 S. University Drive, Fort Worth, Texas 76129
Etכ Etכ [ENTANGLE] by Olaniyi Rasheed Akindiya (Akirash) at Ro2 Art — January 17, 7-10 p.m. 110 N. Akard, Dallas, TX 75201
Trans.lation: Vickery Meadow at 6327 Ridgecrest Rd. — January 18, 1-4 p.m. 6327 Ridgecrest Rd., Dallas, TX 75231.
Michael O’Keefe at Valley House Gallery — January 18, 6-8:30 p.m. 6616 Spring Valley Road, Dallas, Texas 75254.
NEW ORDER: TCU MFA Exhibition at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts — January 18, 6-8 p.m. 2900 W. Berry, Fort Worth, Texas 76109.
In Spite of Ourselves at Arte de la Rosa Gallery — January 18, 6-9 p.m. 1440 North Main, Fort Worth, Texas, 76106
MidTown ARTwalk at Gallery at MIDTOWN — January 18, 6-10 p.m. 13331 Preston Road, Dallas, Texas 75240
Solar Explorations by Alison Jardine at LuminArte Gallery — January 18, 7-10 p.m. 1727 E. Levee St., Dallas, Texas 75207.
Nasher 360: Artists, Critics, Curators Speaker Series with Artist Tony Tasset at The Joule Hotel — January 19, 2 p.m. 1530 Main St., Dallas, Texas 75201
Women & Writing at WAAS Gallery – January 19, 12-3 p.m. 2722 Logan Street, Dallas, Texas 75215