Bale Creek Allen and his gallery are leaving Austin. For just over five years Allen’s gallery has operated from a generous space in Austin’s eastside art complex, Canopy. In an email exchange Allen and I discussed what factors contributed to his decision, the most obvious being COVID. In fact, our conversation was confined to email because Allen was quarantining due to a breakthrough case of the virus.
Over the course of the pandemic, Allen was forced to cancel three exhibitions, he told me. Exhibition openings that did happen, instead of enjoying customary crowds in the hundreds, saw just a dozen or so people.
“No buzz, no celebration, only reminders of what was happening in the world,” he says.
Allen adapted, by focusing on selling larger more expensive works to stay in operation. And as a long-time artist himself, he said he “knew how to keep other costs low, being more or less a one man show.”
I remembered attending the gallery’s inaugural exhibition, “Clown Meat” featuring the work of now deceased Daniel Johnston (1961 –2019) and how celebratory the mood was, craning my neck in the boisterous crowd to watch Johnston play. That exhibition included 60 works and it sold out. Things were looking good, Allen says of his 2016 launch.
“I started with a list of 40 artists I wanted to work with. Then one at a time I asked them if they wanted to do a show. Many of the artist were from a generation older than me. The baddest ass generation of all in my opinion.”
Just shy of 30 shows later, Allen says he’s ready for a change. This means moving 200 miles north to the place where art means cattle: Fort Worth, Texas.
With his youngest son off to college, Allen felt free to try to ”cultivate something from the ground up” in a more affordable real estate market as well as a city with lots and art and finance to offer. “DFW has always been good to me business- wise,” he says.
In the late 1990s through the early aughts Allen showed his own work in Dallas at Pillsbury Peters Fine Art Gallery. Ted Pillsbury was the former director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.
“He was a huge supporter of mine and literally the reason I quit waiting tables,” Allen recalls. Over the years Allen developed strong relationships with collectors living in the metroplex.
Now he has plans for a new 5,000 square-foot space in Fort Worth. Like his spot at Canopy, it will be a combination gallery and studio, well located at the corner of W. 3rd and Houston streets. Allen has met with Sasha Bass, married to billionaire-businessman and project developer of Sundance Square, Ed Bass, about plans to try and reinvigorate the downtown district, making it a more active hub for arts and retail.
Allen will continue to show the same caliber of Texas-based and internationally recognized artists he’s supported in the past. Warranting the Austin gallery’s last exhibition is San Antonio-based artist, Gary Sweeney.
Sweeney’s work comes with a healthy dose of nostalgia fitting for a farewell to the gallery. It’s always clever and frequently self-referential, too. An image of circular portraits of Orville and Wilbur Wright framed by the wheels of plane is a nod to the artist’s long-time gig as a baggage handler for Continental Airlines. And Sweeney’s penchant for appropriation continues with a glossy photo of a himself on the job as baggage handler, printed on a hard-shell carry-on suitcase.
Sweeney’s cryptic-text based prints highlighting syntax and punctuation are part of the show. Historical narratives are questioned through the juxtaposition of incongruous photographic images and text.
There’s also 36-inch-square photo of Sweeney’s large- scale project involving his family’s Southern Californian home. The temporary installation (2016) was born when Sweeney decided to sell his Manhattan Beach childhood home, held in the family for 70 years. It was due to be demolished for a new build. But so much had happened in the home, to honor it, he mounted loads of enlarged family photos on MDO board and covered the entire outside of the house with them (except for the windows and doors). Black and white and color images telling his family story spoke to the thousands of visitors to the site, some reportedly moved to tears. While the photo subjects are mid-century middle-class White people that we haven’t met, there’s something universally endearing about the kind of pictures that capture special occasions and life’s milestones, and it’s surprising that they retain such intimacy even though massive in scale.
As for Allen, in addition to preparing for his move to Fort Worth, he’s busy curating a show about racism called “Blood, Sweat and Tears” that will be at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum in 2022. With family ties and music interests in and around town, he will return to Austin periodically.
When I met Bale 17 years ago (I included his work in an exhibition I curated) it seemed he was always on the road — driving back and forth between the Panhandle, New Mexico, Austin, somewhere. May that restlessness remain unfaded, in Fort Worth and wherever else he may land.
“Gary Sweeney: Stuff I’ve Made” runs through Aug. 23 at Bale Creek Allen Gallery.