11/12/2010 01:26 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Taking an Oblique Path and Finding the Center

Lisa LaLa's installation project "The List Wall" at Hausmann Millworks, San Antonio, Texas.

On a recent swing through Texas I was impressed by how frequently the word "process" came up in my encounters with dealers, curators, writers and artists. There is a simple intent to the term behind which lies a great deal of complexity: how you get from point A to point B is important to how an artist arrives at an image. The complexity of both elements can be extreme and obvious, but the visual rhetoric of art is more receptive to object simplicity to flow out of a lengthy and complex process than the other way around. When a museum curator cites an artist's process they are validating their aesthetic intent. When a gallery director cites it they are conveying the seriousness of their program.

It helps to cast one's view just beyond the art world to recognize the significance of this. There is a temptation to dismiss the posture of the art professionals as merely subscribing to the deep influence of conceptualism. After all, it is an established historical fact that students of visual art can recite by rote. But it would be patronizing to suggest how lovely it is to encounter art in so-called back water parts of the country that engages the discourse of the major international creative centers, starting with New York. We are just as tough on formulaic, vague, or unconvincing art coming out of Texas as that coming out of California.

John Newman, "Marooned in Green Glass with Yellow Ballerina," 2003, mixed media, 21 1/2 x 11 1/2 x 9", at Texas Gallery, Houston, Texas.

The cultural environment in a particular region is an idiosyncratic reflection of the active participants. Perhaps the most telling difference between the highly charged environment of major centers, where stakes and emotions run higher, and a regional setting was articulated by one artist in San Antonio. He pointed out that artists who move there from New York or Los Angeles are often ready to argue and compete to establish a position; but after some months they come to learn that artists there actually accept aesthetic disputes in stride and routinely help out one another. Common cause trumps the blood sport.

Afterward I happened to be near the campus of Texas A&M University, and was being served in a local restaurant by a bright, well educated young man with the ambition of becoming a top chef. He struck up a conversation with me, probing enough to learn that I was in Texas to engage the art world there. He was surprised at my response to his question: that coming from Los Angeles had I actually found an active, energetic creative scene at all. I told him there were important creative communities in multiple cities throughout the state. What a surprise! I shared with him that it may be a very special niche, but it is full of drive and purpose; after all, what is the most interesting way we can use the time in the world that we are each allocated? He proceeded to offer to make our party one of the unusual cheesecakes he had learned how to make in the course of his training as a pastry chef.

Dessert. Courtesy Alinea Restaurant, Chicago. Photo: Lara Kastner