The largest flea market in the world has something in common with two new gallery spaces in Dallas — let’s call it a revelatory vibe. If you’ve ever explored the Paris flea market Les Puces, you’ll recall that its spaces are devoted to every kind of arcana, from majolica, astrolabes and German war helmets to postcards and stamps. Wares of every sort flare with the interior landscape of those who deem them fair game for the cultural landscape.
Fast forward to Dallas, where you’ll discover that the material shown in pared-down and architecturally chic spaces can be infinitely more elegant than anything in the Parisian market. But the same psychological truism applies: Spaces and their loot boil over in a tableau that reflects the innermost life of gallery owners. The more you know about them, the more irresistibly personable they become. Two new galleries in Dallas are coming to the fore, and they’re both atypical and marvelously intriguing. Joan Davidow and Capera Ryan have each opened a space in the burgeoning area west of Riverside Drive — which, for the directionally challenged, translates as “closest to the levee.”
We are witnessing a perfect storm of deeply talented people doing deeply interesting things in deeply tasteful spaces, as evidenced here. Both Davidow and Ryan are setting land-speed records for hectic enthusiasm. Their personalities are quite different, but their passion for their work billows forth, and their stories are captivating. One is imprinted with a touch of haute bohemia. And the other? Well, it’s haute, all right, but with a dollop of Eastern mysticism thrown in for good measure.
JOAN DAVIDOW — SITE 131
At one o’clock on a hot Sunday afternoon, Joan Davidow— one of the most respected doyennes of the Dallas art world — met me outside a construction site on Payne Street. She stood in the heat alongside fencing and piled sand and looked the epitome of the art gallery habitué: dark sunglasses, a simple black dress and just the right amount of bangle. She emitted a fragrance faintly reminiscent of citrus orchards. Compelled to ask what the scent was, I expected to hear the name of something from the trove of Dior or Hermès. She waved her hand and said, “Oh, it’s a men’s fragrance, so nice and clean.” And so it began.
She threaded her way through a pathway of piled rubble, a few tossed bricks and makeshift lunch setups for workers. “Is it lunchtime?” she inquired casually. This was my initiation into Site 131, an upcoming nonprofit gallery that’s the rapidly emerging joint effort of Davidow and her son, Seth. While she will take the helm in the curatorial department, Seth, an avid collector, will offer aesthetic input. He’s also providing entrepreneurial heft and is tremendously keen on working with his mother on their new and ambitious enterprise. Their closeness is palpably genuine, and one gets the feeling that Site 131 may have begun as a labor of love but will likely become relevant as a huge win for artists — and the community as a whole. It’s all taking place at the west end of a circa-1950 commercial building: 4,500 square feet in total, including a 2,500-square-foot gallery space, plus an entryway and services, designed by Droese Raney Architecture.
Davidow suggested that we go to her loft space near Cedar Springs and Harwood to look at images of work she’s planning to show in upcoming exhibitions. This was a plausible suggestion, but nothing could have prepared me for the enthusiasm that blazed forth during a toe-to-toe conversation. She showed me three artists’ work slated for her initial foray when the gallery enjoys “a soft opening during this year’s Indian summer.” Dubbed “Layering,” it will showcase Texas artists who, according to Davidow, are under-recognized: Lauren Muggeo, Arthur Peña and Marjorie Schwarz. Davidow wants to continually create exhibitions with artists whose work shows commonality. What makes this brilliant is its tacit understanding that the way we learn things is via juxtaposition and analogy. Allowing artists and their work to mingle and coalesce is ideal; each work will offer a vector and ingress into the next. While this is frequently done, the concept is rarely articulated so deftly — or enthusiastically.
To provide a reference point for Davidow’s sprawling imagination, consider this: She already has shows planned through 2022. One exhibition is geared to run in tandem with “Black Pourings” at the Dallas Museum of Art, curator Gavin Delahunty’s exploration of Jackson Pollock’s black-and-white works. At the risk of being overly enthusiastic, I find the images Davidow has excavated (works by James Buss and Beverly Baker) to be as tantalizing as Pollock’s. They come across as explosive psychological missives that are deeply affecting. No doubt about it, the woman has an eye — she was buying Rauschenberg paintings in the ’80s— and last fall donated her personal art collection of more than 75 pieces to UT Dallas, with another 75 pieces to be donated over the next two years. She has also had plenty of mentoring from the likes of Howard Rachofsky, for which she expresses deep gratitude.
Davidow carved out a career espousing patrician interests in ways that leave no one feeling uninvited to a party for the privileged. She has a fine, searching mind and still outsprints everyone in sight when it comes to spotting early-comers in the art world. Davidow is the real deal — one of those rare individuals who freely gives knowledge and understands that such largesse never diminishes a teacher. Thus, we sat at a table in her living room, and she explained a technique that she found life changing. “This is called VTS, ‘Visual Thinking Strategies,’ and it is something Philip Yennawine, the former education director at MoMA, came up with,” she says. “You look at works of art and ask three questions: ‘What’s going on?’ ‘What do you see that tells you that?’ And, finally, ‘What else do you see?’” Anxious to experiment, I turned around and said, “Let’s do it with this painting!” I pointed toward a work in her collection, Nathan Green’s red/blue shift, 2012. We took turns answering the questions, and the piece became more and more interesting, more and more complex and infinitely more compelling. A mere 14-by-11-inch canvas became a world to be dissected, explored and devoured.
Davidow’s gallery, a total of 4,500 square feet, will be a public space for enriching discourse, instructing students and, most importantly, introducing serious artwork that Dallas-area residents might otherwise not have opportunities to view. The experience is sure to be splendid.
CAPERA RYAN — 171 OAK LAWN
Capera Ryan, senior vice president and managing director of Christie’s, is perpetually smiling. She serves on the board of trustees of the American Friends of the Musée d’Orsay — and if that doesn’t hit the stratosphere of social art engagement, what does? When we met, she had just returned from Aspen and was enthusiastic about an Andy Warhol pop-up show she had hosted there — but hot on the heels of that news was a mention of a monastery in Snowmass. Her face lit up when I recognized it as the locus of Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk well known for his books on centering prayer, a contemporary method of contemplation. Surprised that I had heard of Keating, Ryan opened up about her work at Christie’s; her new gallery, 171 Oak Lawn; Angkor Wat; travels through Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, India and more. About the latter, she says, “It’s like you’ve lived your whole life in black and white, and it’s suddenly in color.” To enumerate the places she’s visited would require the space of a Fodor’s Travel Guide. It would also entail huge sensitivity to even attempt to limn the most extraordinary territory of all: Ryan’s questing heart. “My home is St. Michael’s, and that’s where you’ll find me on Sundays,” she says of the Episcopal Church near Northwest Highway and Douglas Avenue. Then she glances at me with a look that conveys there’s so much more that she finds terribly fascinating. Namely Eastern traditions and precepts. Even the way she looks at art — and she, of course, looks at plenty of it — is inflected with an Eastern cant. By that, I mean it’s nuanced and quietly sensitive. “It’s the same when I meet sellers and buyers for Christie’s,” she says. “I go on instinct. I work on a heart level, and it’s never let me down.”
Ryan has rubbed shoulders with art since she was young. “I grew up next door to Ray Nasher,” she says. “I sold him Girl Scout cookies.” She’s extremely well spoken, knows all the right people in all the right places. But beyond all of that, you’ll find someone attuned to the deepest things. Burma, for instance, holds special allure for her. “Did you know their gross national product is happiness?” she says. To list the places, temples and shrines she’s seen is daunting — and enormously refreshing, given that she could easily have gotten lost in a mammoth array of luminous baubles. Ryan loves it all, but she brings the “temple mentality” into the business arena. Therefore, she’s setting the bar higher and higher in new and interesting ways.
She purchased a warehouse space on the west end of Oak Lawn (near the levee) for the aforementioned 171 Oak Lawn. It’s been widely publicized due to a recent lavish show that was punctuated by a Bugatti. Her upcoming exhibition will be sponsored by the Papa Bear of expensively sleek cars: Rolls-Royce. Said Roller will be the moth-to-the flame item in her next pop-up show, which will take place September 24 through 26. The show is a refreshing change of pace — “a private sale, meaning you can walk in, buy a piece and walk out,” she says. Think of it as speed dating for objects you love. At any rate, it will soon be drenched in merchandise from Christie’s’ luxe lineup. Jewelry, handbags, watches, pens, prints, photographs, paintings and more are yours for the asking — if your credit card has a fluid limit.
The warehouse space clearly sprang from a hugely creative imagination. “I put on a hard hat and learned about the whole process,” she says. “I picked colors, took down walls; the space just feels right.” Her new space may have shiny showroom floors, pale gray walls and attractive lighting — but what does Ryan care most about? The vibe, of course. “It could really be anything,” she says of the revolving venue. “A space for new artists, runway shows, anything.” Then she looks bemused and says, “I could even use it for a painting studio … Maybe I should do that.”
During our last visit, Ryan was ebullient about her new 10,000-square-foot space and life in general. She climbed into a spotless black sports car and drove off. I thought to myself, ‘I didn’t even know Jaguar made coupes.’ Thank goodness I at least knew about Keating and Angkor Wat.
[This article originally appeared in the September 2015 Dallas edition of PaperCity Magazine.]