New art on display at The Shops at Clearfork has some strong selling points, but this critic isn’t sold on all of it

Upscale Shops at Clearfork near opening in September

At least nine stores are opening their doors Sept. 14 at The Shops at Clearfork, a new upscale shopping center in west Fort Worth, and three other stores are slated to open later in the fall.
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At least nine stores are opening their doors Sept. 14 at The Shops at Clearfork, a new upscale shopping center in west Fort Worth, and three other stores are slated to open later in the fall.

There was an additional flurry of activity around The Shops at Clearfork this past week. With the influx of football fans for the TCU vs. SMU football game Sept. 16, it seemed the perfect opportunity for the new development to have a preview party.

The construction equipment was whisked away, party tents were quickly erected, and artworks were unwrapped. The bright sails on artist Tom Fruin’s “Windmill” began to spin.

Lithe saleswomen are not swanning about Burberry and Tiffany just yet — those stores are still ruled by men in tool belts. Neiman Marcus is open and has been since February and several smaller stores planned to be open by party time. So, while not a grand opening of the development — located southwest of downtown off the Chisholm Trail Parkway — it is an appetizer of greater “ta-das” and drumrolls to come.

The art, though, is in place. Ever since Raymond Nasher filled his famed NorthPark in Dallas with artists’ works, the inclusion of fine art in the retail mix has become a signature element of high-dollar shopping. Cassco, the development arm of the Edwards Ranch organization, has spent well into the six figures on art, says Margery Gossett, director of ArtspaceIII and a consultant on the Clearfork project.

The Nasher art and business model was part of the earliest discussions, says Gossett. She worked with Paxton Motheral and Crawford Edwards, scions of Lemuel Edwards, who founded the ranch dynasty in 1848. As vice president and president of Cassco, respectively, the two were adamant that art be included.

“We wanted visitors to enjoy the walkability, inviting landscaping, community gathering spaces and leisurely exploration of the center and knew that a well-done art program would help accomplish that,” Motheral communicated by e-mail.

Gossett presented Motheral and Edwards with a list of 40 artists. Eventually the finalists were winnowed to nine, with 14 works total among them. Three of them are Fort Worth based — Natalie Erwin (also a descendent of Lemuel Edwards), J.C. Pace III, and David Conn. Only Pace is represented by ArtspaceIII.

The artwork was commissioned over a year ago, when only artist renderings of the sites were available. As such, many of the sculptures scattered around the property suffer from disproportionate size or unfortunate placement. Either they are too small and poorly placed, as is the case of Barbara Dybala’s orbs, a pedestrian impediment on a street corner in front of Burberry, or so enthusiastically colorful, like “Windmill,” that they seem as out of place as a bouncy house in a Zen garden.

Still, “Windmill” was given pride of place in the Plaza at the intersection of Neiman Marcus and Burberry (Monahans and Gage avenues) and it will no doubt become a meet-up beacon similar to Big Tex on the State Fair grounds.

The paintings, located in the lobby of Clearfork office buildings, are better served. David Conn’s huge black and white painting “Daybreak, Edward’s Ranch” hangs alone in a small vestibule visible from the street and the lobby. It has been given its own private gallery with maximum but protected exposure. The high-contrast image of sunlight and shadows is deftly handled by Conn and captures the lure and sense of mystery in deep forest settings.

Malou Flato’s “Palo Verde” is another standout. Her double-sided painting of desert flora on translucent paper is lovely and seems perfectly at home in the austere lobby environment.

Pace’s “Avocados,” a 4-foot bronze avocado, split in half and presented on a large circle of artificial turf in the center of the Plaza, is equally as well-placed. Its pregnant shape and split presentation, one half with seed, one without, seems a particularly toothsome fertility figure.

Erwin manages to combine a contemporary painting style with a John James Audubon presentation in her paintings of “Turkeys” and “Ducks.” She deftly manages to marry then and now. Other artists whose work is represented are not so facile and cause the prevalence of iconic Texas themes to wear a bit thin. Replicas of old windmills, no matter how exact in proportion, seem cumbersome surrounded by sleek contemporary architecture. Were it actually an old windmill, it would have fallen to the first bulldozer on the property.

Even more at odds are the flocks of white painted aluminum cranes, by Kevin Box and Robert J. Lang, that hang in the escalator wells. Lumpy sheets of aluminum are folded like origami, and what should be crisp and flat looks like badly folded T-shirts. Their flat bottoms, meant to float, dispel any notions of flight, despite the suspension cables.

Not all of the art is shown to its best advantage, and several of the pieces are not as good as they should be. A few are excellent and well-situated.

Now that Clearfork is coalescing, artists and Cassco could and should respond in a more sympathetic manner. As there is much more to be built at Clearfork, Gossett says, “There is definitely potential for more art.”

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Gaile Robinson is a free-lance writer who covers art and architecture. She was a critic for over a decade at the Star-Telegram.

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