Toast to an Artspace About Art

Pro-Jex's Tunnel of Art on Fifth Street Was More Than a Gallery, Much More

Neil Coleman at the original Pro-Jex Gallery
photograph by Brenda Ladd

Nobody in Austin got too worked up when Neil Coleman's Pro-Jex Gallery and Frameshop moved from its spot on Fifth Street, between Congress and Brazos, to the ArtPlex at 1705 Guadalupe. The long, impossibly narrow, shirt-sleeve of a gallery that hung from Austin's arts community was for years the city's sole photography-only gallery. But Austin is the Live Music Capital of the World, and a city whose art scene is defined for most people by Quentin Tarantino screenings. So, if the internationally known names of photographers such as Mark Seliger, Stephen Shames, and Austin's own Dennis Darling do not exactly enjoy household status in Austin, you can't really expect a city-wide moment of silence for the passing of the funky little artspace that showed their work.

The gals at Belding Flowers, next door to Pro-Jex, Coleman's neighbors since he opened the Fifth Street location 10-and-a-half years ago, displayed a little concern. Ruth Martin, a tough longshoreman of a flower arranger, part Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life and part Rocky-era Burgess Meredith, mused that the girls would miss Coleman's jokes and having him and his assistant Dave Courtney to help finish off lunch when they brought in Chinese. As she admitted, though, it would be hard for her to miss the gallery itself since she had never spent much time with the pictures, never even attended an opening party for an exhibit. "Neil always invited us, but those parties were after five, and five o'clock, that's Muumuu Time for me. I gotta go home and get in my muumuu." But if Ruth and Star and Becky, the shop's owner, don't throw away days fretting over Neil's fate, that is to be expected. Belding has been there since 1958, and now they're looking for a new space, too.

To the parking control cop working the block that week, who generally let Neil and Dave slide on the parking tickets that come automatically with a small, downtown business, the departure just meant a new set of tenants and cars he either will or will not recognize. And for Mr. Walter Benson, the eightysomething Marlboro Man whose family bought the Phillips Building that housed Pro-Jex "around the time I was born," who has finally seen a real estate market in Austin that will pay enough for him to sell the two-story brownstone, there is a whole lot being displaced besides Pro-Jex.

But in Austin's loose-knit photography community, among the folks who made Pro-Jex their clubhouse, living room, and library, their backyard barbecue and front-porch swing, the move meant more. For the photographers who had their first shows there, the fans who regularly stopped in to see Neil's newest favorite pictures, and the customers and friends who learned through Neil and Dave's framing that there is art also in the presentation of an image, the closing of the Fifth Street location felt like watching your parents sell your childhood home before you were ready to leave.

Coleman first came to the Fifth Street location in the summer of 1987 after four years in the Arts Warehouse at Third and San Antonio. There he had concentrated on picture framing, combining the lessons of an art education degree from UT in the Seventies with experience framing for artist George Boutwell in the Eighties. Business was fine, but the main attraction of the Warehouse had been the bigger business anticipated when the Austin Museum of Art went up across the street. As the bust hit and the museum plans fell through, Coleman rented the Fifth Street spot from Mr. Benson. Six months later, the Arts Warehouse closed.

The Benson family had owned the Phillips Building since the 1910s. Initially, they sold Studebakers, with a showroom on the first floor and a big elevator in the back to take cars to a garage on the second floor. During the Second World War, the USO leased the upstairs to entertain troops, and in the Fifties, Matt Martinez, Sr.'s brother Del threw Tejano dances up there. When Coleman moved in, the Benson family was publishing textbooks upstairs, and the street level space was subdivided to hold the finance company and the flower shop. Coleman moved in between the two, taking a nine-and-a-half-foot-wide sliver off Belding Flowers that had been used as a Hallmark Shop.

"As a gallery, the configuration didn't lend itself to anything besides photography," Coleman says. "It's so long and narrow that we had to concentrate on something that you don't have to stand real far away from to look at and appreciate."

"I loved that space," says Texas Monthly art director D.J. Stout, one of American Photo's 100 most important people in photography. "It was out of the ordinary, like being in a tunnel. You'd walk up one side of the room and come back down the other and be done. It was really a very natural way to look at the photos."

Dennis Darling, head of UT's photojournalism program, took a number of exhibits around the world after initial shows at Pro-Jex. "Part of the charm was that there was no space. It was like having a show in a bowling alley. Or just a single bowling lane."

"Mudman" from "A Studio in the Forest: A Rainbow Gathering"

photograph by Dennis Carlyle Darling

The Austin photography community, not necessarily visible prior to Pro-Jex, responded instantly to the presence of Austin's first true photography gallery. A series of photos of pre-unification East Berlin that Coleman was framing for UT's Germanic Languages department became the gallery's inaugural exhibit before touring the U.S. In 1988, Pro-Jex housed high-profile shows of Keith Dannemiller's photos from the Palestinian-Israeli War and Steven Shames' exceptional series on homeless children. In November of 1993, Rolling Stone chief photographer Mark Seliger came to Austin for the first solo exhibit of his career at Pro-Jex. The quirky celebrity portraits he brought – naked Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ice-T with his mouth wrapped tight with duct tape – had made Seliger the successor to Annie Liebowitz at Rolling Stone and were some of the most familiar to have hung at Pro-Jex.

But just as important as the name photographers that Coleman brought to Austin was the chance he gave local photographers to show work that simply would not go up anywhere else. "He's shown a lot of controversial and dark and avant-garde photographs that you're not going to stick in your house," says Stout. "And where no one else will give these photographers a chance, Neil will give them a whole show. For people doing cutting-edge work, it's real important that they see people react and get feedback on what they are doing. The only way to do that is through a show of their own." Says Darling, "Neil is an off-Broadway test run for pictures."

Coleman's relationship with Darling has been one of the real gems of the gallery. Of Darling's eight or nine exhibits at Pro-Jex, one of the earliest was "A Studio in the Forest: A Rainbow Gathering," a series of naturally lit portraits of nude, mud-covered revelers celebrating the Eighties Rainbow Gathering outside Lufkin. East Texas did not exactly open its arms to the merry weirdos who convened on Lake Sam Rayburn, and the controversy made national headlines. But Darling's open mind and easygoing eye found a dignity in the Rainbow People that escaped the big news agencies that summer. The series toured Europe and the U.S. after its debut at Pro-Jex.

Two years later, Darling showed his tattoo series – six three-and-a-half-foot square portraits of bare-chested body artists – three on each side of the thin gallery, mounted on canvas and hung from the ceiling by wire and grommets. "They were so huge, you couldn't get back far enough to see them," said Darling. A circus-tent awning framed the tops of the portraits. "It looked like a freak show," says Coleman.

Darling has also held shows with pictures by his UT students and a series of April Fool's Day shows under the nom de lens O'Dell Thibideaux. The other 85 shows Pro-Jex has hosted run from local maestro Daniel Schaefer's collection of portraits of conjunto accordion players to pinhole camera work from elementary school kids to grunge band concert poster art to benefits for local artists down on their luck.

"It had an Austin feeling," says Stout. "Instead of that slick, go-go art space that's all about money and bidding, it was about art."

"Evening Bath in the Teculutia River" from the Veracruz Photographic Project

photograph by Curtis Craven

But being "about art," as honorable as it sounds, does not amount to anything you can take to the landlord at month's end, and it is the comparatively lucrative framing business that has kept Pro-Jex open. Coleman has built up a steady clientele, pleased customers that send continuing business his way and bring him in contact with all manner of local luminaries. He and Courtney have framed countless movie posters for Richard Linklater, Liebowitz's portraits of Ann Richards for the former governor's daughter, and legislative composites for Texas lawmakers. Perhaps Pro-Jex's best-known framing job was a set piece for Lonesome Dove, a picture of Gus and Call as young Rangers that hung behind a San Antonio bar and prompted Captain McRae's face-breaking demand for respect from the barman. Still, Coleman discusses these jobs matter-of-factly; only when the stranger projects come up does he get bubbly. "We framed this thing for Siegfried and Roy, some pictures of them with Siberian tigers, and I think now it's hanging in their museum in Germany."

The framing has also given Coleman a chance to forge his own art in creating the best frame for a given subject. "Sometimes the choice comes right away, especially if I already enjoy that type of art or have an affinity for the piece." He works carefully to mat and frame his jobs in colors, textures, and styles that complement the mood and substance of the picture. "That's better than working from color swatches of people's couches and carpets," says Coleman. "The picture is going to outlast where they're living. Luckily, people usually come looking for me specifically, and they have only a basic idea of what they want or, more often, what they don't want. Then they leave it up to me."

Well-known Austin portraitist and art photographer Brenda Ladd trusts Coleman completely. A few years ago she brought in a set of five small French nudes, antique prints originally sold with Mexican cigars, and turned them over to Neil without instruction. He mounted them in the shallow dishes of a bright serving tray. Ladd called the result brilliant.

Of course, Coleman and Courtney have worked on their share of diplomas and needlepoints, but perhaps because of their renown among eccentrics in the arts community, or maybe just because of the downtown location, more interesting jobs came in.

"One time this guy came in, kind of private, and he came back to the table and said, 'How long until you can have this back to me?'" says Coleman. "He was carrying this rolled-up print, and he hadn't shown it to me yet. So I said, 'I don't know, let's see what it is,' and he unrolled this pastel of himself laying nude. It was like that Avedon of Natassia Kinski with the snake, only there was nothing covering him. And his penis was huge, way out of proportion with his body, about the size of his head.

"I told him that things were slow and that if I could get the materials I needed I could get his picture back to him in about a week, but that I would call him and tell him when it was ready. Well, he wouldn't give me his phone number, and so we had this debate about why I needed it. And while we were talking, my phone kept ringing, and when I'd go to answer it I'd look back at the guy, and he'd have taken out a pencil and was making his dick bigger in the picture. I actually got that job done a little quicker than I'd estimated."

Evie's Fan
photograph by Neil Coleman

For a lot of shopowners, that kind of customer would have meant a call to mall security. For Coleman and Courtney, it represented a quirky perk of working downtown, not only a reminder of life's variety but a chance to be part of it. It typified the possibility and openness that made the gallery a comfortable refuge to artists hoping for an audience and the occasional wanderer who stopped in just looking for someone to talk to. So it worked for all kinds of people who became part of Pro-Jex's extended family, like Mimi, the beautiful little schizophrenic French girl who had a crush on Courtney. She stopped by every other day or so to tell him he looked like Gary Oldman ("not now, but when Gary Oldman was young and cheeky") or to discuss the more subtle points of chess ("My father, the critic for a leading European chess magazine, says Karpov is nothing but a woodpusher! But he has the cutest little penis.") And Curtis Craven, a local documentarian whose stills from the Veracruz Photographic Project show how a democratic vantage can blur the line between squalor and splendor. And the bag lady who always wore sweaters in summer and showed up for every opening, who Darling occasionally saw during the week walking around campus. "She would look so familiar, but I wouldn't recognize her without crackers hanging out of her mouth and a Shiner in her hand." And Alan Pappé, the gray-headed California hippie with the sunken eyes and sandpaper voice whose tight shot of a pompadoured John Travolta cheek-to-cheek with Olivia Newton-John on the cover of the Grease soundtrack became a Seventies icon.

And so it is with Wade Jones, the favorite son of the Pro-Jex family, a steady presence who stops in when not working his betting window at Manor Downs or taking pictures somewhere around town. Short and round, with a cocky, rakish glint to his blue eyes that is wholly at odds with his resemblance to rodeo singer Moe Bandy, Jones is infinitely enigmatic. Even after his car breaks down in front of your house, and he stays the night naked on your couch ("I always sleep nude, man"), and he wakes you up in the morning with a loud broadcast of the dirty movie he found in your VCR, you still cannot say you truly know Wade. But Jones took one of Neil's favorite pictures, Stage Right, an unposed shot of a pair of tiny, teenaged ballerinas leaning to look for their cue through a crack in the curtains just off stage. The picture could have been too precious or slid into cliché. Instead it captures all the poetry and anticipation of that art and that age, and it reveals a grace in Jones not necessarily apparent otherwise. Courtney calls it "one of the prettiest pictures I've ever seen."

On any given afternoon, you were apt to find one of these people in the back of the gallery visiting with Coleman and Courtney, maybe drinking a beer, maybe just smoking. "It was like one of those salons in Paris that the Impressionists used to go to and talk about painting," says Stout.

But to find all these folks together, your best bet would have been one of the bi-monthly openings where they gathered to celebrate their love of photography and their friendship. Early evening fêtes that invariably ran into the night, the parties differed some from the high-tone to-dos at swankier galleries, with chips, hot sauce, and occasional lemon cooler cookies, plus two very popular coolers full of beer nobly substituting for the traditional wine. Conversation tended to the "How you been" variety, folks catching up on recent jobs and jokes and the next big shoot, on the wife or the husband and the kids. The talk usually competed with Coleman's CD, or his Hawaiian Steel Guitar Classics. Jones would let you know how he did at the track that week and Craven would help you pick out the girls in the crowd who had posed for the nudes. At some point, you might discuss the exhibit, probably over a beer on the sidewalk in front of the gallery, either leaning against Courtney's Land Cruiser or sitting on the stoop at Belding.

"I tried to have shows in the summer," says Darling, "so everybody could stay out on the sidewalk and drink and talk to people. I usually didn't even get in to see the pictures, but then they were really like the body at an Irish wake anyhow. I mean they were expected to be there, you had to have them, but they didn't really need to say too much."

The hope is for this vibe to follow Coleman and Courtney to the new location. In January, Coleman had an unadvertised open house in connection with an opening in the main gallery. On the walls he displayed photos from his personal collection: Seliger's portrait of Robin Williams as a bored, midgeted dandy; an Alan Pogue shot of William S. Burroughs defensively pointing a gun at his reflection in a full-length mirror; Dannemiller's photo of a hysterical Palestinian woman running at an Israeli soldier who has grabbed her two sons; one of Jones' nudes; one of Pappé's Farrahs; one of Bill Records' perfect portraits of Mance Lipscomb, caught tight enough to smell the cigarette in his hand and count the short, gray whiskers on his black, canvas skin.

The new Pro-Jex looked great. As someone pointed out, it is always helpful for a gallery to have four walls instead of two. Although the crowd felt different, that owed more to Neil's decision not to send out invitations than anything else. No, the most notable distinction that night was that Coleman actually sold a picture. A man who had never even heard of Mance Lipscomb bought Records' portrait for $425. And two days later, on a Saturday afternoon when Coleman stopped by to do some straightening up after the party, he sold Jones' nude for $175. Those two sales made more money from pictures than Coleman had made in the last six months at the Fifth Street location.

At the old spot the Friday before the move, Coleman showed off his latest favorite photo: a long, skinny group shot of the 1998 Austin High Marching Band. The colors grabbed you right away, the sun screaming off the clean brass horns and buttons, the backdrop of the maroon uniforms, the pure, sky-blue sky. "Look closer at all the faces," says Coleman. "The picture was taken before school one morning and the sun is back behind the photographer. Everybody looks like they just woke up and has the sun shining straight into their eyes." He is right; the picture is all cowlicks and frowns and squints, everybody's expression like they are trying to keep down soured milk over cereal that's supposed to be good for you.

There was nothing at all classical about the photograph, but it was a classic. A classic that probably won't be seen outside Pro-Jex by anyone except the photographer, the band members, and some agitated parents who pre-paid for their kid's pictures. Like a lot of photos that have been on the walls at Pro-Jex, it will not become as familiar as James Evans' swimming Indian kids or fetch the $1,000 prices of Bill Witliff's stills from the production of Lonesome Dove. But it did give a smile, and it did make for a little conversation between runs to move framing supplies from the old gallery to the new. On this occasion, that last small triumph of art over commerce seemed good enough for Neil and Dave.

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