Abstraction Without Shame

Abstract painting has been said to be dead; at DiverseWorks, seven painters disagree

Since the early 1980s, we've been told time and again of the emergence of a "new painting" -- this despite the numerous and quite specific critiques painting has faced in recent decades. After a generation of savagely anti-idealist critics has worked to discredit the extravagant claims made for abstract painting by Modernism's apologists, abstraction has seemed beleaguered and bereft of purpose. Painting itself has seemed to be an outdated art form, incapable of either breaking free of its past or equaling its earlier achievements. Of course the problem for art in general at the moment is an essential dishonesty in addressing the question of originality and regeneration. Contemporary art denies it has to be new, even rejects the notion of a breakthrough, yet knows fully just how much it yearns for exactly that. The art world and everybody in it are desperate for anything novel. And this is where abstract painting becomes all the more troublesome, because it's so blatantly un-new without even having the faintest pretense of novelty. Abstract painting has a limited vocabulary, a set of materials and physical conditions that may be pushed to their limits, yet never really overcome. In the 1950s, Abstract Expressionism was a radical innovation; today, the validity of abstraction is in doubt.

Yet to make art that doesn't try to be radical is, ironically, now a provocative idea. It requires an insistent individualism, an indifference to the protocol of radicalism, an emancipation from Modernism's concepts of progress. And in Houston, as in other parts of the country, there seems to be a loose-knit tribe of artists whose work aims to prove that the overall state of abstraction is not in rigor mortis. Among these are the seven Houston painters included in "Process-Strategy-Irony" now showing at DiverseWorks. These artists are going to make tough, incorrigible paintings no matter what, because that's where their instincts lead them. They eschew radicalism in favor of a vocabulary that has now, after 40 years, the capacity to record human touch -- the process of an intimate interaction between artist and canvas -- as well as to reflect irony, critical objectivity and dispassion.

Curated by Houston artist Aaron Parazette, the exhibition is a quirky gathering of works not usually brought together because they're not thought of as constituting a cohesive group, though they certainly share stylistic affinities. The task for these artists appears less to continue abstraction than to view history through the events of their immediate heritage, a synthesis that produces a paradoxical fusing of abstraction and style. Inherent is the notion that the making of art is an act of deception. As such, much of the work flirts with belief, both undermining it and establishing it. For these artists -- and for a great many of their colleagues -- the goal is not merely the exhuming of abstraction's corpse or the exposing of its empty shell. Rather, they share an insistence on finding a passageway for abstraction from its original uses to benefits more aligned with the close of our century. What they seek is a more complex, more flexible role.

For the most part, these artists seem to be interested in painting as a language, as a text that is continuously written. In their hands, painting is not set against the world, but occupies a position that is both an extension of the ordinary world and a break from it. Neither smug nor condescending, the works of these seven painters take their place in the material world by taking issue with its superficiality. Distilled, self-assured, historically conscientious without being mannered, the paintings seemingly swing between an almost out-of-control obsessiveness and the exacting restraint of understatement.

As a group, the painters' work reflects the Zeitgeist of the recession-era '90s: clear-eyed, stripped down and seductively corporate. With the advent of electronic imagery -- video games, computer graphics, film animation, morphing -- there is no resolution, no firm ground. This undercutting, this collapse, is part of the complexity these artists view as synonymous with everyday experience. As such, for them the canvas becomes a playing field on which multiple events are organized, dissolved and reformed within certain imposed boundaries. Chaos and accident collide with geometry and structure to produce a kind of hybrid language. Many of the works operate in a netherworld of multiplicity and simultaneity, effecting a visual energy that grabs the viewer's eye and holds one's gaze.

Upon entering the gallery, you're confronted by Andy Mann's huge turntable painting, a piece strangely evocative of '60s "Spin Art" in which paint squirted on a spinning card resulted in a splattered color pattern. Mounting medium density fiberboard on a turntable, Mann similarly spins the wheel, using airbrush, oil stick and oil paint as he creates a "variable constant." The constant is the precise spinning motion; the variable is the deceleration of the turntable. The surface is devoid of any sense of visual incident that could suggest the artist's hand, yet the work is startlingly seductive. The concentric rings of saturated color -- orange, pink, purple, blue and yellow -- reveal an intensely sensory effect; the circles begin to pulsate, as if perceived under the effects of drugs.

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