Abstraction Without Shame

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

But while the painting beckons us to enter it -- to run our eyes over the lush whirlpools of color -- the surface resists such entry. At the same time, these sensory impressions are interpreted as standardized facts in the lineage of high Modernism. Using a spiral or rotational composition, of course, also changes the conventional reading order. Accordingly, the hole in the center formed by eight conjoined panels functions like a corkscrew that sucks the eye in.

Conversely, Joe Mancuso's monochromatic tondos slowly pull the eye from perimeter to center, moving over glitches of hand, brush and dripping paint. Mancuso begins painting at the outer edge of his canvas, making his way to the center with successive attempts to paint the perfect circle. Whereas Mancuso's quest for organic fluidity seems a retread of certain well-established territory, it's also a tantalizing stimulation of our desire for painting.

If anything, the DiverseWorks show makes clear that the "new" abstract painting exploits a set of stylistic tropes. The contrast between matte and high gloss on the same surface seen in the work of Tad Griffin is just one of them. Griffin, using simple tools such as rollers and squeegees, gives us marks that seem to be preserved in glossy aspic. His black-and-white paintings deliver the pleasures of traditional gestural abstraction in an impersonal, anti-expressive idiom. Yet dragging the paint across the gessoed surface creates pulsing or stuttering marks that resemble DNA samples, seismographic readouts or digital notations.

Moving back and forth between abstract thought and sensuous physicality, Griffin confounds the translation of his work between perception and cognition -- between seeing and knowing, the literal and the illustrative. Griffin's impeccable and irreverent paintings mess with the regularity of the Modernist grid by shifting its horizontals and verticals into fragmented segments that quiver and jitter in a shallow, albeit energized, illusionistic space. His out-of-step grids seem to have adapted to an imperfect world -- a world of data, speed and simulation.

All of the show's artists continually subvert the idea that a painting has a fixed content or that an image need be necessarily static. One's eyes slide back and forth across the myriad surfaces, seeking a hold but finding none, enhancing the feeling that sensory data are always fleeting, disappearing. Giovanni Garcia-Fenech crops, compresses or reconfigures corporate logos and supergraphics to create dynamic paintings, one of them evocative of the Domino's Pizza logo. In part the detritus of revered art-historical forms and in part the leftovers of advertising's seductive images, Garcia-Fenech's flatly painted acrylics comment upon the tawdriness of the consumer imagination while unapologetically invoking its toxic elegance.

Similarly, works by Wade Chandler, Susie Rosmarin and Jeff Elrod are caught up in the contingency of the ordinary world, a haywire hybrid of sentient life and inanimate machinery. Chandler's multicolored fields of interlocking lines and symbols appear to be appropriated circuit board schematics, but are nonfunctional simulations almost entirely of the artist's own design. Rosmarin creates an ordered language through an idiosyncratic system of numbers, her glyphs serving as a kind of liberating force -- compulsion as meditation. Elrod's cool, geometric abstract paintings play rationality, order and control against nonsense, randomness and spontaneity. His works contain not only the rough and irregular edges of hand painting, but also a litter of incidental marks from the artist and unknown sources -- dings, dirt and blemishes. Accordingly, Elrod presents a pure concept in a soiled package, an irony heightened by his use of geometric imagery from first-generation video games that favored flat white graphics on black fields. Interestingly, the aim of early video games like Asteroids (also the title of an Elrod painting) was to save oneself, perhaps even the world -- an ultimately futile endeavor since the machine always won.

In such shifting, destabilized visual fields, everything contends with, interrupts and invades everything else. Space is not a privatized territory or interior realm into which one can withdraw, but an open field through which move myriad forces whose intermingling superimpositions create strange constellations of language. Based on the ways modern conduits and computer circuitry instantly transmit information, the paintings at DiverseWorks bring into collision the clarity of precise communication and the incomprehension of not knowing the code. Perhaps what unites these seven artists is not only their interest in occupying the territories at painting's limits, but the way they assert their physical presence on these fringes. If anything, they aim to sabotage our desire for consistency and closure, renouncing "noble" aesthetic qualities in a bid to create works characterized by their own conceptual roughness.

"Process-Strategy-Irony" will show through October 16 at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, 223-8346.

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