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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 Painting itself has seemed to be an outdated art form, incapable of either breaking free of its past or equaling its earlier achievements.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.

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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