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Abstract Ideas

Three current shows reveal the perils of abstraction in painting

Over the past few years, the Texas art world has become obsessed with the validity of abstract painting. In Houston alone, three large exhibits of regional abstraction have been mounted, and panel discussions on the topic have been a big draw. Because abstract painting presents so many challenges for both artist and audience, attempting it is considered rebellious by some. But abstraction is just a fashionable subsection of visual art as a whole -- to make nonobjective work is no more inherently dangerous than making any other kind of work. In fact, because of the marketability of abstract works, it may be less dangerous. And abstract painters can fall prey to a major temptation: manufacturing eye candy. Three current exhibits offer a cautionary tale, especially to those with a weakness for sweets.

These three gallery shows resurrect a romantic way of working that's predicated on the artist's taste and style and, by extension, on the taste and style of the collector. Unlike artists who deal conceptually or even ironically with the practice of painting, these artists are preoccupied with craft and composition. If artists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman wanted to paint backdrops that aid in or generate a transcendent experience for the viewer, these painters want simply to paint. For them, the handling of materials appears to be an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. Engrossed in their seductive surfaces, they hardly notice if the viewer is bored or restless.

At Lynn Goode Gallery, Gregory Gioiosa's seven large paintings done in rich, wintry hues appear as striking as stained glass in the expansive, high-ceilinged space. All but one are from his "Transitory Reconciliation" series, in which the California artist sets oval rings and urnlike shapes scudding along on opaque and diaphanous seas of acrylic and oil. Gioiosa is a master of surface manipulation -- in some passages, tiles of color are matched one to the other (reconciled?) with a clean groove in between. The title of the series is mysterious, implying a captured sliver of time. Is Gioiosa assigning personal, or universal, significance to these pretty patterns? "Reconciliation" generally occurs in the aftermath of conflict, but there is no hint of conflict here. As painter Brice Marden noted, "The idea of beauty can be offensive ... it doesn't deal with issues; political or social issues. But an issue that it does deal with is harmony." Gioiosa's paintings are harmonious -- shapes and colors interact according to a courtly etiquette of form. But in no way are they about harmony, or the difficulty of achieving it. If something is missing in this parade of virtuosity, it is not fine appearances, but intellect.

Some paintings play on the limits and properties of abstraction, and the language they use can be slippery and puzzling. But that's preferable to the kind of painting in which the skill of the painter is paramount, where the language is largely neutral and easily commodified. At Sally Sprout Gallery, Jewell Homad's 11 works on wood and canvas achieve a surfeit of pictorial pleasure. The delicate textures she builds up of paint, metallic ink and pure pigment bring to mind various types of inclement weather. Sometimes Homad scratches designs in these textures; other times, she adds smears of vivid, contrasting pigment powder. In many, her sheer, gritty curtains of color half-conceal abstract forms -- crowds of vertical brush strokes or darker, vaguely threatening shapes. These entities, along with the exaggerated horizontal dimensions of the canvas and titles such as His Journey to Ayers, suggest a narrative, to be read from left to right. According to the gallery owner, they are "about" Homad's father's bout with cancer. But in their prettiness and neat resolve, their narrative is subsumed to a decorative ideal. That's all the more frustrating, because one suspects that Homad has something useful to say.

Of the three current exhibits, the show at Inman Gallery is the most complex. Two Houston artists, David Aylsworth and Paul Francis Forsythe, are paired with two well-known New York artists, Carroll Dunham and Donald Baechler, both of whom have been included in the Whitney Biennial. This compare and contrast strategy works well -- a sort of instructional "if you like Dunham, you'll love Aylsworth" format that expands the audience for all four artists. And the aesthetic connection, at least to Dunham, is obvious: Forsythe's unshaded pencil drawings and Aylsworth's bright, overactive canvases clearly take a cue from Dunham's works on paper studies for his neo-surrealist paintings. The Houston artists' relationship to Baechler, though, is less clear, perhaps because the exhibit includes a suite of Baechler's silk-screens rather than his paintings or drawings.

Of the four, only the two Texans are devoted abstractionists. Their juxtaposition with the New York artists makes the problems with their approach all the more clear. Dunham's "Pink Mound" drawings present an anthropomorphic planet, sort of like the asteroid of Saint-Exupéry's Little Prince come to life, spewing and fuming from pimples and cavities. Three of Dunham's untitled pencil drawings also offer exaggerated biomorphic and landscape qualities -- blufflike square heads with hills for hair and lips embedded in the turf like fat worms. By giving the viewer something to laugh at, something quasi-recognizable, these cartoonishly exuberant works become easier to enjoy.

On the other hand, Forsythe's very simple drawings of fleshy, organism-like shapes are as unilluminating as they are unfussy. And Aylsworth, the show's all-out abstract painter, doesn't appear to have any idea where he's headed when he works. He begins with a simple wash of color, and shapes emerge and compete for attention as he builds up the work. Viewed as highly magnified, the shapes may be seen as microbial worms and chains of cells, each with their own agenda in a disordered body. Viewed as actual size, they look like a mess of soft plastic toys for an infant. These paintings are willing to be imperfect. Unlike Gioiosa's and Homad's works, they are comfortable with discordant color and overripe shapes, using vulgarity as visual style. But Aylsworth's cutesy titles (Butterscotch Candy, Do Do That Voodoo) seem to admit we still have to look elsewhere if we want more than a sugar fix.

If the art market is good, collectors salivate over works of fine-tuned beauty or overdeveloped style. These paintings find validity as status objects. But I would venture a guess that the larger public wants -- and deserves -- something that's more than a simple accessory. The truly brave abstract artist is the one whose work doesn't forego conceptual rigor, someone who may be attracted to the prettiness of paint -- and perhaps its marketability as well -- but still isn't afraid to find a new validity for it, a hard won harmony or an object lesson. Unfortunately, not much of that can be found in the current displays. More's the pity, since such stubborn painters are the ones who have goals that are truly in line with the cravings of their audience -- they want beauty plus.

"Transitory Reconciliation" will show through May 11 at Lynn Goode Gallery, 2719 Colquitt, 526-5966; "Floating" will show though May 10 at Sally Sprout Gallery, 223 Westheimer, 526-6461; "Paintings and Works on Paper" will show through May 4 at Inman Gallery, 1114 Barkdull, 529-9676.

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