Quiet, Please

"Everything is on the move. Art should be still." This was one of the 12 strict rules for painters that Ad Reinhardt advanced in 1957. Today, his pitch for a "new academy" reads like a parody of Puritanism, but Reinhardt proved he wasn't joking when he proceeded to paint the same black, five-foot-by-five-foot painting over and over again until his death in 1967. Though Reinhardt (and he wasn't the first) declared that his was the last possible painting, plenty of "silent painters" followed him -- Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman and Brice Marden, to name only a few. Their approach was cool and formal, their palette pared down almost to a single color. There wasn't much to look at, and that was the beauty of it.

Now Houston gallery owner Doug Lawing has taken up the matter of silence again in an ambitious show of ten artists of national reputation, among them Vija Celmins, Lorna Simpson and the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Only now, "silent" doesn't mean minimalist or monochrome. Lawing has assembled an unlikely combination of abstract painters, conceptual photographers and social sculptors, and through his disciplined selection he has coaxed their works into a relationship. As is the case with most Lawing Gallery exhibits, the objects on display are cool, though far from cynical -- it's transcendental meditation for the sophisticate. While the show is called "Silence," perhaps a more apt title would be the less absolute "quiet." Reinhardt believed that painting should excise nature, form and even relationship, but these works return to landscape, not as a subject, but as a place for the viewer's reflection. In other words, they offer not purity, but respite.

Among the show's most bewitching pieces are Uta Barth's blurry photographs of backgrounds from her "Ground" series. Barth selects a likely spot for a conventional family photograph -- say a field or a beach -- then focuses on where the standard family subjects would be and snaps her shutter. Like the dreamy works of her contemporary, Jack Pierson, Barth's photos look romantic. But Barth says her aim is conceptual; she's interested in how she can "make you aware of your own activity of looking, instead of losing your attention to thoughts about what it is that you are looking at." This statement is an analog for meditation, the process of becoming aware of thinking without being attached to the thoughts. But by banishing the subject of her photographs, Barth does something that may be even more important in this day and age: she grants the viewer privacy.

Privacy, freedom from surveillance or interference, is also a concern of photographer Lorna Simpson's newest series of works. Her giant photograph The Rock, printed on felt panels, is a nature scene accompanied by two short texts describing roadside sexual encounters. The first text describes a scene from a John Waters movie in which Divine in drag has sex with a trucker, who's played by a non-drag wearing Divine. The second describes two people, apparently somewhat new to each other, who are looking for a secluded place to stop their car. The first description posits The Rock as a backdrop for frenetic activity; the second casts the picture in a dreary, generic light -- the two characters don't care where they are, as long as no one discovers them. In both texts, there's a sense that privacy is a threatened commodity; by suggesting that her pictured scene is near a highway, Simpson questions whether rocks and trees can provide silence and solitude. And by making it a place for casual rendezvous, she questions whether her characters can stand to be alone with themselves.

Because Vija Celmins is not a photographer, landscape in her paintings, drawings and the single lithograph on view at Lawing becomes a location for the artist to work in as well as for the viewer to look at. Untitled (Large Ocean) is nothing more than that: a calm ocean strung between white borders with a white sky. This obsessively rendered piece is like a vacation in the sense of "vacant": it's a deliverance from daily life into beautiful, terrifying boredom. There is no event here; there is only the exquisiteness of Celmins' mark making, only the evidence of an event that seems so exacting (Celmins works from photographs) that it is no event at all but a constant, like the earth's rotation. "Art is still and dead," Celmins, in an eerie echo of Reinhardt's proclamation, said in 1978. And though she uses images, Celmins has managed to attain some of the discipline of which Reinhardt spoke. Her remove, however, flips inside out on her. Just as Ryman's attempts to eliminate everything unnecessary from his white paintings had the reverse effect of magnifying each careful mark he made, so does Celmins' stripped-down ocean reveal an intense relationship between artist and image, a fervent love of square inch rather than grand effect.

The show's abstract paintings are a mixed bag. Lawing's taste runs to highly refined, near-minimalist works that discreetly explore the painting process. Sampling works by Nancy Haynes, Stephen Rosenthal, Lawrence Carroll and Christian Garnett is like attending a wine tasting at which one hopes for the company of experts who can explain the bouquet of a particular tint of white (off-white equals sullied), the exact region of abstraction whence each artist comes and the subtle undernotes of each. Or then again, one might wish such experts good day, not wanting any of them to notice whether you spit or swallow. One problem with these works is that they politely ask for close looking, but they do not, as Celmins' do, demand it -- with the possible exception of Carroll's sculpturally assertive creations. Still, in the struggle to determine what should or should not be included in an abstract painting, the landscape once again crops up. Garnett's slick, record-album alkyd works graduate from black to white like a dawn sky, and along the bottom he has spread a slim line of color that stands in for the horizon as a locating device.

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