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Light and Darkness

Aaron Parazette matures, while Mark Rothko endures

"So mature, it's frightening" is how one of Aaron Parazette's fellow artists describes Parazette's new show at Texas Gallery, "Pleasure Provision." Indeed, Parazette has developed a specific idiom -- big chips of color in the shape of cartoony splashes -- and presents here a tight, cogent suite of paintings. Each large, square canvas is a carefully laid out set of slick "splashes" painted with such loving precision that a floss-thin groove has formed between each area of color and the next. Yes, these paintings are a textbook example of mid-career maturity: definitive, assured, confident. They don't look like anything else out there. And yes, they are intensely academic -- on one level they deal purely with color and composition.

"Academic," though, is a stodgy word for paintings that pop the way these do. With their acrid palette of mostly lime, lilac, olive, antifreeze green, wiper-fluid blue, orange and the dark brown that's supposed to be the new black, each of these paintings is a small big bang.

Most of the paintings work well within the controlled set of variables Parazette has set up, though a couple fall apart. The dud of the show is the earliest painting, Je T'aime Number 3 with Loaf of Bread, in which the splashes, done in drab jungle camouflage colors rudely interrupted by red and pink areas, encroach from all sides like nasty vegetation one wants to brush aside. The rest of the paintings in the show power out from the center of their canvases. While Je T'aime has a dead border, the edge of the far more successful Horizon Light is rippled by the outermost concentric splash, which seems to flip back into the painting's light blue center.

The most recent splash painting in the show, February, is the hottest looking -- it's a fresh galaxy of light and dark blue, pale green, black and cream that swirls out like a radial saw blade. But it's also the most pat. In between Je T'aime and February, Parazette riffs beautifully using complicated elements that are difficult to balance -- for example, splashes flowing out from the center and in from the sides, as in Soft Light. But Parazette is too good at this kind of problem solving. He doesn't walk the interesting edge of uncertainty for very long.

In fact, the maturity of the work is not what's interesting, much less frightening, about it. What's frightening is the underlying anger. Here, as in Parazette's earlier paintings of oversize suburban wallpaper motifs such as bows and teddy bears, there is a tempered frustration at work.

Parazette's careful splashes-that-aren't-splashed resentfully lampoon Jackson Pollock's splatters-that-are. This work makes a goof of abstract expressionism, but it also envies a time when painting was as important as it was in the '40s and '50s. The names of Parazette's paintings, in fact, are borrowed from a 1958 exhibit of abstract expressionism, "New American Painting," that toured Europe on the CIA's tab, intended as propaganda for freedom, exuberance and the American way.

Parazette is an abstract painter who knows all too well that abstract paintings don't matter that much today, that throwing paint around hardly attracts rent money, much less the support of the CIA. The crashes of chartreuse and olive in Chief, the largest painting in the show, are nothing if not violent waves of vomit -- yet Parazette drolly deals with his disgust by aestheticizing it. After all, if painting is going to matter, "Pleasure Provision" asserts, it must at least provide some pleasure.

With his splash paintings, Parazette has thrown a good-looking, purgative tantrum, but a tantrum nonetheless. And in the gallery's foyer, one can see its sweet aftermath -- a vertical canvas bearing thin stripes of slick, smartly chosen colors that may mark the beginning of a new series of work. Standing five feet, eight inches tall and 22 inches wide, Color Key is a painting of human, not historical, dimensions. And it does not come with a caveat about its own futility.

Painters such as Parazette are haunted by an earlier time in which abstract painters were glorying in their work rather than taking an ironic stance toward it. Mark Rothko was one such painter, so earnestly involved in his projects that he wanted above all a permanent environment for his, and only his, art. Houston's Rothko Chapel was supposed to have been the fulfillment of his dream. But the artist committed suicide before the Chapel was finished, and so he never knew of its shortcomings. In fact, many believed that Rothko's suicide was the culmination of a deep depression evident in the Chapel's almost all-black works, so different are they from the canvases dyed bright, Easter egg colors for which he is well known.

But a remarkable exhibition at the Menil Collection -- which you can still catch if you move quickly -- proves that the black paintings were not the biographical reflections of a troubled man. By tracing works from Rothko's pre-Chapel period through when the Chapel was being planned to the works specifically produced for the Chapel and beyond, it shows the black paintings as an intense, important stage in his work -- one that he passed through and came out of on the other side.

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