What's So Great About Painting

History is not only not over, it has reawakened after fever dreams of history.
--Peter Schjeldahl

Sometime around 1950, Franz Kline was hanging out in Willem de Kooning's studio, where there was a Bell-Opticon overhead projector. Kline took one of his black ink sketches of a rocking chair and projected it onto a screen, where the integrity of the image exploded into a set of giant, powerful strokes. From then on, as he developed his signature style of black on white, he meticulously enlarged the sprays and splatters of his brush strokes from sketches he made beforehand. Despite the myth of the gestural, spontaneous abstract expressionist, Kline's images were, in a sense, once removed from the canvas.

So it is that the history of abstract painting -- already a caricature of the history of 20th-century attitudes -- is not as simple as what we say about it now. There have always been cul-de-sacs along the path of what critic Peter Schjeldahl calls "piety, hope and novelty," and the sense of progress toward the sublime is more imagined than real, a parabola traced through the scatter of actual events. Willem de Kooning called painting "a way of life," but if so, more than one artist has declared it over.

So when someone titles an exhibit "Abstract Painting, Once Removed," as curator Dana Friis-Hansen at the Contemporary Arts Museum has done, it is not so easy to imagine exactly what the paintings are removed from. If they are removed from the myth of pure progress, so is practically everything that came before. One might imagine, as Los Angeles booster/critic David Pagel does in the show's catalog, that the title means "removed from New York," where only four of the 21 artists live. Or one might go along with Friis-Hansen's assertion that "once removed" denotes a genealogical relationship. This abstract painting may be once removed, but it's still dating its cousin.

Yet another option: The work in the show is not abstract painting. Much of it, in fact, is something else. The exhibit includes mirrors and resin, plastic flowers and photographs, sculptures, representational paintings -- work that may concern itself with surface and ground, gesture and color, but does not strictly fit the bill of painting. Still, the exhibit includes objects that could not be called anything but abstract paintings -- paintings in which, like Kline's rocking chair blown up, an image may have gone through many iterations before reaching the canvas, yet paintings nonetheless. There are, of course, significant differences between these painters and Kline, but the basic activity -- arranging fancy mud on a flat surface -- remains the same.

The show's guiding principle, then, wobbles along, bending this way and that according to the will of the curator and the need to include artists of the moment who can give the show currency. Many are quite prominent, and a binder crammed with theoretical essays and reviews relating their work to topics ranging from the Renaissance color-wars to vanitas still lifes to Russian views of facture is available for perusal in the museum coffee shop. The show also provides a nice context for Texas artists, four of whom are included in the show. The Houston works -- by Aaron Parazette, Jeff Elrod and Tad Griffin -- look great amongst their peers.

In an egregious oversight, Friis-Hansen did not include the paintings of Houston artist Susie Rosmarin, which depict TV static using a complicated geometric pattern of black, gray and white squares; Friis-Hansen said they did not fit within the theme of the show. This is a ridiculous assertion, of course, considering both the bendable concept and the inclusion of Griffin, whose soothingly seismographic black-and-white paintings apparently qualified because he uses a squeegee instead of a brush -- which is nothing new. Griffin's and Rosmarin's work is similar, created using mathematic formulas and taking cues from the electronic media. While Griffin's paintings, in their lack of a narrative moment, are about the glitchy hum of time, Rosmarin's, in their lack of a visual moment, are about a fuzzy, dematerialized space. I rant about this in part because other exhibits of late, such as "New to Houston" at the Museum of Fine Arts, have successfully placed male, and only male, Texas artists in a broader context.

One surprising aspect of "Abstract Painting, Once Removed," which the catalog celebrates, is an almost total lack of the ironic distance implied by the title. This work is fun. It's utopian. It's comic. It has an impersonality that can seem, overall, a bit brittle and polite. It's just trying to make it out there in the world. But it's not ironic. Irony is out.

In its place we find, if not piety, then certainly hope and novelty -- this is not the appropriation art of the '80s. In a particularly lively panel discussion on abstraction hosted by Davis McClain Gallery in 1994, Parazette divided abstract artists into three groups: believers, nonbelievers and agnostics. The artists in this show are, for the most part, agnostics, and unpretentious ones at that. As Dallas artist Mark D. Cole puts it, "The paintings ask whether we can obtain a grand spirituality in the objects being produced now, both in art and industry." Cole's Cast Paintings, in which he makes a mold of a canvas, stretcher and all, and pours tinted polyurethane into it, are among the many works in this show that take paint or painting as a subject. Dull and monochromatic, Cole's work holds interest only at the edges, where one can see the tiny nails jutting into naked canvas. The front, the picture plane, is an afterthought manipulated by Cole's dejected drips and scratches. It's not that you can't put anything on the picture plane, it's just that what goes there doesn't seem to matter much.

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