What's So Great About Painting

What's interesting about Cole's materials, and his statement, is that he doesn't try to protect art from confusion with industrial design. When design appropriated the tropes of Modern painting, it must have been agony for the likes of Barnett Newman, who insisted that weighty subject matter distinguished abstract art from other things that looked pretty much like it. Today's artists let design borrow art, and then they borrow it back, as in Pae White's Vera™ Retrospective Series, in which she displays scarves by a popular '60s and '70s designer, Vera Neumann. Neumann ripped off Frank Stella, Op Art, Color-field -- whatever appealed to her -- and unabashedly converted art into a "look" for her place mats, sheets and scarves. In turn, White places these quotidian objects under glass, as if to make them as precious as the originals; their value comes from their having been more intimate to more people than abstract art was or is. As far as art goes, the Vera™ Retrospective Series is a bit thin, but the point is a good one: It's a utopian world when everyone can sleep on Stella sheets.

Along the same retro lines, Kevin Appel's technically facile paintings of high-modern architectural interiors are utopianized, yet devoid of people. Slab steps leading up to a no doubt equally minimal second floor float in midair, free of any struts. The leaves of trees outside paneless windows swirl like Calder mobiles. Since there's no gravity at work here, one assumes these flattened living rooms would not be a good place to plop down on the couch, if there were a couch. Appel's paintings are abstractions, purified versions, of a real thing, just as Cubism abstracted real people and places. "Paint not the thing," Mallarme said to would-be abstract painters in the 19th century, "but the effect it produces." Jackson Pollock, on the other hand, or Malevich or Newman, had only effect. They made painting that had everything to do with the materials they used, and not with objects in the outside world.

In this show, we can recognize artists who, like Pollock, are more connected to their materials than they are to some reference point in the world. Polly Apfelbaum lays pieces of stretch velvet out on the floor like black and gray lily pads, creating a shimmering inlet bounded by soft stalactites of velvet, each dyed one shade of the rainbow. There may be something "once removed" about this piece in that it's not paint (though it's flat) and it's not on the wall (though other painters, notably Lynda Benglis, have used the floor). But those seem like technicalities -- we're still dealing with all the issues of painting here, after all. For her part, the artist doesn't seem removed at all. She's into it. She painstakingly dyed and cut out each little flap of velvet, and lovingly laid it all out so that you, seeking refuge, can wade up to the sanctuarial shores of an art continent protruding into one corner of the CAM.

Callum Innes, who erases paint with turpentine and experiments with the graceful interaction of shellac and oil paint, is another artist engrossed in the traditional concerns of tension and composition. Others in this category are not so great. David Lukas, whose "stacked paintings" are rather like honeycomb racks, with each side relating to the next in an overly precious way, is lost in a world that may have to do with surface, but not the conceptual rigors of abstract painting. Beatriz Milhazes's Lari Pitmanesque doily paintings, which use symbols from Brazilian carnivals, are as Friis-Hansen says, "full of the flair and flavor of a contemporary Brazilian woman." It's an uncomfortable attempt at analysis (imagine: "Your paintings are so ... French!") that only plays up how little she belongs here.

There are other artists here who, unlike Mark D. Cole, are concerned with the front of a painting, and with somehow re-presenting what paint does there. Glenn Brown paints versions of British Expressionist painter Frank Auerbach's gooshy portraits two ways: in photorealist detail on a flat matte canvas, and torqued bizarrely around a rocklike sculpture that looks like one of Auerbach's canvases crumpled up and discarded in a corner. Brown collapses the emotionally laden gesture of the original painter in order to open up a space for our own reconstitution of and connection to the actual image, sans aura. It's technically awesome and fairly straightforward. Richard Patterson daubs paint on small figurines, and then paints ugly photorealist versions of those figurines. For both these artists, the brush stroke is the territorial piss-mark of painting. Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein lampooned abstract expressionism by painting a cartoon version of a brushstroke in 1965, and Brown adds a softer version of Lichtenstein's brush stroke to a scene of a painted minotaur as if to emphasize the image's unrealness.

Two painters who use the "removed" vocabulary of paint to their own pleasurable ends are Parazette and Ingrid Calame. Parazette orchestrates swirling clip-art splashes into a composition over a filmstrip-quality void of blackness. Each span of color is layered in enamel paint, until a tight groove forms between them as between jigsaw pieces. Calame traces lewd splotches and splatters she finds on the ground and uses them as found gestural fragments to make her compositions. Both painters are preoccupied with color, not organic or cadmium color but bright industrial color that is coy about its emotional possibilities. Shiny color, after all, does not come from or necessarily relate to the body -- though Calame's onomatopoetic titles (like spalunk) and Monique Prieto's soft bioshapes want to deprude and depretense abstract painting.

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