What's So Great About Painting

There's been a sort of overeager contest among the critics lately about who will be the next Clement Greenberg, and it's led to loud proclamations that Formalism is back. Now, we already know that there's really no such thing as pure formalism separated from content, even in graphic design. But what about artists who emphasize composition, color, balance and harmony, while still drawing their images from something like the real world? Like Parazette and Calame, Prieto and Elrod are seriously concerned with these issues. Both design their images on a computer before transferring them onto canvas, though only Elrod's bear the pixelly evidence of their origins.

Prieto's flat shapes are painted in sweet, pure colors on canvas as bare as a schoolgirl's knee. In Jet Stream, a pale blue, armless womanlike sculpture takes up most of the length of the frame, and on top of her head, a few globs of more intense color snuggle together like worms hanging out on the edge of a cliff. One, an orange ball, lets spill a controlled drip down the side. Whereas Elrod's cloned kinetic scribbles hang in the virtual space of a video screen, Prieto's are always affected by gravity. Yet her areas of color, however blobby, have some of the qualities of hard-edged painting, scrupulously refusing to overlap no matter how closely they touch. Despite their uncompromised flatness, they manage to create a palpable pictorial space. In Chronicle, three figures seem to live in a balloon of bouncy smog. While Elrod's paintings are weird and impenetrable, Prieto's are strange only in their unabashed lovableness.

Yet both are wonderfully balanced. Far from being "once removed," the rebirth of abstraction seems closer than ever to the visual concerns of the Greenbergian artists. And as for their substantive concerns, they may have disappeared from the conversation about art, but that doesn't mean they've disappeared from the art itself. The relatively newfound acceptance of beauty -- the new formalism, if you must -- may hold within it grand designs for transcendence and profound emotion, and perhaps that's where the quiet optimism comes in. A generation of second cousins has learned one thing from mid-century abstraction: It's best not to speak of one's own lofty goals. Talking over everything, after all, can ruin it.

"Abstract Painting, Once Removed" is on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose, 284-8250, until December 6.

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