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But What Does It Mean?

An abstract show at Mixture points out why you shouldn't even ask

Abstract paintings tend to make people nervous. Unsure how to respond to, say, Jackson Pollock's all-over drippy intensity or Mark Rothko's shimmering mystical fields or Barnett Newman's dispassionately stoic zips, their first words are almost invariably, "What does it mean?" -- as though the painting posed some philosophical conundrum. The difficulty comes from seeking a narrative in the painting, the story of what the painting is about.

It's an understandable impulse. For most of its history, Western painting was most certainly narrative. It was one of the ways the culture told stories about itself, defined itself, both for its members and for posterity. But in the 19th century, painting faced two narrative rivals: The first was photography, which rendered reality with a fidelity that painting couldn't match (never mind that reality wasn't black and white or sepia-toned). The other was the novel, which was more detailed, democratic and portable than a painting. Novels came into the home; no more schlepping off to a museum or a salon to see the story of your times.

No longer called upon to represent the natural world or society, painting could turn inward to explore its unique qualities. Abstraction began to show up as early as the impressionists, especially Monet; you can see it in the curve of hillocks on either side of a path, or trees and shadows along a river at dawn. Painting began looking to itself -- its two-dimensionality, materials, color and texture -- as its own subject. After all, as the French painter Maurice Denis noted in 1890, "It is well to remember that a picture -- before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote -- is essentially a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order."

All this being said, abstract painting, more times than not, still takes its inspiration from the world we live in. Case in point: the work of two artists now showing at the recently opened Mixture Contemporary Art.

Dallas artist Tom Sime creates paintings that aspire to be sculptures yet do not give up their pictorial nature. After working oil or acrylic, and occasionally additional materials, into heavy, patterned ridges on a stretched canvas, he pours liquid beeswax and paraffin onto the painting. Once the wax has set, the painting is entombed in a translucent shell. The analogy would be an insect trapped in amber, and these works do recall fossils or archeological artifacts.

The wax, through its own character and Sime's manipulation, has varying degrees of transparency. In Crystal 8 (all titles 2001), for example, the painting shows its soft violet color and weblike pattern more around the edges than in the center, where the color fades behind a more opaque patch of wax. Two works called Armor have the same effect, though they incorporate aluminum putty and suggest the scales of a fish. The wax variations contribute to the strangeness of these paintings, particularly in the series titled Cobweb. Here, the ridges of the painting are taut, circular and insular. And they push against the surface of their wax tomb, creating strained, whitened areas, like the knuckles of a tightly clenched fist.

Paula Overbay's paintings are quieter, and so suggestive of the natural world that it's a surprise to learn that she lives in Brooklyn. Her abstractions all have the same format: a monochrome ground covered with spots and splotches of darker -- or perhaps more concentrated -- pigment of the same color, some approaching black. At first, this seems unfortunate. The paintings one sees upon entering the gallery are of pale flesh tones, and in the present climate, the spots suggest disease and infection (or, in Houston, at the very least, heat rash). Yet in the rest of Overbay's paintings, cool greens and blues predominate, suggesting water or shaded grass -- restful, lulling images that are almost too pretty.

But the nagging idea of malady won't let you be lulled by the lovely shades of blue and green, especially once you notice that these paintings are grouped in series and a series isn't defined by color. For example, Migration I(all titles 2001), the flesh-toned painting near the door, has a blue partner, Migration II. The splotches in the blue paintings suddenly seem less appealing, like algae or oil slicks in water. Overbay's paintings have an edge that sneaks up on you. Dark against light is an unsettling dichotomy: Imagine a photograph of the Milky Way -- in negative.

Abstract artists like Sime and Overbay find inspiration in the world because it is there. We nonartists tend not to see the abstractions around us because we reflexively label them. We see white, wispy lines on a field of blue and think Clouds and Sky. We see an orange orb awash in rose and violet and think Sunset. The same goes for shadows on a wall or flower petals on wet pavement. We tell ourselves a story, as a way of locating ourselves in the larger world. What we miss, though, is the poetry -- the intuitive appreciation of form and color rather than the linear understanding of narrative. And that is what abstract painting can return to us.

 
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