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In Plain Sight

McClain Gallery presents a cavalcade of Houston painting.

The 20th century saw a lot of hand-wringing about the "death of painting." Painting, however, didn't get the memo. It remains alive and well. The act of applying pigment to a surface — smearing, brushing, pouring, rolling, spraying or scrubbing it — is tactile, satisfying and pretty much eternal if you consider 40,000-year-old cave paintings. Organized by painter and McClain Gallery artist Aaron Parazette, "In Plain Sight" at McClain Gallery presents work from 40 Houston painters in an inherently eclectic group show. They all paint in different ways and with different conceptual points of departure and objectives, but they all paint. Forty works from 40 different painters can't help but be a hodgepodge, but it's an enjoyable one. It's a roll call of some of Houston's strongest painters.

The show opens with a massive Mark Flood canvas. In The Things (2012), luridly baroque lace-stenciled forms in acidic yellows and greens and sickly lavenders vignette a central image of two figures hanging from the gallows. I remember when Flood first showed his lace paintings a decade ago at the now-defunct Mixture Gallery ["Arsenic and Old Lace," May 16, 2002]. A friend of his had called the works "spinster abstraction," but they were surprising beautiful and saleable for an artist who had deftly skewered the art community by silkscreening its résumés on canvas, and emblazoned a painting with the words "eat human flesh."

The Things embodies the conflict and ambiguity of painting for many artists. Flood paints, but he's doing so highly aware of the role of painting in the art market. In terms of contemporary art saleability, painting is king. Flood can create, and I assume enjoys creating, beautiful and consequently desirable things with paint (he has a lot of buzz in New York right now), but he's completely aware of the system of commerce that goes along with creating beautiful, desirable things. This is the first lace painting I've seen with these figures — maybe it's the artist and the collector (dealer and collector?), executed for their crimes. I have no idea, but Flood knows that the oddly elegant hanged silhouettes in the center of the painting, rather than subverting the beauty, will only add an extra-edgy saleability to the work, whether he wants them to or not.

Flood is a multitalented artist, provocateur and a great painter, but I don't think of him as a true believer in painting. Artists like Gael Stack and Brian Portman strike me as having a much more straightforward and invested relationship with the medium. The rich, seductive color of Stack's subtly blue-black grounds is a constant in her work. As in her untitled 2012 work in the show, they are the playing field for her investigative layers of oil stick marks and line drawings. The strokes of Portman's Balloon Framing (2010) are more expressive and gestural but avoid any Abstract Expressionist swagger. Both of these paintings seem to have accumulated thoughtfully over an extended period of time, through layered marks and gestures. I have no real idea how long they took, and it isn't relevant. The works themselves communicate a sense of contemplation and exploration, a personal belief in and relationship with the material they interact with.

For other painters, the hand of the artist is only important as a tool for applying color; they seek to erase, rather than draw attention to, its presence. The paint is acrylic, flat and clean-lined. Taping off lines and forms as you paint them is crucial to a precise edge that betrays no waver of the artist's brush or human error. Susie Rosmarin and Harvey Bott share a mathematical fascination with line. Rosmarin's precisely spaced and taped-off layers of slender lines accumulate into an op-art buzz, a vibrating plaid when seen from viewing distance. Up close you can see the depth difference, revealing the many exacting layers of paint. The taped lines of Bott's overlapping geometries create evenly arcing lines that seem to warp and alter the space of his canvas. It's fascinating that these artists have this compelling urge to create such fine, optically manipulating lines. Even with tape, I still don't know how they manage this level of precision. Bott, almost 80 and battling Parkinson's-like tremors, still wields his tape and brush with near-machine-like precision.

Organizer Parazette's own pristine work is in the flat-and-taped geometric-abstraction club as well. In earlier work, Parazette turned his hand to ironic, stylized paint splats and stretched and manipulated text. In Color Key #55, the deftly executed angular forms on the surface of his canvas are like a graphic of crystal facets. Peering at his surface up close, you see only faint evidence of the human hand, so smooth is the paint, and so perfectly do the taped shapes meet in clean color and form.

Mike Venable's MV 49 — yllw Dp/FlOrg/Slvr conjoins three square canvases — small, medium and large — in yellow, red-orange and silver. Perfectly smooth, markless panels of solid color, they're huddled together like escapees from a constructivist painting, maybe Aleksandr Rodchenko's three monochromatic canvases in red, yellow and blue from 1921, which the artist declared the "death of painting." Rodchenko stated he had "reduced painting to its logical conclusion" — the paintings had become paint itself, a plane of color, one each in one of the three primaries from which all colors come. Painting would, however, continue, although Donald Judd would sign another death certificate for the form around a half century later.

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