In Plain Sight
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.
David Aylsworth isn't worried about painting's health; for him, evidence of the act of painting is a virtue, and there is plenty to be found in his 2012 work Through Being Wary. Aylsworth is an artist who has never thrown out a structurally sound canvas. He works and works and works the surfaces of his paintings, going back sometimes years later. They bear witness to those who came before, their lumps of paint and ghosts of colored shapes showing through the surface. Aylsworth's abstract forms are skillfully but clearly handpainted; the hard-won evidence of the artist trying for perfection and failing is part of their worth.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Deprez could give a shit about precision. His fantastically wonky stripe painting Totem (2012) is done on a "shaped canvas" that doesn't even have a square corner or a straight side. It's big and dorky and oddly charming, its sections of thick stripes looking as if they were stitched together from old clothes.
And speaking of dorky, Cody Ledvina's Alex Grey Painting (2011) is a silly, purposefully clunky riff on Grey's earnest psychedelic New Agery, a painting of a radiant figure with luminous internal organs flanked by some cave painting-esque horses. Ledvina turns an ironic eye on Paleolithic as well as contemporary shamanism. It's one of a number of purposefully ridiculous figurative works. Cheyenne Ramos's gleefully lurid portrait Item (2012) depicts a beaming young woman and what looks like the Sasquatch from the 1987 Big Foot comedy (!?) Harry and the Hendersons. They are posed like a loving couple in an Olan Mills portrait. Meanwhile, Hana Shoup paints herself as Boucher's Madame de Pompadour in a heavy-handed rococo froth of paint.
Francesca Fuchs turned to another artwork for subject matter as well, painting what amounts to a portrait of a cheap print hanging in frame. Her Framed Print: Piranesi (2011) is a pale, grayed and brushy reproduction of Piranesi's engraving of ruins, the work's mat and frame simply rendered around the edges of Fuchs's canvas. Fuchs has conjured powerful paintings from subject matter like kitchen cabinets and breastfeeding. She is the kind of artist who, locked in solitary confinement, would still pull from her environment — she could turn a prison toilet or the corner of a cell into a great painting.
It's hard to be hip over 30 (2003) by Bill Davenport, fellow painter and Fuchs's husband, uses his formidable trompe l'oeil skills to wry narrative effect. What appears to be one of Aaron Parazette's early paint-splatter paintings is the background for the artist's deft renderings of the kind of paperbacks that don't even sell at garage sales. An owner's manual for a 1976 Nova shares the stage with a yellowed copy of Low-Cost Gourmet Cooking and the book that gives the painting its title, the subhead reading "and other tragedies of married life." Nostalgia, kitsch, life and art collide.
Meanwhile, Tierney Malone pulls graphic elements from classic albums rather than worn paperbacks. Malone blends swatches of text and images from Billie Holiday, Al Green and Marvin Gaye to create a visual and verbal love poem. "I'm still in love with you," "Call me," "I want you." Rendered in matte chalky tempera on pieced-together sections of cardboard, the surfaces have an aura of worn gravitas.
Like every group show, there is too much in "In Plain Sight" to cover. But unlike every group show, there is a lot more worth seeing. Most of the work is pretty recent, and it's a good way to see what these artists have been up to. The majority of them are represented by other galleries (although, apparently, not every gallery allowed their artists to participate), and Houstonians won't get to see their work until their next scheduled show. "In Plain Sight" also has a smattering of young, interesting and unaffiliated artists whose work you might not come across. If you're looking for a status update on Houston painting, this is it.
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