What's So Great About Painting

History is not only not over, it has reawakened after fever dreams of history.
--Peter Schjeldahl

Sometime around 1950, Franz Kline was hanging out in Willem de Kooning's studio, where there was a Bell-Opticon overhead projector. Kline took one of his black ink sketches of a rocking chair and projected it onto a screen, where the integrity of the image exploded into a set of giant, powerful strokes. From then on, as he developed his signature style of black on white, he meticulously enlarged the sprays and splatters of his brush strokes from sketches he made beforehand. Despite the myth of the gestural, spontaneous abstract expressionist, Kline's images were, in a sense, once removed from the canvas.

So it is that the history of abstract painting -- already a caricature of the history of 20th-century attitudes -- is not as simple as what we say about it now. There have always been cul-de-sacs along the path of what critic Peter Schjeldahl calls "piety, hope and novelty," and the sense of progress toward the sublime is more imagined than real, a parabola traced through the scatter of actual events. Willem de Kooning called painting "a way of life," but if so, more than one artist has declared it over.

So when someone titles an exhibit "Abstract Painting, Once Removed," as curator Dana Friis-Hansen at the Contemporary Arts Museum has done, it is not so easy to imagine exactly what the paintings are removed from. If they are removed from the myth of pure progress, so is practically everything that came before. One might imagine, as Los Angeles booster/critic David Pagel does in the show's catalog, that the title means "removed from New York," where only four of the 21 artists live. Or one might go along with Friis-Hansen's assertion that "once removed" denotes a genealogical relationship. This abstract painting may be once removed, but it's still dating its cousin.

Yet another option: The work in the show is not abstract painting. Much of it, in fact, is something else. The exhibit includes mirrors and resin, plastic flowers and photographs, sculptures, representational paintings -- work that may concern itself with surface and ground, gesture and color, but does not strictly fit the bill of painting. Still, the exhibit includes objects that could not be called anything but abstract paintings -- paintings in which, like Kline's rocking chair blown up, an image may have gone through many iterations before reaching the canvas, yet paintings nonetheless. There are, of course, significant differences between these painters and Kline, but the basic activity -- arranging fancy mud on a flat surface -- remains the same.

The show's guiding principle, then, wobbles along, bending this way and that according to the will of the curator and the need to include artists of the moment who can give the show currency. Many are quite prominent, and a binder crammed with theoretical essays and reviews relating their work to topics ranging from the Renaissance color-wars to vanitas still lifes to Russian views of facture is available for perusal in the museum coffee shop. The show also provides a nice context for Texas artists, four of whom are included in the show. The Houston works -- by Aaron Parazette, Jeff Elrod and Tad Griffin -- look great amongst their peers.

In an egregious oversight, Friis-Hansen did not include the paintings of Houston artist Susie Rosmarin, which depict TV static using a complicated geometric pattern of black, gray and white squares; Friis-Hansen said they did not fit within the theme of the show. This is a ridiculous assertion, of course, considering both the bendable concept and the inclusion of Griffin, whose soothingly seismographic black-and-white paintings apparently qualified because he uses a squeegee instead of a brush -- which is nothing new. Griffin's and Rosmarin's work is similar, created using mathematic formulas and taking cues from the electronic media. While Griffin's paintings, in their lack of a narrative moment, are about the glitchy hum of time, Rosmarin's, in their lack of a visual moment, are about a fuzzy, dematerialized space. I rant about this in part because other exhibits of late, such as "New to Houston" at the Museum of Fine Arts, have successfully placed male, and only male, Texas artists in a broader context.

One surprising aspect of "Abstract Painting, Once Removed," which the catalog celebrates, is an almost total lack of the ironic distance implied by the title. This work is fun. It's utopian. It's comic. It has an impersonality that can seem, overall, a bit brittle and polite. It's just trying to make it out there in the world. But it's not ironic. Irony is out.

In its place we find, if not piety, then certainly hope and novelty -- this is not the appropriation art of the '80s. In a particularly lively panel discussion on abstraction hosted by Davis McClain Gallery in 1994, Parazette divided abstract artists into three groups: believers, nonbelievers and agnostics. The artists in this show are, for the most part, agnostics, and unpretentious ones at that. As Dallas artist Mark D. Cole puts it, "The paintings ask whether we can obtain a grand spirituality in the objects being produced now, both in art and industry." Cole's Cast Paintings, in which he makes a mold of a canvas, stretcher and all, and pours tinted polyurethane into it, are among the many works in this show that take paint or painting as a subject. Dull and monochromatic, Cole's work holds interest only at the edges, where one can see the tiny nails jutting into naked canvas. The front, the picture plane, is an afterthought manipulated by Cole's dejected drips and scratches. It's not that you can't put anything on the picture plane, it's just that what goes there doesn't seem to matter much.

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.

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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