Light and Darkness

"So mature, it's frightening" is how one of Aaron Parazette's fellow artists describes Parazette's new show at Texas Gallery, "Pleasure Provision." Indeed, Parazette has developed a specific idiom -- big chips of color in the shape of cartoony splashes -- and presents here a tight, cogent suite of paintings. Each large, square canvas is a carefully laid out set of slick "splashes" painted with such loving precision that a floss-thin groove has formed between each area of color and the next. Yes, these paintings are a textbook example of mid-career maturity: definitive, assured, confident. They don't look like anything else out there. And yes, they are intensely academic -- on one level they deal purely with color and composition.

"Academic," though, is a stodgy word for paintings that pop the way these do. With their acrid palette of mostly lime, lilac, olive, antifreeze green, wiper-fluid blue, orange and the dark brown that's supposed to be the new black, each of these paintings is a small big bang.

Most of the paintings work well within the controlled set of variables Parazette has set up, though a couple fall apart. The dud of the show is the earliest painting, Je T'aime Number 3 with Loaf of Bread, in which the splashes, done in drab jungle camouflage colors rudely interrupted by red and pink areas, encroach from all sides like nasty vegetation one wants to brush aside. The rest of the paintings in the show power out from the center of their canvases. While Je T'aime has a dead border, the edge of the far more successful Horizon Light is rippled by the outermost concentric splash, which seems to flip back into the painting's light blue center.

The most recent splash painting in the show, February, is the hottest looking -- it's a fresh galaxy of light and dark blue, pale green, black and cream that swirls out like a radial saw blade. But it's also the most pat. In between Je T'aime and February, Parazette riffs beautifully using complicated elements that are difficult to balance -- for example, splashes flowing out from the center and in from the sides, as in Soft Light. But Parazette is too good at this kind of problem solving. He doesn't walk the interesting edge of uncertainty for very long.

In fact, the maturity of the work is not what's interesting, much less frightening, about it. What's frightening is the underlying anger. Here, as in Parazette's earlier paintings of oversize suburban wallpaper motifs such as bows and teddy bears, there is a tempered frustration at work.

Parazette's careful splashes-that-aren't-splashed resentfully lampoon Jackson Pollock's splatters-that-are. This work makes a goof of abstract expressionism, but it also envies a time when painting was as important as it was in the '40s and '50s. The names of Parazette's paintings, in fact, are borrowed from a 1958 exhibit of abstract expressionism, "New American Painting," that toured Europe on the CIA's tab, intended as propaganda for freedom, exuberance and the American way.

Parazette is an abstract painter who knows all too well that abstract paintings don't matter that much today, that throwing paint around hardly attracts rent money, much less the support of the CIA. The crashes of chartreuse and olive in Chief, the largest painting in the show, are nothing if not violent waves of vomit -- yet Parazette drolly deals with his disgust by aestheticizing it. After all, if painting is going to matter, "Pleasure Provision" asserts, it must at least provide some pleasure.

With his splash paintings, Parazette has thrown a good-looking, purgative tantrum, but a tantrum nonetheless. And in the gallery's foyer, one can see its sweet aftermath -- a vertical canvas bearing thin stripes of slick, smartly chosen colors that may mark the beginning of a new series of work. Standing five feet, eight inches tall and 22 inches wide, Color Key is a painting of human, not historical, dimensions. And it does not come with a caveat about its own futility.

Painters such as Parazette are haunted by an earlier time in which abstract painters were glorying in their work rather than taking an ironic stance toward it. Mark Rothko was one such painter, so earnestly involved in his projects that he wanted above all a permanent environment for his, and only his, art. Houston's Rothko Chapel was supposed to have been the fulfillment of his dream. But the artist committed suicide before the Chapel was finished, and so he never knew of its shortcomings. In fact, many believed that Rothko's suicide was the culmination of a deep depression evident in the Chapel's almost all-black works, so different are they from the canvases dyed bright, Easter egg colors for which he is well known.

But a remarkable exhibition at the Menil Collection -- which you can still catch if you move quickly -- proves that the black paintings were not the biographical reflections of a troubled man. By tracing works from Rothko's pre-Chapel period through when the Chapel was being planned to the works specifically produced for the Chapel and beyond, it shows the black paintings as an intense, important stage in his work -- one that he passed through and came out of on the other side.

The exhibit is "Rothko: The Chapel Commission," and there has never been a Rothko show like it. And given the problems of assembling the pieces included -- many of the paintings were tied up in the lawsuit that followed Rothko's death and haven't been widely displayed, while some are so fragile that their owners have a no-loan policy on them that was broken only because of the Menil's saintly reputation -- there probably never will be again.

The show was put together in honor of the Chapel's 25th anniversary (another incentive for loan-shy Rothko owners to make their paintings available). The Chapel's Rothkos are what most Houstonians know of the artist, but over years of exposure to Houston's humidity, the Chapel paintings have not fared well. Ghostly white marks -- proteins from the egg-oil paint emulsion Rothko used -- began to appear on the artworks. For seven years, conservator Carol Mancusi-Ungaro labored to deal with these intrusions, until with the help of a Shell Oil lab she came up with a solvent that would remove the protein without damaging the paintings. But that wasn't the only difficulty. The Menil is still trying to remedy the Chapel's uneven lighting, which, thanks to Rothko's rejection of architect Philip Johnson's original design, has never been adequate.

Because of its problems, some have walked into the Rothko Chapel and wondered just what the big deal was about this Rothko guy. If you were among those, now is your chance to find out. Seen in the modulated natural light of the Menil Collection, Rothko's late paintings -- including a large-scale set once intended for the Chapel -- glow with astounding intensity, the way thick cloud cover does at high noon.

Unfortunately, the museum does nothing to elucidate the organization of its exhibit, but as you pass through the six rooms of Rothko's art you can easily follow the development that led to the Chapel's works. The first room of paintings were done in 1963, the year before the Chapel was commissioned. By then, Rothko had already darkened his palette to gold, brown, maroon and black, though with flashes of vaporized color and light. Walking into the next room, you're confronted by several, even darker paintings done the year of the Chapel commission. It was in these rooms that I learned the first lesson the show is meant to teach us -- that dark, for Rothko, does not necessarily mean somber. Instead, it's a means of calibrating the viewer's perception to subtleties that aren't always apparent in his bright paintings.

The following room contains most of a numbered series known as the Black Form paintings. By painting black on black, Rothko was dealing almost entirely with the subtleties of surface, from chamois matte to light sheen. He used, as he did later in the Chapel, different media that produce different degrees of reflectivity. "Preparatory Works," which comes up next, includes two large studies that are a palimpsest of Rothko's search for the perfect figure-ground relationship. These lead into the "spares," a misleadingly offhand term used for three pair of mural-size vertical paintings originally created for the Chapel. Each of these austere paintings has a black square on mahogany brown, or brown square on black. They argue well that no painter in history has succeeded as well as Rothko did in creating works that beg to be experienced as environments -- yet they are still not as attenuated as the black paintings Rothko eventually chose for his Chapel.

In the final room, filled with paintings done in the years following the Chapel commission, color begins to creep back into Rothko's work. The intense effort of the Chapel paintings is finished, and color -- not necessarily happier, but more mundane -- returns. Like many journeys, Rothko's spiraled to bring him back where he began. But not before it took him into a deep and rarefied territory of darkness, one that was not Rothko's abyss, but rather his route to the sublime.

"Pleasure Provision" is on view through March 29 at Texas Gallery, 2012 Peden, 524-1593.

"Mark Rothko: The Chapel Commission" is on view through March 29 at the Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 525-9400.

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Shaila Dewan