Picture This

Having used this space as an opportunity to grapple with my anxiety over abstract painting, it seems only right to use it to confront my misgivings about figurative painting as well. There is something about such painting that seems to me as obsolete as, say, rhymed poetry -- something I find far easier to dismiss out of hand than to actually plow through. But at the same time, if I'm forced to listen to the recitation of a rhymed poem, the experience can be surprisingly delightful. Likewise, when I was whisked down to the Medical Center -- yes, the Medical Center -- to look at the paintings in Houston artist Lynn Randolph's "The Body and Technoscience: A Series of Spectacles," I didn't expect to be so stealthily seduced.

As Randolph clearly realizes, one of the challenges facing anyone who wants to do representational painting today is finding new subject matter -- hence the fascination of many such artists with science fiction and fantasy. Randolph's paintings place her human subjects in fantastic, astral settings -- cyberspace (with the World Wide Web indicated by a literal web) or on the edge of a planar universe -- or in dramatic situations that concern science so new it's still in the testing stage. In one painting, Managed Care (truly a provocative work to hang in the gallery of a medical school), genetically altered mice scurry over the naked body of a man who lies in agony on a hospital bed. Disembodied hands float above him, preparing to perform routine operations. Transfusions, meanwhile, shows a prone woman in a glimmery unitard arching her pelvis in contained ecstasy as both a vampire bat and an intravenous unit attend to her blood with differing motivations. The bat appears to be controlled by the vampire from Nosferatu, who's wearing gloves that allow surgery to be directed from a safely virtual distance -- in this case, a special control booth.

These are parable paintings in which science has supplanted religion, an idea proposed most clearly in The Annunciation of the Second Coming, in which an alarmed angel indicates a gridded, computer-modeled female human form advancing toward us on what appears to be a circuit board. A strand of DNA floats nearby like a witch's familiar. But the angel's warning is not convincing -- perhaps because we have not been convinced yet of cyberspace's impact, or perhaps because the metaphor is programmatic. Elements of Randolph's paintings can be pieced together like hieroglyphics, or read like 18th-century nature mortes that included a skull (death), ripening fruit (food), playing cards (chance), wilting flowers (nature) and a clock (mortality).

Immeasurable Results, a painting of the artist undergoing an MRI scan, is inset with diagnostic film showing not only the artist's brain, but a skeleton, a penis, a mermaid doll and a clock with claws. All of these images can be easily assembled into meaning, but the dry tedium of doing so sucks the power out of the work. In fact, the objects are extraneous distractions from the painting's real point: the threatening control of new medicine. The sight of the supine, blanketed artist, made phallic by the metal helmet of the imaging device, is enough.

Randolph lays a lot of excess symbolic baggage on these paintings. Using technological images gives her work an eerie, end-of-the-millennium edge. Yet her titles ask us to focus on what she herself does not. In Yesterday Inventing Tomorrow Today, a prophetlike man in contemporary dress sits at a table, holding a glinting microchip. Behind him are three onlookers -- on the left are likenesses of Houstonians Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom, who were among the earliest artistic explorers of digital imaging, and on the right is Randolph herself. With her tilted back head and her tired poker face, she asks to be convinced. Technically, she's no more painstakingly rendered than anyone else in the large painting. Yet her slight defiance steals the focus -- despite the central position of the microchip, the image is about Randolph's almost unconscious stance of skepticism.

In fact, it isn't the new-world-order theories that inform these paintings that retain my attention; rather, it's the unapologetically sensual portraits of women. Randolph's women are not some ideal figuration of their gender. Instead, they're specific characterizations of specific people. Just as Frida Kahlo surrounded her self-portraits with monkeys and let you see through her flesh to her cracked bones, so does Randolph lay the exotic trappings of constructed selves around her portraits (the web, the galaxy, the hospital).

Yet in Kahlo's paintings the most striking aspect is always the faintly mustached, imperfect face of the artist, stronger in its determined subjection to scrutiny than any goddess. The same power of personality is found in Randolph's work. In this exhibit, she has included nine small paintings from her "Ilusas" (or "deluded women") series. Some are recognizable portraits of people familiar to the local art scene, such as former Houston artist Annette Lawrence, pictured here as a subterranean part of a volcanic formation (Excessive Eruption). Others are strangers, but they are eminently knowable strangers. Venus is a good example of a restrained, effective use of symbols: The inverted seashell at the top serves a formal as well as a suggestive purpose; this goddess is not served on the half shell, thank you. The unkempt Venus stares at the viewer with an expression that is so intelligent it doesn't bother with defiance. In one hand, she grasps a lactating breast.

Many people would call these traditionally wrought oil paintings illustrations, which is the word we have come to use for art that is not about art. Today, we would call a painter who renders Bible stories an illustrator. In an earlier century he would have been a fine artist. Some Americans, me among them, are skeptical of figurative painting -- we characterize abstract expressionism as the first wholly American art form as if it's a relief not to have to own up to the regionalism and social realism that preceded it. It has been suggested that there are moral ties between minimalism and puritanism. In many ways, abstraction is the moral high ground, especially in as much as formal innovation is revered and carnal pleasure disallowed (not that abstract painting is never sensual).

Of course, the moral high ground doesn't have universal appeal. Randolph's paintings, however dauntingly sci-fi, carry a strong relationship to the art of South and Central America, in which narrative and character is highly prized -- for entertainment if not for symbolic lessons. Narrative cloaks the bare bones of the moral, and we don't need to decipher it, as Randolph's titles instruct us to do. We need only absorb it. In the end, it is the (guilty) pleasure her paintings offer that redeems them, not their auguring of things to come.

"The Body and Technoscience: A Series of Spectacles" is on view through February 14 at the University of TexasHouston Medical School, Fifth Floor Gallery, 6431 Fannin, 792-4923.

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Shaila Dewan