PIGMENTS OF THE IMAGINATION

Other artists selected by Payton and Matlack create work that, while consistent with the ethos of abstract expressionism, tests the style's usual limits. Mary Lovelace O'Neal juxtaposes a smooth and seamless gray color field against a brightly colored, dense composition in the mural-sized oil on canvas "Racism Is Like Rain: Either It's Raining or Gathering Somewhere" of 1992-93. This beautiful painting, its jubilant hues standing out against the neutral tones, is hardly able to make the political point of the title.

Carol Haerer and Denver's Homare Ikeda, whose paintings are closely related to one another stylistically, have no political axes to grind at all. Perhaps that's because they're both so busy piling on paint--probably straight from the tube--to create their impenetrable compositions. Haerer's "Samari," a 1989 oil on paper, has exactly the same approach to technique and formal arrangement as does Ikeda's "Untitled," a 1993 oil and wax on canvas. Less successful are the awkward later paintings by Haerer such as 1990's "Persephone," an oil on canvas. Haerer revised this painting in 1993, and it's hardly surprising to find that it gave the artist trouble. The unharmonious colors and the clumsy shape at the center of the piece seem to be the product of a search for nothing more than novelty on Haerer's part.

Finally, a couple of the painters included here, Eric Blum and Stephen Mueller, break the influence of abstract expressionism completely, presenting work that is not just novel but genuinely distinctive. Blum's tiny paintings from 1994 and 1995 display clusters or arrangements of conventionalized organic shapes, most often ovals, rendered in soft pastel colors softened still further by having been partly obscured by thick layers of semi-transparent wax.

Mueller's the real standout in the show, thanks to two powerful paintings he made using an airbrush loaded with acrylics. In the dark and moody "Even All Night" of 1993-94, an abstracted view of what might be the dashboard of a car is reduced to black, white, red and blue circles and lines against the dark charcoal gray of the background. Mueller takes a very different approach to color, though a similar route to the application of the paint, in 1994's magnificent "Ghazal." Here a taxicab yellow shape evocative of the male figure seems to float in a vivid blue atmosphere. A red circle like a hoop or a halo is set above and behind the yellow form. Mueller has stated that his paintings are illustrations of his Buddhist faith, but you don't have to understand this element--which, frankly, I don't--in order to appreciate these wonderfully individual works.

Aside from Mueller, the big news in Pure Painting (and of the 1990s) is that painting, in particular, abstract expressionist painting, is back in the forefront--and, perhaps, that it has never really gone away.

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