To many in the art world, painting is the center stage, the place where the aesthetic stakes are the highest. The Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art's thought-provoking exhibition Pure Painting provides snapshot views of current events in the venerable medium.
Organizing such a show (this one was put together by BMoCA director Cydney Payton and boardmember John Matlack) is fraught with pitfalls these days, because contemporary painting bears a double burden: At the same time that some people consider it the ultimate manifestation of the visual-art tradition, it's viewed by others as simply archaic. Thus our expectations for paintings are often so high as to be unattainable by painters.
According to the more traditional view, painting has long vanquished sculpture--its only real rival--in the race for art's top billing. Art history, after all, has not so much been written as it has been painted. From Giotto in the Middle Ages through Michelangelo, da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt, the French Impressionists, Picasso and the abstract expressionists, painting has dominated Western civilization's artistic pursuits.
But to other observers, painting--as the previous list of masters inadvertently illustrates--came to a screeching halt more than thirty years ago. I've heard the refrain "Painting is dead" my entire adult life. The premature obituary was sparked by the development of pop and minimalism in the late 1950s and 1960s. Each of these styles mounted an attack on the then-current state of painting, ruled as it was by abstract expressionism. The pop artists, by addressing mass culture, made the spiritual and psychological content of abstract expressionism appear naive and dated. And the pristine flatness of the minimalists made the abstract expressionist's surfaces and compositions appear busy and quaint.
Such assaults made it impossible for abstract expressionism to hold its position as the principal art movement of the day. At the same time, pop and minimalism were leading artists away from painting altogether. Both movements blurred the distinctions between art media, and their underlying ideologies inevitably led many artists into the conceptual realms of video and performance and installation art--arenas in which not just abstract expressionism but painting itself was seen as a fossil.
The clear goal, then, of Pure Painting curators Payton and Matlack is to suggest that painting is still vital and contemporary. To do this, they have chosen a disparate group of twelve artists working on both American coasts and in Germany, as well as one each from Boulder and Denver. The exhibit is handsomely installed, creating a contemplative atmosphere that's only partly disrupted by the constant stream of those who look to BMoCA only for its open-to-the-public restrooms.
The show's title would seem to suggest that the participants are interested in getting at the essence of painting, just as the abstract expressionists did. Viewers might expect to see work exploring the physical properties of paint and the nature of the painterly gesture. But the show doesn't do that. And incredibly, two of the featured artists, Arlene Shechet and Mario Reis, aren't even painters.
Shechet is represented by a sculptural installation, the 1993-95 "Still Time Series," which uses both found objects (breakfast trays, pedestals) and found images (the various manifestations of the Buddha) cast in hydrocal. Almost incidentally, the hydrocal sculptures have been decorated in paint. And the piece would be little changed had the paint been left off.
Reis doesn't use paint at all but rather employs his canvases as filters to collect silt from various rivers. Included here is the 1990 "Nature-Water-Colors," in which scores of canvas squares representing American waterways have been assembled by the German artist into a wall-mounted grid. As objects, these squares are lovely. Transparent and metallic films create rich neutral tones, from silver grays to ruddy reds, on the unstretched fabric. But in addition to the canvas panels, "Nature-Water-Colors" includes elaborate photographic and geographical documen-tation--under the weight of which the piece ultimately collapses. (Except for the tastefully elegant colors that result --metallic earthtones of the sort used by Lexus on its upscale sedans--is "Nature-Water-Colors" essentially any different from the paintings created by kittens whose paws have been coated with pigment? Not really.)
Fortunately, all of the other included artists seem to be on the same wavelength, at least inasmuch as they all create abstract paintings--with paint. Several fall well within existing notions of abstract expressionism and some extend its boundaries, while still others seem to be motivated by criticism of the great style.
Among those who present credible examples of the continuing vitality of abstract expressionism are Rande Barke, Ann Shostrom and Boulder's Virginia Maitland. Barke is represented by two untitled oil-on-canvas paintings from 1994 that pointedly recall the work of the mid-century: Vaguely surrealistic organic forms are laid on smudgy grounds of sickly brown, yellow and green. Shostrom, too, looks backward, with two drippy untitled oil paintings on linen, one from 1993, the other from 1994. Both feature unified color selections, and both share the same approach to finish, in which the artist has scraped or abraded the surface in order to create a scabrous texture. It looks as though Shostrom has put as much effort into removing paint as she has into adding it. Maitland contributes two brand-new examples of her signature color-field paintings: "The Storm, the Shifter of Shapes" and "The Windy Heaven." Maitland's palette (white and yellow set against blue and purple) conjures up the sky for the viewer, even if the roughly geometric forms in these pictures don't.
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.
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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.