Washington, DC

“42nd Biennial”

Corcoran Gallery of Art

Abstraction is once again on the creative march, and, indeed, many of the works in this exhibition use known means, in novel ways, to uncanny, often witty effect. Though the work in this show is predominantly abstract, many of the paintings incorporate representational imagery. Titles also play an important role in much of this art, generating associations, suggestive, perhaps, of a calculated turn to the literary. This is a way of pushing abstraction beyond the art-about-art dead end of naive formality. L. C. Armstrong, for example, uses the grid as a sardonic calendar in A Month of Sundays, 1990. Nancy Chunn quotes figural images from early Chinese history, which she then spreads across a grid, sometimes incorporating a shadow drawing of the Buddha or a map of China. The overall effect is an ironical synthesis of “gestural” and geometrical elements. Lydia Dona also mixes gesture and geometry, to generate a new effect of irksome ineffability, and something similar occurs in Willy Heeks’ ostensibly graceful, even ingratiating paintings.

In other words, the best of these works generates an ironical ambivalence—an emotionally perverse effect on the basis of an unholy alliance of means. Sometimes they also suggest that abstraction is a kind of play at the border between meaning and representation, as in Tishan Hsu’s fascination with close-ups of a bullet hole in the flesh that ironically have a kind of techno-surreal look. Judy Mannarino’s extravagant painterliness also seems to serve this idea, although in her case the ironical representation of emotional meaning seems to be the issue, as her titles suggest. The same might be said of Michael Miller’s messy grid, if in a more oblique way. Like Mannarino’s paintings, Miller’s seem calculated in their surface hysteria, as though to signal that he is not naive about the expressive effect of painterliness and does not want his work to be taken as naively expressive. Defensively expressive, then? Indeed, none of the artists wants to appear naive about either technical or expressive effects, suggesting that they have no clear end in mind but are simply working up intriguing surfaces.

Certainly this seems the case in Sabina Ott’s paintings, presented as emblematic of the “feminization of abstraction.” But what does “feminine” mean in this context, except that a woman has painted the work? Like all post-Modernist tags, it seems hollow—not a Modern hollowness yearning for fullness, but a contrived post-Modern hollowness of ingenious meaninglessness. Irene Pijoan’s paintings suggest a similar feminization, especially because of their beauty—a term I allow myself to use because of its meaninglessness. Does this make Eldridge Rawls’ paintings—at once vigorous and delicate—androgynous, and Thomas Eric Stanton’s paintings masculine, by reason of their painterly aggressiveness? And how do Andrea Way’s mineral-looking, intricate, luminous surfaces—clearly the result of a magnificent obsession with linear detail—fit into the sexualization of abstraction this exhibition seems to propose?

Such sexualization is most apparent in Lari Pittman’s works, which, for all their surreal Pop imagery, are supposed to be abstract, whatever that now means. The number 69 frankly and confrontationally appears in virtually all the images, which are melodramatic and haunting, if in an, at times, corny Hollywood way. I am told that the artist regards mutual fellatio as the profoundest form of sexual and emotional intimacy, and that he wants to get this tabooed message across. But would this sexualize abstraction or is it simply propagandistic—message art with a different message? In any case, the exhibition tends to overload abstract painting with meanings in an effort to revalidate it. But the paintings themselves, which are very articulate in dealing with the inarticulate—in making the unfathomable seem visually fathomable—have no need of wild associations to substantiate their credibility.

Donald Kuspit