Washington, DC

“43rd Biennial”

Corcoran Gallery of Art

Organized by Corcoran curator of contemporary art Terrie Sultan, the “43rd Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting” featured 91 works by 25 artists. Intended as the flip side of the previous biennial, which was devoted solely to abstact painting, this one centered on figurative painting. It included established artists such as Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, and Ida Applebroog; midcareer artists, including Phyllis Bramson, Carole Caroompas, and Hung Liu; and younger artists such as Inga Frick, Michael Byron, and Deborah Oropallo.

As Sultan writes in the catalogue, the exhibition was intended to demonstrate that, just as in sculpture, “figuration remains an essential aspect of the current esthetic of painting.” While this was something the exhibition clearly demonstrated, the unstated theme of the show was not simply the figure, but the figure appropriated from the media and from art history. Considering this, as well as the prevalence of paintings done on commercially printed fabric, the widespread use of the palimpsest technique, and the reliance upon juxtapositions of clashing styles that produce disjunctive narratives, one sees that almost all of the work in the exhibition bears the imprint of David Salle, making his absence from the show particularly inexplicable.

Among the more established artists in the exhibition, Golub and Spero (both of whom are now using a richer palette) are still engaging familiar versions of the political as is Robert Colescott. Golub, however, has altered his imagery and introduced cartoon figures, graffiti, and words such as “agent orange” to evoke a sense of evil, something his stretched canvases and more decorative palette tend to undercut. The biting humor of Colescott’s “blackface” scenes is still in evidence and stands in marked contrast to the rather mindless work of younger artists Drew Beattie & Daniel Davidson who “draw” faces by running remote-control toys over freshly painted canvases.

Among the obvious art-historical appropriationists, Ken Aptekar etches words on glass that he places over Rembrandt paintings; Catherine Howe paints female figures in front of works by Willem de Kooning and Clyfford Still; while Dottie Attie assembles grids of individually stretched canvases featuring details lifted from Courbet and Velázquez.

Much of the work in this exhibition encourages one to believe that everything is mediated, painting as well as experience. However, when one sees painting done with skill and conviction, as in the cases of Charles Garabedian, Donald Baechler, and especially Kerry James Marshall, one not only realizes how cynical this is, but also how easily theory can become a justification for a new academicism. When viewing Marshall’s Could This Be Love, 1992, a scene of two lovers disrobing in a bedroom, the close-value passages of blues and blacks, the patterning of flowered wallpaper, and the pearl necklace hovering above the floor like a fallen halo, the power of painting (and of all art) to move us deeply is reaffirmed. Works such as this provide a kind of experience that can be found nowhere else but in painting; unfortunately, this is not true of much art today.

Howard Risatti