Washington, DC

“Painting Outside of Painting”

Corcoran Gallery of Art

The last in a trio of biennials organized by Corcoran curator Terrie Sultan to address relevant issues in contemporary painting, “Painting Outside of Painting” included more than 80 works by 26 artists who, as Sultan writes, are “reconceptualizing and refiguring the very structure of painting.” The statement can be somewhat misleading: John McCracken’s polyresin planks (e.g., Gate, 1995) and Sam Gilliam’s draped-fabric Bikers Move Like Swallows II, 1995, for example, raised the same formal issues that had made these artists famous in the ’60s (i.e., “painting-as-object” and “color-as-form”). Similarly, Richard Artschwager’s humorous Splatter Piano, 1995 (a Formica and acrylic piece flattened like roadkill and hung in a corner), restated Modernist issues of “pictorialism versus illusionism.” In this context, such “older” work demonstrated the degree to which the “reconceptualizing” done by the younger artists represented here stems from ’60s pictorial concepts. Polly Apfelbaum’s Between the Lines, 1995, for example, a bedsheet with pastel-colored velvet stripes attached between the printed lines, offered a neo-Conceptual play on Gene Davis’ color fields, while Stuart Arends’ small “paintings” (e.g., O.S. 39, 1994) in pastel colors on thick steel shifted the weight and density of Minimal sculpture onto a pictorial format. And recalling Mark Rothko were Robin Rose’s subtle, contemplative pieces, such as Due Diligence, 1995, done in encaustic on small Hexcel panels. They complemented Leslie Wayne’s miniature paintings (e.g., Ruckus, 1995), whose thick, sometimes peeling layers of oil created fissures and crevices that were reminiscent of Clyfford Still but more intimate in nature.

If many of these artists offered introspective, private experiences rather than the universals of high Modernism, others embraced high-Modernist pictorialism via materials, even exploiting the gallery wall. Carter Potter made “paintings” of woven film leader, such as Pure Painted Leader (Yellow: Matte), 1995, and Fandra Chang’s pieces, with silk-screened patterns and stretched silk-screening (e.g., Bit Fall, 1994), produced dizzying optical effects that mimicked cyberspace. Particularly compelling were Charles Spurrier’s transparent “paintings” made of gridded Scotch tape (e.g., Untitled, 1995) and Rodney Carswell’s geometric paintings and cutouts (e.g., Portal: Circled and Squared, 1994). By contaminating the grid with fingerprints, Spurrier juxtaposed the personal and impersonal, while Carswell, in his continually shifting figure-ground relationships, destabilized the relationship between the material and immaterial.

Formalism engaged works with critical artistic and social attitudes as well. Serge Spitzer’s Untitled (Under the Carpet), 1995, was a large polyester color field à la Morris Louis that Spitzer “punctured” by attaching real objects (like rubber shock absorbers) to it. This willful dispelling of illusions also concerned Jody Lomberg, who undermined her geometric abstractions by adding knitted fabric to them (as in Relax, 1995). By contrast, Fred Tomaselli’s Green on Red, 1995, a rectangle of actual hemp leaves “framed” by a wide, red band of color and sealed in resin, seemed content to retain an almost hallucinatory Modernist purity while offering a critical comment on drug culture.

If Modernist pictorial concepts were critically reexamined in some of the pieces in this show, they were not exhausted. The nicest surprise in this sense was John Torreano’s columnar, 96-inch-tall forms (e.g., Rococo View, 1995) painted in gaudy colors and encrusted with fake jewels. This witty and engaging mix of carnival, Pop, and kitsch made Fabian Marcaccio’s post-Modern abstractions (as in Paint-Zone L.A. #2, 1995), their painterly gestures intentionally emptied of emotion and substance, seem cynical indeed. And in this Torreano’s may be the most important lesson of this exhibition, that a belief in art is a prerequisite to its making.

Howard Risatti