Rodney McMillian, Untitled, 2011, carpet, 10' 4“ x 15' 7” x 2' 5". From “Black in the Abstract, Part 2: Hard Edges/Soft Curves,” from “Outside the Lines.”

Rodney McMillian, Untitled, 2011, carpet, 10' 4“ x 15' 7” x 2' 5". From “Black in the Abstract, Part 2: Hard Edges/Soft Curves,” from “Outside the Lines.”

“Outside the Lines”

Rodney McMillian, Untitled, 2011, carpet, 10' 4“ x 15' 7” x 2' 5". From “Black in the Abstract, Part 2: Hard Edges/Soft Curves,” from “Outside the Lines.”

On Halloween 1948, the association that would soon become the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston opened its inaugural exhibition, “This Is Contemporary Art,” a synoptic show of art and design that sought to highlight (in the words of its catalogue) the “important contribution contemporary arts make to modern living.” Starting on Halloween 2013, CAMH marked its sixty-fifth anniversary with a mammoth six-part presentation (two consecutive exhibition trios running over five months and including nearly one hundred artists) titled “Outside the Lines.” It could just as well have been dubbed “This Is Still Contemporary Art”: The sequence of shows focused not just on abstraction but on painting, and in so doing sought equally to throw a connecting line to the institution’s origins—was there any richer moment in the history of abstract painting than 1948?—and to survey a specific range of contemporary practice, a far cry from the diverse performance, installation, and media work that more often fills the museum’s spaces. The result was playfully heterogeneous if also loosely formed and uneven, a display that compellingly evinced the continued contemporaneity of painting and abstraction alike.

“Outside the Lines” was organized as a set of separate but dialogic exhibitions by CAMH’s director, Bill Arning, and curators Valerie Cassel Oliver and Dean Daderko, showcasing their own divergent curatorial approaches. Arning’s “UIA (Unlikely Iterations of the Abstract)” and “Painting: A Love Story” were the most aesthetically refined shows of the bunch; Cassel Oliver’s “Black in the Abstract, Part 1: Epistrophy” and “Part 2: Hard Edges/Soft Curves” the most historically probing; and Daderko’s “Outside the Lines” (sharing its title, confusingly, with that of the whole series) and “Rites of Spring” the most cacophonously varied.

Daderko’s two efforts ultimately suffered from this collaboration and comparison, their admirable eclecticism approaching a funfair jumble when taken in as part of such an already sprawling presentation. At the same time, this effect brought into focus what was, ironically, the strongest message of the series: that it is particularly difficult, and thus powerful, to work inside the lines of a perennially contested practice—here, abstract painting—and to effectively test and utilize its variable delimitations. Accordingly, among the most striking works on view were those that made use of their circumscribed fields to present a selection of excised fabric: Tom Burr’s rippled and pinned blankets (from “Clouds,” 2011–); Cheryl Donegan’s carefully folded ginghams (from “Glued Ginghams,” 2011–); Rodney McMillian’s faded and frayed wall-to-wall carpeting (Untitled, 2011). While subtly engaging dominant modernist strategies of the monochrome, the grid, the ready-made, and material facture, these works also foregrounded the manner in which simple acts of isolation and presentation necessarily evoke bodily and social narratives—how, within certain lines, materials and surfaces come to signify.

Such efforts were most evident in Cassel Oliver’s exploration of black artists working in abstract idioms—reaching from seminal 1960s projects by Sam Gilliam and by members of the AfriCOBRA group to more recent works by David Hammons, Rashid Johnson, and others—within which the defining constraints and inherent signifying power of color (of skin as on canvas) was, of course, ever-present.

Driving Arning’s pair of shows (and explicitly stated by the title of his second) were the libidinal possibilities of both painting and abstraction, from Carol Bove’s peacock-feather grid (Untitled, 2012) and Tauba Auerbach’s immaculately bound color-spectrum cube (RGB Colorspace Atlas, 2011) to Amy Sillman’s carefully worked gestural surface (Feet, 2011). Together, these works—and “Outside the Lines”as a whole—functioned to undermine Allan Kaprow’s 1958 declaration that painters, in the wake of Jackson Pollock’s “destruction” of their medium, had to choose between the production of mere “near-paintings” and a preoccupation with “the space and objects of everyday life.” These two options, in fact, go together: Painting, through precisely its apparent obsolescence, has both entered the space and welcomed into itself the objects that Kaprow long ago evoked. The lines remain; it is the passages and relationships they structure that continue to fascinate.

Graham Bader