"Pertaining to Painting"

Local Arts Reviews


"Pertaining to Painting": Chocolate Box

Austin Museum Of Art -- Downtown, through Feb. 2

The Austin Museum Of Art could have called this exhibition "Now That's What I Call Painting, 2002!" Paola Morsiani, associate curator of the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, chose paintings from as many -isms and nationalities as she could fit in four rooms. Geographically, Morsiani's flavors spread from Iran to Australia, but predictably, the bulk is made in Manhattan.

As with any compilation album, I am tempted to skip over most of the works and replay the ones I love, fantasizing about the rest of the artist's material.

The plaques deserve to be tossed like grandiose sleeve notes. The first snippet is Morsiani's beef that whatever the critics say, painting remains a relevant art form. I never knew this was in doubt and feel read for sympathy instead of indulging pleasure. Added to the usual place and date of birth, other plaques include so much written explanation of themes and styles that Morsiani sounds like the blurb writer who up-talks unpopular Hershey's centers. The profuse writing makes me feel childish just looking at the pictures; I would never have guessed that German Neo Rauch's work is "Depicted in a style that evokes the edifying illustration of socialist realism propaganda..."

To add heartburn to indigestion, AMOA sells the same readings as a $4 program.

In Rauch's Hatz [Chase] (2002), three figurine-faced ice hockey players are shown in green William Tell jackets and feathered caps. The ice looks like green glass. In the left foreground, a fourth skater has been engulfed by an ice block; another ice block spits out a giant green larva or earthworm. Judging by the color scheme, DC Comics' Green Lantern lit the scene -- the neon signs that dangle from the top right corner are white on a mint background. Painted with the perspective and precision of a Monet scene, the action comes from comic books or toy stores: The biggest skater is balanced on his toes, the shadow of a falling skater flips the bird to its source. Evolution reverses, hastened by ice hockey.

Rauch's Harmlos [Harmless] (2002) could be a comment on capitalism's difficult childhood in his hometown of Leipzig, East Germany. The subject is a shop window displaying some of Rauch's old paintings and a buff, model-workers couple who flee a giant. The giant's head is a suburban house, his hands are gumballs. Candy stripes and gumball stars loom under a black cloud in the background.

Two large canvases could never be enough of Inka Essenhigh's goodies. She applies car oil enamel to human(ish) figures for a perfect finish. Mall Parking Lot (1999) shows a faceless man/woman hooked up by wires to something like an oxygen mask and getting out of a windowless car to receive groceries from another faceless being. Cushioned upholstery fills the interior of the car to bursting. The driver climbs out of the padding like a victim exiting the Blob. My favorite image in the exhibition, this cushioned car suffocates the individual with comfort, insulating them absolutely from contact with neighbor. By no accident, the most distinctive and attractive part of the human happens to be his/her shoe; the clearest symbol appears on the store sign and reappears on the grocery bag.

Having trashed mall life, Essenhigh torches beach culture in Scorching Sun (2001). More abstract but equally brilliant, fleshy formless folk play volleyball and lie on uniform towels in the yellow sand. A malignant sun cannonballs above them, coating the closest flesh with molten syrup and squirting more black stuff at those further removed. Essenhigh doesn't paint any of this realistically, yet it becomes obvious almost instantly.

Of the remaining seven artists, I wished for more of the chocolate palate of Belgian Michaël Borremans that lends his human interactions the unfathomable emotion of Victorian photographs and his dark chocolate blouse (Shirt) reflecting the multiple shadows and tucks of the most expressive garments; the ska-like irregular checkers of Thomas Nozkowski's abstractions and his red, black, and pale yellow blotches like Mickey Mouse's head caught in a trap; and the entirely blue and white snow kingdom of Swede Sigrid Sandstrom, especially his Man by Waterfall, in which some sort of 120-inch Viking deity turns their back on a half-inch mountaineer so the blue tower of Rapunzeline hair tumbles down to the man's feet, dominating everything from the red sky to the puny-looking landscape of ice mountains and fjords.

Other images, I almost spat out: They all look like extended stares at the sun, so I am mystified why Udomsak Krisanamis' stripes of numbers and thick black paint would bear the names of Beatles tracks (except the dictum that every compilation should carry a few Beatles tracks). The meeting of abstract shapes and modern artifacts, like clocks and scaffolding, make Iranian Berliner Nader's works as fascinating and emotional as an executive toy. Mark Bradford stuffs rectangles spawned by hair products like "dye, permanent wave, end papers, billboard remnants, and hairstyle magazine cutouts" onto huge canvases, which, in my opinion, pertain more to installation than to painting, undermining curator Morsiani's pitch. Hilary Harnishfeger takes over one wall with globs of plaster, glitter, and papier-mâché rocks peeping out of holes and filigree ink drawings in Santa's grotto for art snobs.

To paraphrase Forrest Gump, there's nothing wrong with showcasing a range of talent. But the next time these artists come to Austin, let's hope it's not to prove someone else's point.

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Pertaining to Painting, Austin Museum Of Art, Paola Morsiani, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Neo Rauch, Hatz[Chase], Harmlos [Harmless], Inka Essenhigh, Mall Parking Lot, Scorching Sun, Michaël Borremans, Shirt, Thomas Nozkowski, Sigrid Sandstrom, Man by Waterf

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