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The Un-Painters

Leaving traditional oil and canvas behind, four Southwest artists forge distinct paths in a (mostly) post-paint world

by Arend Zwartjes

This article is the first in a two-part series about contemporary painting in Texas. Part two, by Michael Odom, will appear in the March/April 2004 issue of ART PAPERS.

So vast is the literature on „the death of paintingš that this once-cutting edge subject is now passé, a mere special interest in the field of contemporary art. But painting‚s resilience and relevance surprisingly reappeared in the last decade, as Dave Hickey‚s prophecies of a return to beauty came true and the international art world reconsidered the theoretical possibilities of abstract painting.

Perhaps driven by curator Dana Friis-Hansen‚s pathbreaking 1998 exhibition „Abstract Painting Once Removedš at Houston‚s Contemporary Art Museum, abstract painting has gathered momentum throughout Texas in the last few years. However, the current environment of startling experimentation has prompted several Texans to follow many of the artists in „Once Removedš by discovering that the best abstraction may differ dramatically from our expectations, in some cases not requiring paint at all. Despite this shared discovery, though, such Texas artists as Todd Brandt, Margaret Craig, Rebecca Holland and Hills Snyder produce very dissimilar work, motivated by a wide variety of aesthetic and theoretical concerns. Perhaps paradoxically, their divergent paths together make up an important chapter in the ongoing history of abstraction, each exploring new possibilities for that history.

Todd Brandt's untitled installation at San Antonio's Sala Diaz in 2000
(courtesy the artist).

Todd Brandt‚s oeuvre may be the most cerebral, although ironically he is the one artist of the four who never abandoned paint, even passingly. In fact, paint and its aura play an integral role in Brandt‚s works. My introduction to Brandt‚s paintings came in 2000, at an exhilarating, untitled installation at Sala Diaz in San Antonio. Throughout the rooms of the old, weathered home that houses this gallery, Brandt placed a three-foot tall platform that he covered with thousands of coffee creamer containers filled with paint. Stunning for its use of scale and space, this floating, temporary painting filled the gallery, forcing viewers to look at the work from a ladder against one of the windows or from the front porch.

Brandt‚s embrace of the transient in his painting was unusual enough, but in addition, the randomly-colored drops of paint in each creamer cup came from discarded mixes of paint collected by the artist. He then painstakingly filled each cup with a drop of paint before placing them side-by-side on the platform. By giving the installation a temporary existence and using „rejectedš paint, Brandt made painting a „momentš to be experienced more than a thing to be had. Other artists had used this transitory quality in previous installations, but Brandt‚s twist infused it with a rare burst of ingenuity.

Since that installation, Brandt‚s works have found their ways onto gallery walls more often, though this form of display by no means diminishes their randomness or elegance. Canopy (2000), for example, exchanges the contingent nature of the randomly placed creamer cups for a more ordered, defined construction. In this painting, the creamer cups are affixed to a wood square so the work can be hung on a wall. The alternation of colors is precise, as the varying hues of strong or weak blues and muffled greens or grays are placed in an exact pattern, giving the appearance of rigid geometry as opposed to the chaos of the Sala Diaz installation. Still, the goops of paint in each unit betray their haphazard histories, both as colors and as drops of paint, again poured one by one. Brandt provides perhaps the best explanation for the process behind these works:

The cup is a location for the „eventš of painting. There is a cycle in the process that begins with the „pour.š This is the initial re-distribution of paint. Ideally the „pourš is done on site. Then these individual „paintingsš can be re-contextualized to other sites, or in the case of the repositories exist later in the more defined form of an object.

Todd Brandt, Gardenwatcher, 2000, containers with latex on wood, 61 by 61 inches
(courtesy Finesilver Gallery).

The displacement of an „eventš of painting for the traditional „objectš of painting reveals a generational leap, though it does hark back to the first Happenings, when Allan Kaprow and Red Grooms sought to push the physicality and environmental aspects of painting beyond their conventional boundaries to discover a more „realš art. Since Brandt is a thorough abstractionist, and not constrained by the expressionistic concerns of someone like Jackson Pollock, this aspect of his work uniquely combines two disparate moments from the history of art. In Brandt, studied, measured abstraction finds life in contingent, often uncertain expressions.

Likewise, Rebecca Holland often pushes beyond typical „painterlyš concerns, instead relating painting to its environment and the moments that whirl around its milieu. Also in 2000, Holland presented an ambitious installation entitled Current as her contribution for her residency at ArtPace in San Antonio. Leaving the gallery empty, Holland transformed the room‚s concrete ceiling into a painting by hand-applying thousands of small squares of silver leaf to the otherwise mundane surface, which dates to the building‚s origins as a tire shop. Also a temporary monument (like Brandt‚s Untitled it was destroyed at the end of the exhibit), Current used abstract painting to explore the meaning of place in a fashion more common to sculpture or installation. Current‚s surface converged with the historical, lived surface of the place. The act of painting in this work performs the traditional act of transformation in an unconventional way: by allowing abstraction to transform reality into abstraction. In fact, in this abstraction, reality and depiction, more than simultaneous, are symbiotic.

Holland‚s other abstractions are no less temporal, including Lightness (2001) and Hold/Unwound (2003). Lightness consisted of milkweed placed on the gallery floor about three inches deep and filling the space wall-to-wall, though allowing a couple feet of gallery floor so that viewers could enter the room. Similarly engaged with its space, Lightness, like Current, gives the monochrome three dimensions, and in so doing infuses abstract painting with contingent, real-world influences and constraints. Hold/Unwound consisted of twenty thousand yards of thread unspooled so that the resulting square of repeated spool would have the same dimension as the wall that overlooked it. While similarly embedding place in its meaning, Hold/Unwound also reveals the painterly aspects of the world around art, as the artwork mirrors that which encases it. The repetitive, all-over effect of the thread work complements and pays tribute to the otherwise dull space of the wall, by sharing these characteristics. In these two works, Holland proposes that painting is not so much an expression or act of creation as a location of choice, a place where one has singled-out form, beauty and meaning.

Rebecca Holland, Double Blue-Gray, 2000, pigment and ink on silk tissue, 12 by 18 inches
(both images courtesy the artist).

Recently, Holland added to her repertoire several elegant pieces of ink and pigment on silk. These works return to painting while continuing the same concerns as her environmental pieces. To create these shimmering abstractions, the artist dipped pieces of silk tissue into the colors and hung them after they dried. As with Brandt‚s paintings, these wall-hung works are as much performative as they are formal, while investigating many of the themes Holland has previously addressed: balance, figure-ground relationships and the contingency of color. In my mind, they perfectly complement her environments and show her sensitivity to the „momentsš behind every abstract painting that to no small degree determine what others might see as some universal formal creation.

Margaret A. Craig, Gray Ice, 2002, sugar, Royal icing, food dye, 21 by 21 inches
(courtesy the artist).

In contrast to the subtle, restrained austerity of Brandt and Holland, Margaret Craig has used the accidents and „momentsš of painting to explore the chaotic and whimsical. No less dependent on physical, momentary space, her works nonetheless are markedly more wall-bound. Gray Ice (2002) is a typically frantic composition of amorphous shapes, drips and splotches of color. Created using sugar, Royal icing and food dye, this thick, chunky painting is a sculpture in that it is realized by smashing together the respective ingredients until they congeal in a square. Closer to cooking than traditional painting, Gray Ice amalgamates and experiments with materials while focusing on composition and exploring abstract shapes. Craig‚s sugar and icing creations also have included puny sculptures/towers left on the gallery floor, adding to the feeling that these paintings address physical space and materials in a way usually associated with sculpture.

Tellingly, none of these artists worries about what category of art they make. But they all are paintersųor, at least, they all paint in ways that turn painting inside out. Considering some of Craig‚s more recent works supports this view. In Hobgoblins and Pixie Perforation (2003), she has transferred the visual elements typical of her sugar works into the realm of printmaking. The shapes in this etching appear accidental and fluid rather than planned or shaped. And the etching includes several gashes and cavities also found in her paintings, which seem to refer to the biological. Still consumed with issues of color, placement and the nature of abstraction, Craig‚s works nonetheless contain some of the outside world, and often depend on temporality for much of their meaning.

Margaret A. Craig, Hobgoblins and Pixie Perforation, 2003, etching and mixed media, 40 by 49 inches
(courtesy the artist).

More pertinent examples would be Sweet Red Cheeks or Blue Drop (both 2003). Part of a larger installation of similar works, these works forego the linear, image/ground structure of Craig‚s etchings for a more sculptural existence. Embedded in the gallery wall, these growth-like shapes again evoke the bodily. At the same time, they contain self-enclosed abstractions, exploring shape and color for their own sakes. Craig‚s abstraction relies more than that of the other artists on vague associations and surreal forms. But in their actuality and their reliance on the space in which they occurųwhether that be the exhibition space or the space of its materialsųher work, like that of her cohorts, up-ends abstraction.

More figurative of any of the other artists, Hills Snyder returns abstraction to its original sense of abstracting „fromš something. Often obsessed with familiar symbols, especially the happy face, Snyder occasionally has used his wit to depict less discernable shapes, most often by placing a sheet of colored Plexiglas somewhere in the gallery. In At the Heel (1997), Snyder hung a piece of Plexiglas on the wall behind one of the gallery‚s plumbing pipes, cut in the shape of the pipe‚s shadow. While certainly depicting something, this abstraction locates painting in the structural shape of the gallery, suggesting that practically any space is a potential site of painting. This example brings to light an aspect of this art that I have up till now glossed over: these artists use color as the dominant tool in their art, often to engage ambient space.

Hills Snyder, Bald Piebald, 2002, acrylic sheet on birch support, 43 by 43 by 2 inches

For Snyder especially, this use of color is stubbornly painterly, even given the pristine, clean nature of his manufactured materials. His Bald Piebald (2003) balances pink, black and white sections of Plexiglas in a remarkably familiar method of composition. The eyes and smile of the standard happy face that interrupt the monochrome sections destroy any illusion of painterly grandeur, however, giving the sculptural wall piece a pop sensibility. A similar play on the grand aspirations of painting, Boogie Man (Theory of The Hollow Earth) (2003) plays on the title of Piet Mondrian‚s Broadway Boogie Woogie. This humorous collision of high art theory with vacant pop optimism parodies (in form and word) the supposed importance of painting and its goals. In Snyder‚s hands, painting is just painting, though of course his works technically aren‚t paintings.

Less humorous though still not sternly serious, Double Lunette (2001) exemplifies Snyder‚s ability to toy simultaneously with history, painting‚s tradition and the ambience of an environment. Also constructed of Plexiglas sheets, the installation consisted of two side-by-side guillotines with white frames and gold blades. Each gold Plexiglas blade contained a circular hole in its middle, where Snyder also cut a hole into the sheetrock wall of the gallery, revealing the structure behind the wall along with various wires. Symmetric and impersonal, the sinister image still managed to be quite beautiful due to its typically balanced and harmonious composition. The wall cut (something Snyder has done often, usually allowing the dust from the incision to stay on the ground below) gave this pictorial structure a worldly existence, connecting the work once again to the moment of creation, captured in the space of the cut.

No doubt it‚s tempting to link these artists stylistically or theoretically, because they all move painting from the wall to the lived, temporal world. Such a categorization, however, overlooks that this movement is not the essence of their work. even though they all sometimes follow this path. In an era when categories don‚t matter and some artists offer nothing but ideas, these artists share a desire to explore paint‚s possibilities for formal beauty in ways so searching that they sometimes don‚t involve paint at all.

Rebecca Holland's installation Glaze is at Pittsburgh's Mattress Factory until June 27. Hills Snyder will be in the group show "Twang" at Beaumont's Art Museum of Southwest Texas in June.

AREND ZWARTJES has been writing extensively on Texas artists for the past five years. He soon will move to China, where he plans to continue writing about art.


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