Leaving traditional oil and canvas
behind, four Southwest artists forge distinct paths in a
(mostly) post-paint world
by Arend Zwartjes
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.
Brandt's untitled installation at San Antonio's Sala Diaz in
(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
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
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
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.
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.
Craig, Gray Ice, 2002, sugar, Royal icing, food dye, 21 by
(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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
writing extensively on Texas artists for the past five years. He
soon will move to China, where he plans to continue writing