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UMBC Exhibit Asks, What Is Painting?

Sophie Smallhorn’s colorful "No. 37" sounds a playful note in in the highly theoretical UMBC show Painting Zero Degree.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 2/7/2001

Painting Zero Degree

What would a painting about the act of painting look like? We're not talking about a picture of an artist with raised brush. We're talking about a nonrepresentational painting that calls attention to the paint itself and to the brush strokes that cover every bit of canvas.

For an example of that concept, one could hardly do better than to look at the work of Robert Ryman. He was among the artists in the 1960s and '70s who wanted to reduce painting to its essence by dispensing with subject matter and, for that matter, subjectivity. If the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s poured their souls onto the canvas along with all that paint, Ryman wanted to make impersonal paintings devoted to formalist concerns.

Ryman, Daniel Buren, and John McCracken are several of the elder statesmen represented in the exhibit Painting Zero Degree, which is mostly devoted to a number of younger artists who've been inspired by their devotion to basic issues of form, color, and context--how a painting fills, and perhaps helps define, the space in which it's installed.

The space occupied by this particular exhibit, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Fine Arts Gallery, is just the sort of high-ceilinged, boxy, austerely modernist spot where such artwork seems at home. Although the painterly issues this work raises sometimes play better in the mind than on the wall, for the most part you can enjoy looking at the stuff in this touring exhibit organized by Independent Curators International and curated by Carlos Basualdo. It's not merely the execution of art theory.

Ryman is represented by "Distributor" (1985) and "Regis" (1977), which hang side by side. Both are all-white oils, but they're hardly identical. They're different shades of white, the brushwork is handled differently in each, and they are even held to the gallery wall by different kinds of metal fasteners. Those fasteners are rather prominently placed at the top and bottom of each painting, as if the artist is declaring that his paintings are monochromatic surfaces affixed to a wall that is itself a monochromatic surface. These are planes of noncolor, if you will, and they turn the entire gallery wall into a geometric composition.

Are these the most exciting paintings you'll ever see in your life? Well, no. Frankly, most people, while capable of appreciating the subtle differences between the two works and the larger theoretical concerns involved, ultimately will want to see something else--even if only to see some other colors. Fortunately, this show demonstrates that artists' reductive concerns needn't boil down to paintings that all look nearly alike. Among Ryman's contemporaries, Buren postulates that a painting doesn't have to be placed on a wall or, for that matter, even have to be made of oils or acrylics. Not only is his "To Your Feet (Aux pieds)" (1991) on the floor, it is the floor you walk across as you enter the gallery. Its black-and-white stripes are made from carefully cut linoleum.

Meanwhile, McCracken shows wall-mounted and floor-standing pieces, fiberglass-covered, rectangular objects with enough three-dimensional heft to make them seem like sculpture rather than paintings. But their surfaces are coated with polyester resins that give them luminous, painterly qualities. Moreover, those shiny surfaces are so reflective that as you look at them you can see other pieces in the exhibit and, of course, yourself. How's that for self-reflection?

Painting Zero Degree could use a few more elders to effectively establish its linkages between artistic generations. The works of old-timers Ryman, Buren, and McCracken are placed near each other, but the viewer is given no sense of why, or how their work relates to or differentiates from that of the younger artists. At the risk of going against the show's reductive grain, a few text panels to provide educational context would help.

If those younger artists have anything in common, it's that they're able to be humorous as well as brainy. Their explorations of the traditional rules of the art-history game often mean playfully breaking those rules. Any artist who grew up in the wake of the Abstract Expressionists is keenly aware of what's involved in making big paintings completely covered with gestural brush strokes.

Rudolf Stingel is certainly thinking about the big painterly statement and, more specifically, about the Color Field painters who wanted to cover the canvas with smooth washes of hue. Stingel's "Untitled (L-Piece)" (1999) does as much, only it's made out of industrial carpet that covers not only an entire wall but much of the floor too. You're welcome to walk across this orange rug, leaving your footprints in its thick surface, and you also may run your hands across the carpet on the wall. With sweeping movements of his arm, this writer made a series of elegant arcs on that receptive orange wall. How can you not like an artwork upon which you've made your own marks? Those arcs will be traced in that orange field at least until the next viewer comes along and decides they need to be eradicated.

If Stingel provides an impersonal surface that you can personalize, other artists in the show are interested in making their work as impersonal as possible. It's the ironic stance of artists taking something as subjective as painting and making it as thoroughly objective. In Peter Kogler's "The Sense of Order" (1995), this sensibility translates to silkscreen on billboard paper whose patterning is based on computer-aided design. It's basically wallpaper. Some artistic decisions obviously were involved in coming up with its gridded design, but a computer did most of the work.

More of the artist's hand is required for Niele Toroni's latex acrylic paintings, but that statement needs to be qualified. An artist who's of roughly the same generation as Ryman and the other elders, Toroni is represented here by 1991's "Round Trip (Orange)," which is made up of four identical paintings displayed on easels. These sparely conceived paintings feature isolated brush strokes of exactly the same type made at regular intervals. This is rational, orderly, utterly impersonal painting that mocks the notion that the brush stroke is how an artist's personality is conveyed.

Equally impersonal are several untitled 1998 acrylic paintings by Pablo Siquier in which the pristine white surfaces are partly covered with digitally designed black lines. Although these patterns have no real meaning in either structural or autobiographical terms, our cultural conditioning prompts us to look for some anyway.

All this nose-thumbing and game-playing makes for a show that's less arid than you might initially fear. Some of the work is eye-catching, even pretty, in a restrained way. Sophie Smallhorn's "No. 37" (1999) is a painted sculptural installation that makes color and form seem like one and the same. A grid of 49 small fiberboard cubes sits on the gallery floor. Each cube is painted a different and usually very lively color, so there's a festive spirit in what otherwise might have been a rigid grouping. Smallhorn may share some of Robert Ryman's conceptual concerns, but she's much more colorful in her expression of them.

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