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Still Kicking 

Painting is supposed to be a dead medium, but don't tell these artists.

Like the premature announcement of Mark Twain's death more than a decade before the fact — to which he responded that the report of his death was an exaggeration — the death knell of painting as a medium has been sounding for years now. Apparently, some artists aren't listening.

Fifteen such artists are featured in Nine Lives: Painting at the End of the Twentieth Century, an exhibit at the B.K. Smith Gallery at Lake Erie College in Painesville. These artists, in the tradition of modern masters Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns, attempt to find ways to breathe new energy into the painting process.

Mid-century American artists like Pollock and Johns both employed novel painting techniques to better express the complexities of a new era. Likewise, Cleveland artist Gerald Vandevier applies powdered pigments to canvas by hand. In this continuous process, previous patterns are obliterated as others take shape. Eventually, according to the artist's statement, a satisfactory image emerges and the surface is fixed with a light finish consisting of acrylic varnish. The powder creates a grainy opaque texture, but there are recognizable forms (like a centrally placed parallelogram) that peek through, and these give the work a clean 3-D quality. The contrast is between the improvisational nature of the process the artist has chosen (with each gesture canceling out a previous gesture) and the classical sense of proportion that characterizes the final product. Order emerges from disorder because the artist knows what to eliminate and what to keep.

Furthermore, Vandevier introduces little touches, like well-placed dissonant chords, that question the order he has achieved in his paintings. For instance, at times the viewer doesn't know where the painting stops and the frame begins, because the artist has allowed shapes from one to flow into the other. Such recurrence of form impels the viewer to step back and reassess the relationship between the two areas of the work. Perhaps, too, this is the echo referred to in the title, "Echo of the Unasked Question."

Also impressive is the work of Benjamin Wade Parsons, a Cleveland artist whose heavily worked collages maintain an admirable sense of balance even as they pursue textural variety. A 1998 work called "Plume" is a mixture of cut-up pieces of canvas onto which the artist has affixed circular shapes and swirling S-curves in translucent blues and earthy grays. There is a weathered feeling, because he has sanded the surfaces to reveal initial layers of paint and to create a patina-like surface — reminiscent of museum objects dating from classical antiquity. Here, the aging process (which the artist has imposed artificially in the studio) seems to transform the objects it touches for the better. Fittingly, these canvases have a bold celebratory feel.

In contrast, there is a darker thread that runs through the exhibit. Artists Sarah Curry and Bruno Capolongo hone in on the dark side of premillennial life in America. They share a similar formal orientation as well: Both gravitate to an almost photographic precision. Curry says that she intends to create work that comments on the complexity of contemporary women, and her piece "Lucy and Her Girls" certainly bears this out, though in a grim, backhanded way. Showing a dour middle-aged woman dressed in scarlet, with a single ring of pearls around her neck and with hands that almost seem intent on avoiding contact with the grim-looking daughters who pose with her, the work is a chilling commentary on how parental coldness is passed down through the generations. Curry reinforces her theme by emphasizing angles in her composition — an awning that juts out in the background, the angles of a window at the far edge of the frame. The point is clear: Lucy is all hard edges, and that was part of her legacy to her children. This is a disturbing work that suggests a great deal beneath its coolly controlled surface. Lucy seems to be a cousin of the woman in Grant Wood's famous 1930 painting "American Gothic": Both women appear rigid and self-righteous.

If Curry focuses on relationships and interpersonal pain, Ontario artist Bruno Capolongo focuses on the problems of a faceless society. In his "Soul Cages/Era," he depicts a parade of mask-wearing city-dwellers with computer numbers inscribed on their foreheads. The message: The Big City has turned us into robots. The main influence here seems to be George Tooker's well-known 1950 work called "The Subway," which turned a mundane city subway into a low-ceilinged prison and the men and women in it into inmates. Capolongo focuses attention on a little girl dressed in red in the foreground who does not wear a mask but who carries a box with a mask in it. The birdcage she also holds is, as of now, open. Will she also become an automaton like the rest with time? (The pod people in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers were pretty persuasive with adults but, if you remember, they couldn't fool little Jimmy Grimaldi.)

Capolongo's work is a mixture of McCarthy-era paranoia mixed with pre-millennial angst and a dash of anti-technology bias thrown in for good measure. It's an ambitious work but, unlike the Tooker piece and the 1956 sci-fi thriller, it does the thing it wants to avoid (and that the other artists under discussion here deftly avoided): It numbs the sensibilities. Tooker was didactic, and so was film director Don Siegel, but their world was anchored in an urban reality that could be recognized by all. Capolongo stacks the deck: His Big City is so anonymous and generically menacing that you rest comfortably with the feeling that things could never get that bad.

Even if Capolongo simplifies a bit too much, he doesn't do it nearly as much as the people who say that painting, his chosen medium, is dead. These ambitious artists demonstrate that "the death of painting" has been greatly exaggerated.

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