Variations Without a Theme

The new show of abstract art at Spaces is ambitious but also uneven.

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"Rules of Evidence," by Mel Bochner, oil on casein on 31 prestretched, ready-made canvases, and casein on wall.
"Rules of Evidence," by Mel Bochner, oil on casein on 31 prestretched, ready-made canvases, and casein on wall.
The new exhibit at Spaces has a snappy title. Not. It's obviously a serious show. Painting Function: Making It Real is the kind of title that, in the process of not pandering to the lowest common denominator, raises doubts about the show's contents. And those doubts are well-founded.

The curator's jargon-laden essay adds to the prevailing sense of confusion. Here we discover that the exhibit asks whether "the practices that presently define abstract art continue to produce forms of signification that convey meanings which contribute to our understanding of our changing environment." Anyone not so intellectually hip would simply have asked, "Is abstract art relevant?"

Fortunately, the exhibit itself is not always as austere and forbidding as its intellectual setup might suggest. There are some works here that are thought-provoking. Overall, though, it's rough going. The artists, in attempting to convey the doubt and uncertainty that are part of modern life, have created doubtful and uncertain art. It often requires a lot of effort on the part of viewers to merely get the gist of it. Think of this show as a challenging visual workout. The show is certainly inclusive, though: 32 artists are represented. There is sculpture and installation art. Photography and digital media, too. Even painting, that much- maligned target of postmodern criticism, which is supposed to be dead, but which always seems to be showing up in unexpected places, like the dead character Harry in Alfred Hitchcock's 1955 comedy The Trouble With Harry. Some of the artists, like Mel Bochner of New York, have enjoyed an international reputation for years. Ohio participants include Bruce Checefsky of Cleveland, Paul O'Keeffe of Kent, and Laura Lisbon of Columbus.

But the most important aspect of the show is the vision behind it. It is curated by New Yorker Saul Ostrow, a respected critic, teacher, and curator. He argues that modern abstraction should not merely be taken seriously, but is the most important style that an artist can be working in today. By nature pliant and free, abstraction stresses "indeterminacy and heterogeneity," qualities which Ostrow sees as central to understanding contemporary life. What is this freedom a reaction against? Ostrow tells us that modernism has tended to value goal-driven art that sought to impose its own order on the objects found in nature. That, according to Ostrow, was a bad thing because "bourgeois thought," which relies on "a priori objectives or fixed criteria," devalues the "notion of empowerment" that resides in abstract art's "fluidity and variability." In plain English, abstract art is chaotic, and if you want to impose order everywhere, you aren't giving chaos a fair chance. Modern abstraction, according to this view, must be encouraged, because such fluidity and variability are empowering, and isn't power the name of the game?

Ostrow's argument, postmodern lit crit jargon aside, is a serious one worth thinking about, but does he really think that styles such as cubism or surrealism did not admit perceptual fluidity as important? When one views a painting such as Picasso's famous "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon," one is, indeed, experiencing the way that an artist has attempted to impose an order on reality (here, by way of the cubist strategy of shifting planes and compressing them into a shallow space) -- but this order is deceptive, because Picasso has used it to explore a brothel image seething with violence and instability. Ostrow's flexible, non-goal-oriented concept of abstraction (reflected in his choice of art in this show) is actually an offshoot of order-imposing styles such as cubism. It is those styles, with all their implicit rules and conventions, that made possible the modern art that Ostrow sees as constricting and the fluid, chaos-welcoming abstract art in this exhibit that he apparently so admires.

Fifty years ago, such a claim for abstraction's importance would not have raised an eyebrow (Jackson Pollock told an interviewer in 1950 that "new needs need new techniques," and that the modern artist living in a technological age must focus attention on what is happening within him), but Ostrow's viewpoint is novel in this postmodern climate. Since the mid-'70s, with the rise of conceptual art, performance art, and video art, artists have increasingly deemphasized their personal takes on life; rather, they have tended to view their work the way one would view a tree in a forest. No one asks why a particular tree needs to stand in a particular spot in the forest. It's just there. It is Ostrow's contention that modern abstract art has a golden opportunity to bridge the two viewpoints about art discussed above (the goal-oriented view and the fluid view). Because abstraction revels in "indeterminacy and heterogeneity" (it's unconcerned with recognizable images, so it offers each viewer a different experience) and also in its self-sufficiency (it exists like the tree), it can welcome chaos and take formal concerns seriously at the same time. Unfortunately, art that attempts to do many things at once sometimes ends up achieving nothing in particular. That's the story of this exhibit.

A case in point is Scott Richter's "Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue #2 (For Barnett)," a glossy, colorful public work that shows its personal side with a dedication to postwar painting pioneer Barnett Newman. The work consists of a steel table, on top of which are three layered paper objects, each of which looks like a huge biscuit. One is painted red, another yellow, and the third blue. Although one is initially reminded of the work of Claes Oldenburg, whose enlarged hamburgers and ice cream cones made of painted canvas wryly commented on popular culture, the title of Richter's work suggests that he's interested in doing what his dedicatee Newman once described as "declaring space rather than representing it."

Richter's work, like Newman's, has no frame to mark its borders; the idea is to set up an environment and emphasize how the viewers and the artwork inhabit the same space. This is a formal exercise that explores the implications of Newman's ideas, but there is a problem. Those ideas and the experiences that informed them were Newman's. Richter is creating out of his familiarity with art history, but he is not bringing anything new of his own to the piece. Instead of attempting to come to grips with the process of self-discovery from which Newman's work sprang, it seems that he is simply looking at the easily observable elements of that artist's work. Other artists in the exhibit do this, too, though Cleveland artist Jürgen Faust in his installation succeeds in evoking the granitic simplicity of German artist Joseph Beuys's work without slavishly imitating it.

Cleveland's Checefsky is represented by two complex, richly layered photograms (recently on display at the Brett Mitchell Shaheen Gallery). Checefsky is a good choice for this exhibit, because he expands the boundaries of abstraction in photography, and the way he finds fracture and instability in the common objects that populate his work dovetails well with Ostrow's belief that abstraction allows artists to offer chaos a spot at the postmodern table. Also impressive is Bochner's contribution, a conceptual piece called "Rules of Evidence," which consists of a series of variously shaped oil canvases painted in solid colors like purple, black, yellow, and red, to which are added measurement figures that precisely calculate the distance between each canvas. The result is a multipart work that establishes a rigid logical system (all those measurement numbers) that appears to rule out the personality of the artist -- but which, upon closer examination, is as visually compelling (and strangely intuitive) as it is mathematically rigorous. Works like Jack Whitten's "Brilliant Corners: for Thelonious "Sphere' Monk" also impress by the sheer force of their artists' personalities. This acrylic work is a complex mosaic formed by small squares of color that have been methodically arranged on the canvas in a richly variegated abstract pattern that is dark at the center and progressively lighter around the four edges of the frame. The dedication to the late jazz musician perhaps directs the viewer's attention to a view of art that, like jazz, is free and self-renewing. Improvisation is the lifeblood of jazz, and accidents can become the basis for inspired flights.

That seems to be the main message of this uneven but nevertheless thought-provoking exhibit. Contemporary abstract art, for Ostrow, must bravely face a world with no absolutes and attempt to improvise well without a set agenda.

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