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“Steven Cushner”

Steven Cushner is exactly what all of those brand-new MFAs don’t want to be: a solid midcareer artist who is neither brilliant nor groundbreaking. The D.C. resident is safely ensconced in an academic-looking style that recalls the venerable old modern art of the ’30s and ’40s. He’s not obsessed with his own shortcomings or with the foolishness of what he does for a living. He’s not making paintings of anime characters. And he’s not mashing up disparate genres just to show us that, yes, he’s taken a few art-history courses and, yes, he does own a mahlstick. You won’t find any self-loathing, pop-culture fixations, or genre jokes in Cushner’s current show at Hemphill Fine Arts—which right there distinguishes his work from much of what’s been going on in painting for the last decade.

What you will find are 19 new, thoroughly respectable works on canvas and paper by one of Washington’s notables. Respectable, certainly, but not his best work: The assuredness, unity, and spareness of his style from about four years ago now look like some sort of high-water mark in Cushner’s oeuvre. In his 2002 show at the Art Gallery at the University of Maryland, Cushner offered enormous, primeval pictures in which a single archetypal symbol executed in dark, broad strokes—a net, say, or a labyrinth—hovered against a worked and reworked ground of aqueous green, pale orange, or brilliant gold. These were simple, loopy forms, but they were surprisingly particular, relying on placement and atmosphere to hold the viewer’s attention. Cushner’s seemingly basic paintings quietly demanded closer examination. When they got it, they showed the artist to be a sensitive object-maker par excellence (which, admittedly, isn’t something a good portion of those brand-new MFAs would be satisfied with being, either).

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The new paintings tend to be smaller, busier, and more colorful—which doesn’t necessarily add up to a good thing. That Cushner’s larger pieces are nearly always more effective might sound like a bad art-school joke—If you make it bigger, people have to take it seriously!—but for his blocky glyphs, size really does matter. Indeed, the 86-inch-by-88-inch Rainbow Bridge (2005) is one of the best pieces in the show. The background is a tapestry of overlapping squares of translucent paint in pastel shades of ultramarine and viridian. Arching across this hazy, drip-laden field from left to right is a series of jumbled, interlocking pictographs rendered in a very pale yellow: odd parallelograms and semiletters, deformed hourglasses and half-arcs.

The immediate, most obvious precursor for this piece is the work of Adolph Gottlieb, one of the founding fathers of abstract expressionism. Like many of his contemporaries, Gottlieb picked up on surrealism’s use of Jung’s ideas of the collective unconscious and archetypal symbols. Of course, he also jettisoned the tidy illusionism employed by Dali and Magritte in favor of a harsh, broad-brushed sort of primitivism. The tough-to-define yet familiar abstract forms that Cushner is playing with here might echo the paintings Gottlieb made in the ’40s, but they’re much tidier. It’s true that Cushner has something of a thing for dripping paint—his predecessor slashed it.

The difference is about more than bravura, however. For Gottlieb, pictographs were a surrogate for something universal and numinous; it’s less clear that Cushner has any such mysticism on his mind. His new work even allows for some silliness here and there—take the gratuitous Blondie reference in the title of One Way. Or Another (2006). Better yet, take the structure of another roughly 7-foot-square piece, Repairman (2005). A bunch of narrow rectangular shapes—something like slightly lopsided planks—painted with thick, dark outlines occupy most of the canvas, forming a crude sort of circle at its center. But instead of the beautiful stasis of his earlier pieces, Repairman seems intent on instability, gracelessness. That circle seems hopelessly momentary: The planks overlap here and there, intersecting haphazardly and at odd angles, hinting at collapse. If a grid-based minimal abstract picture—say, an early Frank Stella—aims to show you the solid structure of the picture plane, Cushner’s work seems to be describing that space as propped up by a clumsy, ad hoc support. It’s a much better art-school joke than the one about big paintings.

What ultimately makes Cushner’s smaller pieces, especially the watercolors, less satisfying is their preciousness, which often masquerades as shabbiness. In Puzzle #2 (2005), funny little curved biomorphs poke into a square in the center of the picture. What ultimately grabs the viewer’s attention, though, are the corners of this 10-inch-by-9-inch rectangle: Each contains five or six different pinholes; each has been torn a quarter-inch or so into the composition. Why the holes? Why the tearing? The holes appear on every framed paper piece: The image is carefully, dutifully painted, but the corners are shredded to bits, giving the appearance that the art was pulled down in a hurry countless times. This is a funny affectation, as if Cushner wanted to emphasize his rough handling of what are otherwise polite little vignettes.

Cushner’s colors, too, seem to be about roughness. A few years ago, his palette was stately and pure; in this show, it alternates between jarring and dingy. Building Blocks (2006) offers Cushner’s typical figure-ground tension—except his background here is a series of stripes in pink, turquoise, and yellow, suggesting an Easter egg. Road to Nowhere II (2006)—this time, a Talking Heads reference—is a spiral of dark gray squares executed with choppy vertical and horizontal strokes; a pale red-orange background seems to bleed through here and there, giving everything a murky cast. Cushner is usually such a careful craftsman, but this piece is nearly colorblind, crudely overstated and unresolved. Road to nowhere, indeed.

Ditto for Either/Or (2006), which, sadly, recalls the tepid abstractions Caio Fonseca displayed at the Corcoran Gallery of Art a couple of years ago. A few curvy bands of green acrylic are viewed through gaps between some large-ish, closely grouped shapes in gray. Edges are handled clumsily, and the work looks almost improvised—a bad mode for this painter. “[G]estures alone are too fleeting, so the problem is how to sustain the gesture, to develop greater meaning or significance,” Cushner once wrote about his paintings. “One way is through repetition, repeating the gesture until it becomes or acquires something, or proves itself—maybe develops a rhythm or builds a shape.” That development and repetition, essential to the strength of Cushner’s work, seems absent here.

A couple of paintings in the last room of the exhibition tell us, perhaps, what’s been on Cushner’s mind these past few years. Over, Under, Sideways, Down #2 (2005) looks like a square of many teetering stacks of books—or maybe of old paintings. Thin rectangles, packed side to side, follow the limits of this roughly 11-inch-square piece of paper. All the Paintings #2 (2005), another of the more successful paintings on canvas, seems to have a similar book/painting motif. Extending from the center to the bottom of the canvas is a rectangular expanse of white, hastily applied in square patches, all predictably overlapping and dripping. Clinging to the outside edges of this central shape are narrow rectangles in an array of mostly pastel colors—pale green, cool lilac, the occasional gunmetal gray.

Here the paradox of Cushner’s work is most acute: This piece isn’t really about rigid geometries, even though it traffics in rectangles. It’s not about the delectation of color, either; Cushner’s grays and whites keep sapping his pictures of real coloristic verve. It’s calculatedly off-balance. The rectangles might be little pictographic paintings, but they also look like countless Post-it notes. Could they be tagging the pages of a vast art-history book in order to keep track of an impossibly huge number of pictures of paintings—say, all of them?

Maybe. In his earlier work, Cushner seemed to favor images from the Paleolithic—the earliest things that humans could make. Now he seems to be thinking about more complicated stuff—about other paintings, about a world of accumulated and catalogued books, all available as models. How to sift through and reduce all of this? Before, Cushner didn’t address this question: He made basic paintings of basic things. His new work finds him wandering through the archive, picking and choosing affinities, acknowledging the problems of history and influence.

It’s a fascinating turn of events—just one that hasn’t yet resulted in a strong body of work. That Cushner has at least risked straying a bit from a proven, endlessly repeatable formula is commendable, and it probably bodes well for his longevity. He doesn’t seem so safely ensconced anymore, actually: This is work that, in Cushner’s own unhistrionic way, is questioning what he does for a living—and really, it’s good for an artist to get lost in the wilderness once in a while, to stumble and grope for a bit. Let’s just hope that Cushner finds his way to the other side soon.CP