“Steven Cushner: Recent Paintings”

At the Art Gallery at the University of Maryland at College Park to March 9

There are fast paintings, and there are slow paintings. You can take in any example from Frank Stella’s early black series in a blink. “What you see is what you see,” he famously said. Art that requires the exercise of traditional connoisseurship takes longer. No one expects you to rush with a Bellini altarpiece.

Then there are paintings with an obvious graphic punch that almost dare you to sell them short, such as Steven Cushner’s. Refuse them the time to unfold and you’ve been tricked. Looking at them is like writing: It’s not your first impression or idea that counts—it’s your third.

Fifteen large acrylics form the core of Cushner’s show of work from the past four years now at the University of Maryland, from which he received an MFA in 1980. (He currently teaches at American University and the Corcoran College of Art and Design.) His is the first in a proposed series of exhibitions devoted to notable alumni of the school’s art program, and the Art Gallery has never looked better. The interior walls that once broke up the space, making it more suitable for hangings of numerous smaller works, have been removed. The lighting is strong and clear but without shadows, with spots playing among the warm pools of color that Cushner’s higher-keyed canvases cast onto the parquet floor. The effect is of an enclosed garden, a cultured, humane outdoor room that only of necessity has been brought back inside.

Converging or concentric configurations of thick cords, most anchored or redirected by dark, often circular, nexuses, constitute Cushner’s dominant motif. His forms are often described as “geometric,” but that term serves merely as a measure of their overall directness; don’t let it create the notion of sharp vertexes and slicing planes. Flat and glyphic in the main (especially in reproduction), the dark lines and shapes that constitute Cushner’s figures are built up from multiple washes of paint that are permitted to drizzle down over their grounds, coating them in drips that range from mossy veils to taut plumb lines. Sometimes, the figures are finished off with a denser layer of dark color, often black, brown, or gray, but always there is the implication of translucence, even if hidden. They create more solid, less elusive sensations in recollection than they ever do in person. They have a talent for being misremembered.

The act of recollection, half-willed, half-accidental, and always flawed, is one of Cushner’s main preoccupations. “Painting as an object is an accumulation of all the mistakes, corrections, moves, and decisions that occur while trying to make a vision, a feeling, an experience concrete,” he says. His great success is in evoking the immediate sensations that drive his process while simultaneously evoking the mediation of those sensations by art and memory.

Cushner may not paint en plein air, but he lives that way. Tributes to outdoor activities of a solitary, contemplative nature come in Skipping Stones and Flyfishing. In his catalog essay, Ferdinand Protzman writes, “Cushner says the recent figures have been inspired by things he sees and does in daily life, such as playing with his daughters…” Spinning in Place and Jumping Rope appear to have emerged from their games, and Roundabout and Swings likely refer to playground features. Cushner’s other subjects are antique, even mythic, drawing on cultural, rather than personal, memory. There are a stout Gordian Knot, hovering uncut, and two hanging strands of Garland, whose tumid swags recall the fertile crescents carved into ancient sarcophagi or draped across festal altars.

The new paintings are airier, brighter, and less weighty than those of several years ago, although they still draw on the simple mechanics of things in motion or caught in the static equilibrium of conflicting forces. And though Cushner’s paint handling is essential, his real linchpin is color.

Previously, Cushner relied on dunnish earth tones—ochers, greens, and browns—that reached a subdued concord in flat blacks. As recently as 2000, Swings was done in this vein. But the first thing you notice upon entering the gallery is the new strain of his color: the aqueous blue-greens of Skipping Stones and the turquoises of Over the Falls, the burnished gold of Net, the unnameable not-pink, not-orange luster beaming from Trapped at the far end of the second room. A faint yellow-green backs the dense, bulbous plug that anchors the looping, nested cords of Bonsai’s subterranean roots. There are grounds of green and watermelon, too, flooding around figures that bathe in the unexpected light. Filmy squares of white checker some fields in the barest evocation of gold leaf.

Cushner has hit on a type of color that carries the light of memory. Patently a concoction of the artist’s palette, it mimics not natural light but the remembrance of it. The background of Jumping Rope is closer to a tequila sunrise than to the real kind, but it captures the way sunlight, fugitive from the eye, is impressed on the mind: exaggerated, sharpened, and nearly cheapened—the better to make it indelible. That light struggles against the motion of a whirring, snapping jump-rope whose five time-lapsed cords, their edges bleeding into the background, crisscross high above two still handles. The eye bounces from one handle to the next, tracing the arcs of the rope, unweaving them from one another, returning to them the idea of movement—and returning to memory the sense of passing time.

The show also contains 10 watercolors, most with dimensions in the single digits. The smallest are almost like flashcards for the artist’s formal vocabulary. Itemizing the elements of Cushner’s language, however, is not the same as speaking its poetry, something that happens only with the larger works. The watercolors have intimacy without grandeur; the canvases achieve a communion of both. Should you take to the works on paper more than I did, a gathering of them goes up at Hemphill Fine Arts next month. But if you must pick only one Cushner show, Maryland’s is the must-see. (Not that the gallery has any conflict; aside from two watercolors belonging to Cushner’s daughters, all paintings come courtesy of Hemphill.)

When I last saw Cushner’s work, at Hemphill in the fall of 1998, I was more satisfied that he was accomplishing similar things on paper and on canvas. But the watercolor medium just can’t stand up to the amount of reworking it takes to make a painting like Tower, whose pale golden-yellow ground receives trickles of scarlet and crimson from washy-brown bricks flung skyward into an impossible arch. Everything would turn to mud. And earth, without light, would be only half of Cushner’s glorious new equation. However good you remember him being, he’s better now. CP