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The 43rd Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting

At the Corcoran Gallery of Art to January 2

The Corcoran Gallery’s 43rd Biennial Exhibition makes a convincing case for the vitality of contemporary American painting. The works by 25 artists, assembled by curator Terrie Sultan, demonstrate that painting retains its narrative and symbolic vigor in an era when other, more flamboyant forms of art practice often distract art-world attention. In this survey of works created over the past two years, it’s possible to identify important shifts in pictorial thinking and practice that have occurred in recent decades, particularly with regard to narrative devices, surface treatment, and approaches to pictorial space.

The biennial’s artists come from Arizona, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, and Texas—as well as New York. This might suggest a weakening of New York’s domination of American painting. In fact, it underscores a different phenomenon: the homogenizing of American culture since the advent of television and the corresponding uniformity of art practice that has resulted from color reproductions in art magazines over the past 15 years. The works at the Corcoran are markers of a new international style whose practitioners bring a set of characteristic attitudes, processes, and subjects to painting. New York works still have a distinctive edge, but it’s no longer necessarily a positive one; works by the younger New York artists are the weakest in the show—they tend to be organized around strategies of deconstruction which, once grasped, leave little to reverberate in the understanding. This isn’t to say that they can’t produce some chuckles of insight. Ken Aptekar’s How Did That Make You Feel, an intentionally clumsy appropriation of Christ and his apostles as a men’s group, is witty and not without resonance, as is his Heavy Equipment, a commentary on the materialism that lurks behind 17th-century Dutch portraiture and flourishes in our own time. These are not insignificant commentaries, but they don’t go very far. The same is true of Elena Sisto’s cock tail-napkin-based line-and-color stud ies and Catherine Howe’s gender- derived critique of New York School painting. Once you get the gimmick, there isn’t much more to get.

The older New Yorkers, on the other hand, are still stars. Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Ida Applebroog (now in their 60s), and Dottie Attie (a decade younger) are artists whose works illustrate what lives lived through painting can accomplish. The show also includes Californians of that generation: Robert Colescott and Charles Garabedian, artists who have also apparently been indifferent to art- world fashion and who, like the older New Yorkers, have had the luck to watch fashion come around to the place they have always been.

That place is the enormous place occupied in Western tradition by the painting of the human figure. That the figure is the organizing theme of this biennial reflects its emergence over the past decade as a major preoccupation of painters—part of a larger cultural interest in narrative as a structuring, indeed controlling, aspect of life and culture. The works here present a variety of approaches to the figure’s capacity for transforming the data of experience into meaning. They demonstrate that what Kenneth Clark wrote of the nude—it is a form of art, not a subject of art—is also true of that more generic design known as figure. As a form of art, it distills the details of thought and action, reformulating them according to the structural and psychological logic of painting, thus making the accidents and chaos of life coherent and intelligible through conventions of representation. These conventions themselves, along with conflict and problematic identity, are the principal subjects addressed in this biennial.

In addition to geographical distribution, the biennial’s artists span several artistic generations. In general, those born before 1950 construct their images in a cubist space with distinctive consciousness of surface. And those born after 1950 work with a new kind of pictorial space derived from the manipulations of photography (particularly film and video) and computer-generated images. In this “virtual” space, which seems to replicate the airless, spaceless chamber behind the computer screen, there are no surfaces—only illusions, images, marks, or effects. This erasure of surface not only rejects the illusions of Renaissance perspective but the ambiguous space developed by the cubists as well. This new space seems to have begun to appear in painting during the past decade, just as the potentially infinite repertoire of imagery from computer sources has become available. When these unrelated images are combined to create new pictorial narratives, the dislocations, disjunctive contrasts, and incongruities of these resulting narratives also possess a surface blankness reminiscent of the computer screen. Works by Drew Beattie and Daniel Davidson, Phillis Bramson, Carole Caroompas, Inga Frick, David Humphrey, Hung Liu, Kerry James Marshall, Deborah Oropallo, and Catherine Howe variously reflect this dematerialized layering effect. These surface/space investigations may, in fact, be the ’80s/’90s’ response to the challenge laid down in the early ’50s by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Frick, Oropallo, and Humphrey also manipulate drawing, photos, and painterly stylistic devices, and if some of the resulting images seem arbitrary in spite of their alleged autobiographical sig nificance, they may describe the dis embodiment produced in a media- manipulated world.

The violence implicit in notions of disembodiment—not wraithlike romantic phantasms—is a major subtext of the exhibition. It’s puzzling that many commentators on this kind of socially conscious imagery fail to see it as a necessary, even inevitable, extension of humanism. Frequently, although wrongly, accused of nihilism, these artists, especially the narrative masters among them, aren’t negating human potential but refusing to accept its exploitation and annihilation. Transposing painful experience into the expansive yet specifically visualized arena of painting, great artists can alter the way such events are known and understood. Inevitably, some who take up these themes will be shrill, but the Corcoran includes few of those. Instead, there are Golub’s brooding and mysteriously menacing operatives, Applebroog’s monsters of everyday life, Spero’s celebration of female sexuality, Luis Cruz Azaceta’s diagram of the inner workings of suffering, Caroompas’ sharp-edged humor that refuses to accept the order of things, and Melissa Miller’s splendid mingling of animal and human forms which seem to document an important but nearly forgotten memory.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is the large gallery where canvases by Robert Colescott, Azaceta, and 28-year-old Manuel Ocampo are hung. In these works, pictorial dynamism reflects racial, colonial, and political as well as individual emotional misery. Without didacticism, the paintings symbolically represent the essence of experiences. Ocampo’s work is especially forceful, rejecting easy platitudes about colonial exploitation as he depicts the universal wickedness and ignorance that transcend ethnic or national identities. He paints in the Spanish colonial style he learned from Catholic priests in his native Philippines, but then distresses the finished works so that they resemble the bloody if derelict martyrdoms hanging in colonial administrative buildings. Azaceta’s paintings, particularly the macabre and preposterous Split Rafter, seem to document an unbearable pain. His works, as well as Colescott’s acerbic but humorous comments on American racism, offer important testimony to the redemptive capacities of art. Marshall’s images of African-American life, Could This Be Love and Beauty Examined, possess a similar capacity for transformation. He has some of Colescott’s humor and a flair for symbolic juxtaposition that presents commentary with universal implications.

Gender issues get considerable attention, inevitably, in a show devoted to figural work. The most complex and beautiful analyses of these concerns are Attie’s assemblages Mixed Metaphors (based on Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World) and Mixed Messages (a detail taken from Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa). The Courbet and the Gericault images are reproduced in a series of small, square canvases so that the final construction resembles the originals broken up by a wall-colored grid. Fragmenting the body images (she isolates and juxtaposes them with details from other early-19th-century paintings) creates an ominous significance missing from the original images. This elaborate process explores the way identity and experience are determined by images. Caroompas has been influenced by Attie, and although her repertoire comes from the image bank of the new media world, her sense of significant juxtaposition, if not yet as nuanced as Attie’s, is fine, particularly in Before and After Frankenstein: The Woman Who Knew Too Much Bedside Vigil. In this work, art-historically familiar images of Judith with the head of Holofernes drift across a grid of repeated outline drawings of a nurse holding a tray of medicine.

Kim Dingle, Liu, Applebroog, Spero, and Sisto also deal explicitly with gender issues, and younger artists Dingle, Liu, and Sisto employ a distancing irony in their work that may account for the more ambivalent reaction they provoke. Dingle paints well, but her insights are like Aptekar’s—rather superficial—though in her case redeemed by the quality of her line and use of color. The distancing is prevalent in contemporary painting practice; however, at the Corcoran, it documents the transition from a critique based on belief of older artists Spero, Applebroog, and Attie to one based on irony practiced by the younger generation.

This large show, with more than 90 paintings, is going to take a while to assimilate. The artists’ visions and approaches are disparate, and the treatment of the figure and paint facture are bold and demanding. The artistic intelligences assembled here are complex for the most part and alive to the dilemma of asserting a humanistic viewpoint in a compromised cultural world. Accepting that ambivalence and still reaffirming the importance of painting, the Corcoran may be ready to reassume a leadership role in Washington.