By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Most of us like to think of ourselves as flexible, to think of the stodgy "establishment" that rejects new ideas as a thing of the past, a thing that can't keep up with rapid change, or at least a thing that we won't subsidize with our own fleeting prejudices. But an establishment -- be it political, cultural, religious, technological -- certainly still wafts through our breathable air, stinging our lungs and eyes with pre-emptive concerns about whether or not something new has any place in our familiar world. How many times have I stumbled into a twentysomething who's suspicious of computers? Too many for comfort, yet I find myself cursing a new e-mail program, no matter how much more efficient it is than my last.
To that end, I've argued with an art critic who won't accept the video format as art. Not fully, anyway. This journalist may recognize the agonizing brilliance of, say, Bill Viola's video installation at the DMA, The Crossing, as art, but only inasmuch as it resembles a monumental painting in motion. But take Doug Aitken's video installation down the hall from Viola's (Diamond Sea), a piece more concerned with separate, fleeting impressions coming together to form a whole, and you've got at least one huffy arts writer who can't quite accept the medium's boundary stretches or its limitations.
That's her establishment decision, not mine. Meaning, the lexicon for defining and accepting the unfamiliar is fraught with individual baggage. Maybe I'm too tolerant, but if an artist says it's art, then I at least swallow that. Doesn't mean I think it's good, or worthy of scrutiny and praise, but if an artist wants to sit at a bar, bend a cardboard coaster in half, and deem it his latest piece, then more power to him.
Most art genres are protested by some establishment-types upon introduction, but none has more sustained and unwitting power to confound, irritate, and alienate viewers than abstract art.
When I walked into the Arlington Museum of Art the other day to check out its current offering, A Hot Show: Abstract Paintings, I overheard a grandmother complain to her young grandson as they were leaving the building: "Well, this is all just too weird -- not what I'd call art."
Not art? I might have been heartened that Grammy brought the kid to an art exhibit, but instead I bristled. She had just added to this kid's burgeoning sense of establishment that abstract art -- the mildest form in painting, moreover -- was out of bounds. I can only hope that young people's tendency to question authority might save the boy's potentially brainwashed mind from early-imposed prejudice -- if not now then maybe by the time he hits college. Perhaps little Jimmy had just been secretly bowled over by Scott Barber's cheerfully squishy paintings, with all their allusion to Saturday-morning cartoons, and made the tough decision right then and there that he would grow up to be an artist -- to hell with grandma.
When abstract art came to the fore in the early to middle part of this century, there were dissenters, not unlike those who had previously been offended by impressionism, which reduced images to a playing field for light rather than keeping them representational and whole. As with Impressionism and Cubism, abstract art had robbed subject matter of its soul by doing away with realistic form, its seeable eyes. The artists would argue that the windows to their subjects' souls were still there, just seriously internalized and therefore harder to recognize.
Then, there were plenty who found abstract art and all its implications downright refreshing, a crucial development in the ever-expanding language of art. The purely abstract offered concepts and emotions reduced to their essence, unencumbered by something as clumsy as representation. Thus, the soul is liberated, free to float to a higher plane (of thought, of emotion), released of its earth-anchored shell.
Abstract art, like most prime genres of this century, has split and refined itself (abstract expressionism, minimalism) and split again (pop art, non-narrative film) and refined itself again, and so on. Now, the term "abstract" means a hundred things besides just non-representational paint on canvas; it encompasses a good 50 percent of what we think of as art (or not, including most graphic and commercial design).
Still, all these years into it, there are plenty who cast a suspicious glance at any painting that contains "tree" in its title but looks like a series of horizontal blue dribbles. Art critics won't argue the artistic validity of such work, but I know plenty of other people who might.
If anything, the abstract artworks on display at AMA, all of them by 13 current Texas artists, come off as a solid, satisfying cross-section of abstract art's many levels: references to pop art and minimalism, expressionism and irony, traceable reference to events or objects as well as works with no objective core whatsoever, but an emotional core nonetheless. Nice that abstraction can pay homage to its purveyors -- as in Cynthia Lin's spattered, Pollock-like canvases or Ann Glazer's Kiefer-sootiness-meets-Rothenberg-underglow -- and still come off wholly new. Better still that some artists, Barber included, along with Aaron Baker (with his spatting, undulating relief critters) and Elliot Johnson (with his phrase-spouting weeds bound in ridiculously rococo frames), can continue to rethink and reinvent this vast genre.