Not art?

The Arlington museum stokes the timeless debate over the artistry of abstract painting

I have my own establishment, of course (what critic doesn't?): Dana Frankfort's sloppy mini-canvases of oil-painted text are derivative of Sean Landers' trend without his insight, and I can't stomach her quasi-humorous and thoughtful words ("Sooo"), however morphed, as abstract art. Abstract of what? A half-baked sentence? No essence or evocation of anything in sight, yet no bleed-through emotion to make up for that void, either. Maybe these works belong in another show. Maybe not. Once Frankfort leaves out the text and builds the canvas paint, as with her densely pigmented and far moodier "Are," she's finally on the right track.

And Monica Pierce's and Trish Lewandowsky's works were so alike, I swore I was seeing two series by the same artist; perhaps they're roommates or soulmates or something. Both hit upon serene and ethereal compositions using pale, watery color; both paint on wood panels of about the same size, and in series. That AMA curator Joan Davidow chose to showcase these two artists in the same room is understandable; otherwise viewers might wonder who she's trying to kid. Though why she chose both of these artists for the same show is a mystery, given the hundreds of abstract artists out there as visually gratifying as the needlessly repetitive Pierce and Lewandowsky.

Local favorite Vincent Falsetta's newest canvases are a spontaneous, muscular departure for an artist normally so ob-comp in his detailing. Here, he's squeegeed thick stacks of combined-color paint, assertively shingling them across the canvas, then he's cut and anchored this background with stacked grayscale stripes. It's immediately eye- and gut-filling without being at all coarse or predictable.

David Quadrini's "Throwing Good Paint After Bad" mocks and romanticizes heavy ornamentation.
David Quadrini's "Throwing Good Paint After Bad" mocks and romanticizes heavy ornamentation.


Through September 4

(817) 275-4600

Arlington Museum of Art

Scott Barber's thickly pastel cartoon landscapes, populated by amorphous aliens spouting questionable body fluid at one another, is part Schmoo, part David Cronenberg (that elongated drip of mucous suspended between two swaying creatures evokes half of his films, at least), or perhaps Dr. Seuss meets David Lynch. However relentlessly sugary and innocuous the palette, a creepy, erotic exoticism seeps through its surface.

And Lorraine Tady's "Aerial," a huge, absolutely bulletproof example of balance and intuition, builds on the most crucial elements of traditional abstract painting. In the monster grid of browns and blacks, you not only sense the roadways and alleys and buildings of a town, you sense the energy and warmth of the place, see the low sun glinting off the high parts of its elements in cool slices of blue and red and yellow. It's not a town -- it's the soul of a town.

While the abstract work of an individual artist usually settles into a specific aesthetic (we know a Rothko, a Motherwell, a Marden when we see one), at least in the realm of a single work, a few artists here thumb their noses at cohesion and go for interior variety. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. While Elliot Johnson frames his formally painted weeds and twigs in gold leaf and dark velvet, he also has them spew comic-strip word balloons filled with horrid relationship clichés, e.g., "What happened between us was a mistake." Johnson is introducing a wrenching little incongruity we've never seen before, and it's as repulsive as it is funny. By contrast, when Jackie Tileston dumps her very-Barber, very gooey and immediate creatures across a receding and watery atmospheric galaxy, it comes off as an accidental spill -- both foreground and background losing all context and therefore potential visual power.

But that's the clincher, and well illustrated throughout the AMA show: Abstract art, being about essence rather than tangibles, offers inexhaustible routes to visual communication. A viewer, no matter how suspicious of abstract art he may be, is likely to find in this show at least one artist's work he can dig into and consider (Grandma notwithstanding). And hopefully, in tandem, this viewer will cast a more generous eye on the adjacent stuff he -- or his personal establishment -- might otherwise dismiss.

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