The color of money

Something makes me suspicious of these paintings, though at first glance I like them. At last glance I like them also--swoon over them, in fact, for at least a moment. But somewhere in between the initial and parting glances, I feel uneasy, disconcerted by their unquestioning confidence, as though what lies beneath the layers of paint and lacquer is dumb or dull, rather than real and emotional. Artist Susan Sales has her shtick down pat after less than a decade of painting, and while her large and small abstracts sell better than cold beer on a hot day, I wonder if collectors are missing something. There's a mismatch between the visual punch of the works and their psychological core, a skewed dynamic, an insidious and awkward discrepancy that seems unplanned--overlooked by both the artist and her followers. But if all they're shopping for is glorified wallpaper or nicely composed eye candy, buyers will do well here: Sometimes art doesn't have to be anything more than something to look at. Right? Though we usually call that decoration.

Granted, just over a year ago during Sales' last one-woman show at Craighead-Green Gallery, a buddy and I walked through the exhibit and made a list (a yeah-you-wish list, really) of the pieces we'd buy, if only we had the cash. Sales' superficial aesthetic evokes Rothko and de Kooning--in their less tortured moments, obviously--the fluidity, the slick density of the shapes and colors, and the gorgeous subtlety of the lined colorplanes were irresistible that night.

So here she is again, back at Craighead-Green with more works in tow, which, on the surface, are as visually satisfying as those in the last show, but their lack of emotional core is more noticeable this time. Still great dive-in-for-a-swim depth; thick, glassy oil wash; and wonderful putrid greens and acrid reds and pithy blues that transcend the inherent ugliness of their tones (even the flat meanness of black) to become something surprisingly graceful and tranquil. That's quite a trick, and one of Sales' fortes, and while she's gotten away from the buried-grid theme of last year's work and moved into purer gestural color field, her color choices and brushwork still imitate the abstract expressionist tradition. "When was this painted?" someone might ask, and the answer might as well be "around 1954." She could be Rothko's happy-go-lucky niece, a new kind of traditionalist who would no more slash her own wrists than Big Bird would.

The power tool of Sales' paintings is the superior glossiness, so thick and viscous that while you can see the brushstrokes, see the actual layering of colors and shapes, you couldn't touch their texture if you tried. They're essentially encased in lacquered washes and sandings and more washes, topped off by a varnish that might as well be a real glass shield. It's a great effect, a technique that gives the works the biggest chunk of their visual interest, and perhaps what deceives people into thinking there's more going on here than there really is.

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If you saw and liked the grids from before, you won't miss them here. Her motif is more central and sturdy now--thick, hefty planes of layered single color taking up the majority of the canvas, with the underlying counter-tones and brushwork showing from behind around the planes' edges. It's implied and built-in framing. It's nice to see an artist trying new things, however small the risk (seeing grids again this year might have really stoked some suspicion of her motives: "I sold all the grids last year. I'm gonna do more grids"); again, most all the works have sold, and the happy new owners get to take this stuff home in time for the holidays. Gift-wrapping for the townhouse drywall.

Sales' story may be telling. After years as a standard yuppie in the corporate haze of Los Angeles, she once helped a friend do some interior decoration, and bam!--she suddenly wanted to paint. So she packed up in 1990 and moved out to Santa Fe. No training, no formal art education, yet she found her calling. The incredible balance and tonal interplay in her works expose her formidable visual instinct. Her late coming to art reveals what the paintings whisper: her drive to express inner life is secondary, if even an issue. No catharsis here, no irony either. Yuppie painter. Painting yuppie. A classic case of style over substance, and not in the wink-wink-nudge-nudge way of other style-only freaks. (Peter Cain and Jeff Koons come to mind.) If you're looking for angst, compulsion, or wit, or works that are creepingly informed by an artist's reckoning with long-term art history, or paintings that hold your gaze forever as you search them for answers about humanity, look elsewhere.

The DMA has some nice de Koonings.

Susan Sales is at Craighead-Green Gallery through December 20. 2404 Cedar Springs, Ste. 700. Call (214) 855-0779.

Mosquito-infested, smelly, littered stretches of beige beach; brackish tides polluted with red algae and decomposing fish. Let's face it: the Texas coastline is pathetic against the world's other beaches, even others facing the Gulf of Mexico. We've been warned by the media never again to eat raw oysters from these waters; we've run away cursing from waves infested with Portuguese man-of-wars; we've glared at the murky brown tide and willed it to turn azure blue. No go.

There is a precarious beauty in truth, though, and a heightened truth in interpretation. Hell, one person's reality is as valid as the next, and whichever reality looks cooler--I say go with that one. Ann Stautberg's giant photo-portraits of her Galveston homescape don't glorify the region, they just roll it back at us in an enhanced haze. These are monumental, deal-with-this visions of the humble and mundane, and the juxtapositions are stunning. The water or the docks or palm trees in her work look, at first glance, exactly like the South Texas we take for granted. But Stautberg's reconstitution of these--actually huge photographs that she painstakingly hand colorizes--creates an effect so ominous and moody that you wonder if the artist has access to a parallel universe. They seem familiar yet oddly tweaked, memory-laden but nonetheless unsettling--like dreaming about the house you grew up in, and while you know it's your house, it isn't. You walk though a dream like that very carefully, because that house could break apart at the seams anytime, sprout arms and legs, rain from the ceiling. Stautberg's skies threaten to burst into thunderstorms, her squat palm trees threaten to lean in the high wind, her distant seagull threatens to squawk. It's beautiful and a tiny bit creepy.

Four of her newest works are on display at Barry Whistler Gallery, and though she's using a slightly different camera, and has shifted from more symmetrical layouts and medium shots to something more horizontal and landscape-ish, she's still exploring the coastal theme she began a few years back: Powerlines lacing through filtered, cloudy skies over a gravel road and standing water. A floating, decaying dock offshore, the far side of the bay mute and grainy in the distance. She's been creating these not quite photorealistic images for more than two decades now. Coming from a trained background of painting, printmaking, and photography, it's no wonder she's combined these media to produce such singular documentations.

The hand-coloring of the prints is her powerstroke, and as she favors the hand-colorists' traditional grays and blues and browns and muddy greens, the effect--when not borderline tense--can float toward a warmer nostalgia: sepia-tinged, gracefully faded, an early-century photogravure, or a carefully colorized MGM oldie. It's a perfect aesthetic for a beach, given its natural cultivation of memory and sentimentality, vacations, events, and symbolic crossings. Just as you can hear the approaching thunder, you can almost spot a WWII aircraft carrier anchored far off the horizon, waiting for either the war to start or Stautberg's dream to end.

Ann Stautberg is at Barry Whistler Gallery, 2909 Canton, through January 9. Call (214) 939-0242.

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