Not art?

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.

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.

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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Christina Rees

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