Driven to abstraction

The dog days of August are national gallery blackout time. From the alternative spaces scattered throughout Los Angeles to the polished venues of Manhattan's Chelsea district, it seems everyone's closed up shop to take a breather before the big fall openings. But while art dealers--a self-serving lot if there ever was one--vacation in the Hamptons, re-surface their gallery walls, and argue over what kind of wine to serve during September's press parties, the museums of the world trudge on, unblinking and uninterrupted. Granted, the crowds are smaller; school field trips are scarce, and sensible adults shrink from driving their boiling cars to anything so frivolous as a museum, yet the show must go on. And museums baking under the metroplex sun are no exception.

The Arlington Museum of Art has launched a show that not only straddles the dead time, but given its through-September run, will also compete with the slew of early-autumn local gallery openings, often the hottest shows of the year. Understanding that, we can only hope that the art on the walls in Arlington is potent enough to hold its own against both kinds of heat. The jury's in: some of it's good, some of it ain't. But it nobly gives us folks starving for art something to chew on in the meantime.

A Cool Show: abstract painting, it's called. About half of the works in this ambitious group exhibition are cool, the way minimalist abstraction is meant to be cool, from punchy eye candy to smooth evocations to unsettling abrasion. Other works are dull, failures in that they're meant to provoke but don't. But the works that work really do, and just as curator Joan Davidow can take responsibility for showing the mundane, she also gets points for showcasing Mark Cole, Kathleen Packlick, Ted Kincaid, and Kirk McCarthy--a solid cross-section of excellent regional artists. These four deal in a quietly deceptive language; at first glance, their works look chilly, nonrevealing, but just beyond the composure lurks something creepy, or comical, or musical--depending on the artist and his or her chosen dialect.

Abstract art, by its unapologetic, non-descriptive nature, is pretty hard to show in these parts--North Texans like their art all warm and concrete and explainable, excepting the mild, sugary color-field canvases that soothe their stressed gazes as they wait in line at the bank. The non-figurative genres--including post-painterly abstraction and minimalism--peaked well before 1960 in New York with the likes of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. But here, the zeitgeist for art movements has always been sluggish; sluggish may be too kind a word for the Bible Belt's tendency to ignore the movement--perhaps hostile is better. You gotta love the fighting spirit of a Texas artist who takes the abstract road--he's like a kid going against his dad's order that he attend medical school to join the circus instead--though the admiration increases (or plummets) relative to his talent as a lion-tamer. A few of the artists in A Cool Show might have been better off as residents at Parkland, though there's no reason to sling mud if we can devote space to the worthy ones.

Most refreshing are the works of Mark Cole; the large dual-tone polyurethane paintings could be tossed into the "bank art" vault if they weren't so unnerving in their placidness. Thickly glossy to oil-slick reflection, they stare out at you in amusingly mild pastels--meek blue floating atop non-committal gray, flat beige crowing pithy yellow. Despite their impressive size and high shine, they're intentionally flawed, bearing scuffs and scrapes and looking nearly walked-upon (though the subtler the better). There's something nostalgic in their manner--the colors evoke mid-'60s lawn furniture or kitchen countertops, but the flaws puncture the neatness of such sentiment: Uncle Bob was spitting drunk and leering at the girls at that childhood pool party, wasn't he?

Kathleen Packlick's series also flirts with unremarkable evenness yet just escapes flatlining--a group of 18 framed paper panels arranged in a neat grid and decorated with egg tempura paint--all black, white, gray, and sienna tones laid across the small planes in organic patterns. Textures, really: echoing grids, circles, hatch marks, stripes. Taken individually, these could come off as fleeting brush-stroke experiments ("what does this thick sable one do?"), but working together, a soothing visual rhythm emerges. Behind the series' simplistic format lies a sort of timeless, exotic interpretation of the life cycle, in the end, reminiscent of Asian calligraphic tradition or Russian Suprematism. Sofa-art-turned-intimate, decoration-turned-meaningful.

Ted Kincaid also veers toward black and white, modest size, and neat frames, but his abstractions are severely mutated photographs. Sporting deadpan titles like "Three Moving Orbs," "Small Random Orbs," and "Approaching Orbs," apt descriptions for the unnameable, blackish blurred objects hovering on pale backgrounds, his works could be detail studies from the FBI files on the skies above Area 51, or manipulated snapshots stolen from National Enquirer "exposes" on UFOs and the Loch Ness monster. Mute, winking, languorous--they're as satisfying as they are puzzling, existing as much as wall punctuation as punch lines to today's (or the '50s', or the '70s') fascination with all things alien.

Kirk McCarthy breaks up the museum walls with slimy aplomb--giant sheets of urethane rubber drip down in heavy relief. Sharing Cole's penchant for nose-thumbing faint pastels, McCarthy makes his undulating vertical panels nearly skin-like, though skinned from what creature you can only imagine. These, too, would seem innocuous if they weren't so menacing in their scale and indefinable texture: half- organic, half-synthetic, waxy, rippling, silently repellent. And on the stairwell, you're confronted with another brand of the same: long, slender coils of garish, flesh-hued rubber laid in a limp bundle over a rod suspended from the ceiling. It looks not quite dead, like it could sting if you touched it.

There are at least eight other artists showcased here, with a few notables: Constance Lowe's way of attaching sterile steel handles to wall-hung boxy surfaces evokes medical examination tables--red rhinestones dotted across their surfaces bring to mind the ugly accidents that might have occurred on them, although she might push all elements to better effect. Robert Caslin's black and white striped canvases evoke Sean Scully or Brice Marden's obsession with streaky verticals, and add an op-art element by alternating gray-scale shades so that from a distance, the surfaces look stepped. In all, A Cool Show offers ample late-summer fodder for those interested in some regional art, just as it grants temporary relief from the annual gallery drop-off.

A Cool Show: abstract painting is at the Arlington Museum of Art through October 17. Call (817) 275-4600.

One more thing...
Who's the fairest? The Emergency Artists' Support League (EASL), a nonprofit group that provides financial assistance to North Texas visual artists, has another cool fundraiser coming up. This year's theme, "Mirror, Mirror," continues EASL's tradition of having at least 200 noted artists design, build, and donate an object for the silent auction. So mirrors it is--expect some bizarre ones, some beautiful ones, some comical ones--priced everywhere from shamefully affordable to shamelessly not (last year's auction, boasting hand-made tables, lamps, and chairs-"TLC"-brought in more than $30,000). Always a great cause, always a great party, it takes place Monday, August 31, at the Contemporary Art Center in Fort Worth. For more info, call (972) 732-2692.