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by John Zinsser
|"Glee: Painting Now," Sept. 24, 2000-Jan. 7, 2001, at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, 258 Main St., Ridgefield, Conn. 06877.
Bored of fall foliage in all its splendor? Take a side trip to the Aldrich Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., and check out "Glee: Painting Now," running through Jan. 7, 2001. It's a terrific survey of young painting, heavy on loud unnatural color, hard-edged graphics and high-tech painting procedures.
The museum, founded in 1964 by collector Larry Aldrich, is housed in a spacious, converted 18th-century home with an unassuming white clapboard exterior. A noncollecting institution devoted to contemporary art, it's known for timely survey shows.
Organized by Amy Cappellazzo, a curator from the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art and Jessica Hough of the Aldrich, "Glee" does what the Whitney Biennial refuses to -- it presents gallery after gallery of "just" painting in a show that explores common generational themes.
Twenty artists are featured -- Franz Ackermann, Ricci Albenda, Pedro Barbeito, Linda Besemer, Alexandra Blau, Greg Bogin, Alex Brown, Ingrid Calame, Sharon Ellis, Jeff Elrod, Carl Fudge, Wayne Gonzales, Peter Halley, Jim Isermann, Sarah Morris, Stephen Mueller, Albert Oehlen, Monique Prieto, John F. Simon, Jr. and Yek.
Many of these artists seem to take their inspiration, or even new means of working, in computer technologies. Other strong influences include graphic design of the 1960s and 1970s, the powerful legacy of color field and a healthy lingering fascination with psychedelic experience. Cold objectivity often replaces a sense of hands-on touch. The sum effect is post-ironic, yet knowing.
Whiz-kid science is Pedro Barbeito's subject. His large tondo, Scanning Electron Micrograph (1998), consists of a concentric graphpaper-like grid with sculptural color chip appliques. Taking his cues from leader-of-the-pack Matthew Ritchie (who's not in the show), Barbeito turns systems imaging into an iconography of personal obsession (think nerd Alfred Jenson.) Unfortunately, too much exposed canvas with tiny, hard-to-see marks makes this work materially and retinally unsatisfying. The didactic language strains to become visceral, but doesn't make it.
Jeff Elrod's Steppenwolf (2000) packs more immediate punch. Areas of flat acrylic brown and white, defined by crisp black lines, make for lively interplay between positive and negative space. The calligraphic quality is antic, but halting, with the pixillated feel of having been drawn by a computer mouse. Also effective is Elrod's large-scale Wicked Ass (1998-2000) which freely borrows its color (blue and white) and form (a single floating bird) from Matisse's paper cut-outs. So why does it end up looking like a mid-1960s Helen Frankenthaler?
As an influence, Frankenthaler is a painter so un-chic that she's become reverse-chic. Her stamp is also present in Monique Prieto's forgiving take on Color Field. In Made to Order (1998), hard-edged blobs of flat color adopt friendly cartoon personalities, always verging on snapping into the representational. Large areas of exposed canvas allow for plenty of breathing room. In the more intimate Sunset Special (1996), the sun appears as an enormous egg yolk, floating bloated and malevolent over a neat prismatic arrangement of squashed rectangles.
Greg Bogin's The Hospitality Industry (2000), looks like a "supergraphic" right out of a 1970s roller rink (picture Scott Baio standing in front of it in tight jeans and you get the picture). The acrylic and enamel surface is so clean that it looks more like a decal than paint. Also oddly affecting is Have a Nice Day (2000), an egg-shaped canvas with floating rectangles that has all the domestic overtones of a futuristic bachelor pad.
Ingrid Calame's enamel-on-aluminum landscapes are so flat, so objectified, that they immediately look like Warhol's "do it yourself" series of paint-by-number works of the early 1960s. Calame uses a fractal-quality line to render foliage exploding like fireworks. Thanks to dense overlappings, spatial readings open up. Pollock's drips and splashes are referenced as frozen animated gestures. Balloons of color are caught mid-explosion. And with titles such as hnggnh-hnggnh-hnggnh, what's not to like?
Alexander Brown takes naturalism in another direction. In his gridded oil works, a viewer is given the impression of seeing the world through a filter of glass block. Photographic in quality, they feel like Gerhard Richter's view from his shower stall.
Also alluding to the bathroom experience are Linda Besemer's paintings, sheets of acrylic that fold over what looks like a polished steel towel rack (perhaps this is why they've been such a hit in Los Angeles). The clean-edged optical stripe language of Brit Op great Bridget Riley is carried over into a utilitarian design object. Does anyone but me remember Mark Stahl's towel rack pieces of the 1980s?
Carl Fudge takes apart decorative art motifs to reconstruct a personal iconography of allover fancy-free patterning. He wins the award for best painting title in show: The cat both dead and alive (2000). Fudge uses slice-and-dice methods to allude to the changed velocity of our shared visual experience.
Albert Oehlen is an elder statesmen in this show -- as well as an outsider as a European in a field of Americans. He has chucked aside his more heartfelt language of biomorphic abstraction in favor of ink-jet printer cyberscapes. He seems to have internalized Cy Twombly, then the semiotic signs of Times Square, and produced this pop graphic hybrid. The black-and-white Easter Nudes (1996), is especially sharp, with a nod to East Village conceptual painter Peter Nagy.
More willfully kitschy is Sharon Ellis, whose neo-psychedelic works seem downright schmaltzy in this tough company. Her Mysterium presents two female eyes floating over a sea of cherry red and black starbursts. It looks like an ad for a Siegfried and Roy Las Vegas magic show.
John Simon, Jr., skips traditional painting media and support altogether, mounting his Macintosh PowerBook G3 directly to the wall. His software program makes a grid that looks like city traffic seen from the air. Think Mondrian's Broadway Boogie-Woogie of 1942-43 updated as a screen-saver.
Also of note is Peter Halley, who is the sole holdover from the Aldrich's 1987 show "Post-Abstract Abstraction." Here's a chameleon trick: his paintings always look the same, while the context around them shifts to accommodate. It must be said that his cooler-than-thou formalism better fits the mood of this moment, so he should be seen as forward-thinking.
Sarah Morris continues to look terrific with her enamel-on-canvas adaptations of midtown office facades. They're unabashedly representational, yet with taut, controlled color and the élan of perfect execution.
Wayne Gonzales, another rising talent, looks strong with his off-register colors and labor-intensive painting processes.
Dinosaur Stephen Mueller's New Age-flavored works now feature soft gridded backgrounds that look like fuzzy kilts. His biomorphic forms have come to resemble thrift-store hippie handbags floating in air. What's that about?
Lastly, trendy L.A. object-maker Jim Isermann is an odd man out, with his flat applique wall graphics that have the exact look and color scheme of a United Airlines ticketing counter. What's the matter, Jim, couldn't knit a painting?
The exhibition travels to the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art, Feb. 3-April 15, 2001.
JOHN ZINSSER is a New York painter and writer.