12 artists go back to perceptual basics

In some respects the New York gallery world resembles a huge shopping center, the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, a junk-food emporium, and an expensive jewelry firm all rolled into one.

It is also where life-and-death struggles to succeed take place and where everything old, big, and successful will ultimately be challenged.

But to hundreds and thousand of artists it is simply where one shows one's art, hopefully for success and money, but mainly to have it seen and understood. Young and not so young, they come from all over to try to seek recognition. For some a show comes quickly, for others later or not at all.

Often, quite by accident, a number of them discover that they share similar ideas and viewpoints, and that a group show of their works would benefit them individually and collectively.

Such is the case with 12 artists currently exhibiting together at the Ericson Gallery in New York. Under the title "Painting as Percept," these painters have made a concerted bid to not only be seen and understood, but also to share with the public their vision of what they believe painting to be.

Insisting that painting's primary and central role is to activate and shape perceptual experience, these sensitive but determined artists turned their backs upon an art world becoming increasingly streamlined, seductive, and intricately inventive, and decided instead to focus their talents toward re-establishing the primacy of the perceptual act as the central issue of their art.

To do so they went back to basics, to the simplest forms, the most elemental relationships, and the most direct use of color. At first glance the general viewer may be more aware of what has been left out that what is in this art. Its utter simplicity and lack of affectation may startle and confuse. But a more careful look will reveal that what is missing is better off gone, for its presence would only have impeded the artists' intentions.

It is the act of seeing itself, the act of grappling with painterly procedures in the light of perceptual experience which is the true subject of these works and not anything the viewer might be looking at.m These paintings are intended to activate and to engage us in processes of perception unique to painting, and are not intended to entertain, to decorate, to represent, or to tell a tale.

An artist's primary drive is to transmit his unique consciousness to the world. All else is secondary, no matter how dramatic and important his apparent subject may appear. But there have to be agents through which he can do so, and traditionally these have taken two forms: the conventional symbol which has served as the over carrier of intent, and the craft, the medium, which has existed subliminally as the "hidden persuader."

Michelangelo used the symbols of Christianity, Rembrandt those of human compassion, and Cezanne those of natural order. But in this century things have not been so clear- cut. Today's artists not only have the problem of shaping their symbols, but of inventing them as well. Where a Raphael or a Constable, working within a living tradition, could "play" the human figure or a landscape the way a great musician play Mozarts or Bach, today's artist is increasingly confronted with the need to start from scratch, or to accept the rigid dogma of an emptied tradition, or the tyranny of physical appearance.

But an important number of today's artists reject these alternatives as not germane to the issues of 20th-century painting. Art, they insist, is not a matter of improvisation, blind obedience, or slavishness. Nor is it a matter of idiosyncratic egoism. Art has its laws, its realities, and its unique identity.

Why not, they ask, forget about painting symbols ofm something entirely, and concentrate on the "hidden persuader", the craft, the medium itself? Make the painting itself the "symbol" of its truest identity? And if painting's identity , its physical and emotive realities are uniquely qualified to activate and shape perceptual experience, then so be it. Let's paint pictures whose reason for being is the perceptual act itself.

Such was the intention of the 12 artists in this show, but what of the work itself?

My first impression was that these painters mean business, but that wasn't going to be an easy show to review. For one thing, although they share a common viewpoint, they do so in highly individualistic ways. No two of them are alike.

It is not easy to communicate the effectiveness of works whose outward manifestations consist of three rectangles or a diagonal slash, -- especially if those things are not what the paintings are about. And it makes little sense to insist that these forms and signs are merely clues to the work's identity because that is true of what is visible in all paintings. What really sets these works apart is their flat-out insistence that the viewer must concentrate on and be fully aware of the perceptual process or he gets nothing else -- no lovely landscape, edifying image, or handsome abstraction.

Sound dull and difficult? Not at all, for there are the works of 12 painters to enter and identify with. And most of them are more than worth the effort.m I found Kay Walkingstick's compact and pregnant incisions, Edwin Ruda's elegant curves, Stewart Hitch's imbeddedness, Thornton Willis's elegiac resonances, Richards Ruben's lightning gash, and Peter Pinchbeck's high-wire act particularly effective.

But that could very well be a matter of personal taste, for I found the work of the others, Nancy Brett, Gerald Horn, Vared Lieb, Thomas Nozkowski, Bobbie Oliver, and Herb Schiffrin no less successful in their own right.

They are a single-minded group and have, together with Anita Feldman who curated the show, assembled an exhibition very worthwhile visiting. It will be at the Ericson Gallery through Feb. 28.

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