The Art of Painting Plywood

Artists today are exploiting the patterns of the grain as part of their imagery

`PLYWOOD is today's marble,'' states artist John Torreano, drawing a parallel between Michelangelo's visits to the quarry to select the most beautifully veined marble for his sculptures and the contemporary artist's visits to the lumberyard to choose intriguingly grained sheets of plywood for his paintings. The parallel is not as far-fetched as it sounds, as can be seen in a fascinating exhibition at the Whitney Museum's Park Avenue branch here. More than half of the 17 artists represented in ``With The Grain: Contemporary Panel Painting'' paint on plywood. The rest use one or another kind of wood as a surface on which to paint or as a vital component in their work's construction.

Roni Feinstein, the show's organizer, explains in the catalog, ``Today ... it appears that more artists are working on wood panels than at any point since the late 15th century, and many are doing so in monumental scale.'' She went on to point out that today's artists are using wood panels ``in a manner unprecedented in the history of art: rather than cover or obscure the wood with paint, they are permitting not only the wood but its grain to show through and are exploiting the patterns of the grain as an integral part of their imagery.''

She also notes that wood, unlike canvas, isn't just a ``blank slate.'' The grain ``gives the artist a ready-made pattern, something found and outside the self to respond to and to work from.''

A perfect example is the work of Carroll Dunham, one of the first artists to paint on grained wood surfaces. Dunham works improvisationally on thin sheets of veneer mounted on plywood or plastic. In the case of pine veneer, he circles the knots and then connects the circles with a variety of lines that gradually create ambiguous patterns over the painting's surface. When some of these begin to suggest more solid shapes, Dunham expands them into semi-abstract, organ-like objects that vaguely resemble forms found in some Surrealist canvases. ``Pine Gap,'' which was painted on two vertical strips of pine veneer bracketing a slightly narrower panel of elm, also seems to have taken its cue from the way comic strips are drawn and colored.

Torreano, on the other hand, uses the illusionism inherent in wood grain to suggest infinite, cosmic space, and to play sophisticated games with spatial illusion. ``Red Ball, Black Ball'' consists of a number of fake round gems and multicolored wood hemispheres inserted into holes gouged out of the panel's surface after it had been painted brick red and black and sanded to expose some of the grain and the warm tone of the plywood. The result: a work that appears decorative at first glance but is transformed into a provocative, deep-space ``star-scape'' the moment one is about to dismiss it.

Jim Napierala produces subtle and suggestive icon-like works that are totally ``abstract'' in form and ``subliminally'' religious in effect. This icon-like quality is never clearly defined, but is achieved by the stark simplicity of his imagery and the perfect balance of his forms, textures, and colors. His claim that an early Christian icon of a Madonna and Child that survived a fire in Poland had an important influence on his art is easy to believe - even though there's not one shred of direct evidence to prove it in his handsome, nonrepresentational work.

A totally different approach can be found in Julie Fromme's delightfully goofy ``Onionhead.'' This panel also takes advantage of wood's surface features - one of its subject's eyes was originally a knot. But Ms. Fromme also uses thickly textured and striated paint that seems, at times, to have a wonderfully physical existence all its own.

Also outstanding are Ray Smith's large painting of a reclining nude being entertained by several remarkably athletic frogs; Michael Byron's oddly disconcerting ``A Fool's Goodbye No. 2''; Robert Helm's surreal ``Wind on Monday''; and Michael Mazur's sensitively worked-up landscape, ``Confluence,'' which takes the greatest possible advantage of what can be ``seen'' in the linear patterns of wood grain.

More interesting and provocative than anything in it, however, is the exhibition itself. It's a ``theme'' show that makes wonderful sense and that proves as attractive as it is challenging.

It also has a handsome catalog with a memorable text by Ms. Feinstein that ends: ``One wonders whether, in certain respects, the widespread exploitation of wood and the patterns of wood grain in recent art may not be a contemporary alternative to the Cartesian grid that helped artists of the '60s and '70s achieve a controlled rationality and coolness. Wood-grain patterns, by contrast, are fluid and unpredictable, appropriate to a time in which artists are once again seeking an emotional and allusive art that responds both to the demands of culture and the natural world.''

At the Whitney Museum branch at Park Avenue and 42nd Street, through Sept. 26.

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