A Breed Apart: Artists Reinterpret Abstraction

Washington's Corcoran Gallery opens its 42nd biennial exhibition

THE Corcoran Gallery's Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, which has been scanning the horizons for the latest gasp in art for 84 years now, has just opened. This time, at the 42nd biennial, it focuses on systematic abstraction, which is far from earlier abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko with his clouds of color or Jackson Pollock's storms of paint.This year's show, as Corcoran director David Levy says in the catalog "examines the proposition that there is a resurgence of abstraction in American painting." It departs from a regional focus over the last eight years and returns to a national canvas. The show's curator, Terri Sultan, Corcoran curator of contemporary art, puts it this way in the catalog: "After a decade-long resurgence of figurative and nonrepresentational painting deeply indebted to the established formal vocabulary of abstract expressionism, the artists in this exhibit provide a point of departure from this premise.... In short, these artists view their art as a fusion between an act which holds its own creation as its ultimate content and an activity that throughout history has ser ved as a means of communication." Among the 13 artists whose work is seen here are some who communicate creatively. Nancy Chunn, whose large paintings picture history on colorful and imaginative maps: "China III: Era of Division: 316 to 589 A.D.," shows us a mocha brown map of China with a large shell-shaped segment in lima-bean green and crimson; invaders on horseback carry long bows, spears, lances. Michael Miller of Houston seems to be as fascinated with blue and yellow stripes in patterns with blue and yellow bull's eyes as Josef Albers, with squares within squares. Tishan Hsu of Hudson, N.Y., provides a painterly message in a huge Blue Cross hospital form on which mouths and eyes appear. New Yorker Eldridge Rawls communicates through a painting that looks like a gray double-breasted overcoat out for a stroll. In "Disappearance and Return: #17", Sabina Ott of Los Angeles communicates using large w hite roses that seem to be bleeding crimson, ruby, and cherry paint. Some of the artists communicate more through their titles than paintings: Lari Pittman of Los Angeles has painted "Transcendental and Needy" which contains symbols meaningful to him, including a rust and white owl crying enormous tears. In "Decoy" Irene Pijoan of Rodeo, Calif., floats pink, peach, raspberry, and black blocks on a gray-green background. The picture is more in the title in Lydia Dona's "Fear of Falling Into the Lack, the Dream of Language, and the Ruptures of the Flood," a series of triangles and squares. Willy Heeks communicates in a slow-motion style. It's after you've left a room full of them that the soft backlighting and graceful curves begin to haunt you, pull you back. The show also includes L.C. Armstrong, of Brooklyn, N.Y., who paints with carbon paper ("A Month of Sundays"); Judy Mannarino of New York, who paints a blue, gold, red and white mystery in "Venetian Dogs Or All Because Your Back Was Broken"; Thomas Eric Stanton of Oakland, Calif., who translates William Blake's light into contemporar y terms; and Andrea Way of Washington, D.C., whose "Malachite" turns stones into painting. The exhibition continues at the Corcoran until Nov. 10.

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