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What relevance does painting have in contemporary art?

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As artists and critics gravitate toward conceptual, often arcane modes of expression, what relevance does painting have in contemporary art? In a review of the painting-sparse 2002 Whitney Biennial in the April 29th issue of The Nation, critic Arthur Danto observed that "whether someone can paint or draw is no more relevant than whether they can sew or cook," but that being an artist today "consists in having an idea and then using whatever means are necessary to realize it." Younger artists increasingly shun traditional painting and sculpture in favor of photography, installation, performance, and every new advancement in digital technology. Consequently, artists who are still devoted to the incremental gains of the studio are often looked upon as stubborn Luddites.

No doubt, much of the contempt arises from the very notion of the individual artist's solitary pursuit of art. In a recent lecture at the Memphis College of Art, author and critic Suzi Gablik reiterated the conventional wisdom that governs surveys like the Whitney, championing "socially conscious and participatory" forms of art and suggesting that the studio arts have long since exhausted themselves, even applying PC hubris to the purveyors of visual aesthetics as the "hegemony of the eye."

But not every artist or ideologue complies with that line of thinking, and alongside the reemerging dialogue regarding beauty, a corresponding esteem for painting is evident. If the local art houses are any indication of painting's status, it certainly shows no sign of endangerment. The following lists some of the high points:

Jason Story: I asked Story what he thought of Gablik's lecture. "Not much," he grumbled. "But then, I'm an artist." Story's "Reverie" series at the University of Memphis MFA Thesis exhibit is typified by a palette of narcotic pinks, peaches, and plums as well as a reeling flotsam of images. The collision of bubblegum color and arbitrary form casts a blurry-eyed wink at digital media and raised-on-TV information overload.

Larry Edwards: Everyone says "Pink Flamingos and Other Animals" at Jay Etkin Gallery is a tame show by Edwards' incendiary standards, and while no trademark severed heads make an appearance, dark sentiments do abound. The artist painted this year's Memphis In May poster, and considering Argentina's financial and political upheavals of late, perhaps Edwards' sinister narratives are all too apropos. The scorching pink and yellow hues of Misstep in the Flamingo Room raise the temperature of the abject violence depicted, even as a gaggle of nearby flamingos passively ignores the aggression. One can only wonder what issues inspired Abandoned Baby, which depicts a swaddled infant helplessly lying in the high grass as a horde of crows descends upon it.

Kathleen Holder: The pictures by Holder currently on view at David Lusk Gallery are intended to invite contemplation. The "Temenos" series embodies elements germane to spiritual symbolism and meditative absorption: bifurcated symmetry, monochromatic surfaces, and elusive, ghostlike apparitions. The crimson that glows at the center of Temenos V is seemingly illumined from within, and what appears as a navel or nipple that one would swear is embossed upon the surface of the plane is in fact illusory.

Bruce Brainard: Also at David Lusk Gallery, Brainard's traditional brand of landscape painting also invites contemplation but focuses on the beauty and majesty of God's creation. The sun dramatically pierces the clouds at dusk in Evergreen Skyline, a painting which showcases Brainard's deft handling of the oil medium, especially with regard to the simple yet deliberate à la prima technique. The artist exhibits this same confidence throughout, but the perched orb of the sun in the middle of Recognition, milking that same bifurcated symmetry, aims for sacred profundity that comes off more as corny sentiment.

"In Celebration of Spring": The present show at Delta Axis @ Marshall Arts is also built around the tradition of the landscape but much more loosely than Brainard's work. For instance, Arista Alanis' pictures, like Six Blocks Away, explode with Technicolor brashness and painterly crudeness and could otherwise fall into the category of Ab-Ex painting but what gorgeous surfaces. Susan Maakestad, on the other hand, exhibits intellectual and emotional coolness in the simplification of the landscape into horizontal sectors divided by a horizon. John Dilg is likewise cool in Wilderness, in which a fallen tree and stump are rendered with clinical precision. n

U of M MFA Thesis Exhibit through June 8th; Larry Edwards at Jay Etkin Gallery through June 7th; Kathleen Holder and Bruce Brainard at David Lusk Gallery through June 1st; "In Celebration of Spring" at Delta Axis @ Marshall Arts through June 18th.

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