Art » Art Feature

Tutti Frutti

"Max 2001" is all about fun and frivolity.



After much anticipation, the Art Museum of the University of Memphis and Delta Axis have unveiled "Max 2001: All About Paint," an extravaganza of big, bold, slick, and sexy art that packs quite a visual wallop. No heavy agendas here; instead, one might say the emphasis is on fun and lightheartedness. Fuzzy textures, hard-edged graphics, and plenty of ooey-gooey lumps all appeal to the sensual, especially apparent in the abundance of eye-scorching pink. The show's title may be a little misleading. Several hardcore painters are certainly featured, but curator Holly Block defines the subject of paint rather loosely to encompass sculpture, video, photography, performance, installation, and even conceptual art.

Block, the executive director of Art in General in Manhattan, has upped the ante with this Max, the third manifestation of the exhibit. "Max 1998" and "Max 1999," curated by Kim Levin and Buzz Spector respectively, were exclusively regional affairs relying on slide images and studio visits to select artists -- a course of action that resulted more or less in survey exhibits. Although she used a similar method of recruitment, Block brings to her theme of paint the works of artists from all over the nation and beyond, and these mix quite comfortably with regional offerings. Certainly this international roster of artists adds an air of prestige to the exhibit, especially when several have accumulated impressive résumés. More importantly, this fusion presents an opportunity to relate the art issues and practices of the region to a wider cultural context.

Paul Henry Ramirez of Mexico sets the festive tone of this exhibit with a goliath scroll painting. Spread II perches majestically above the ensemble of art objects in the main gallery, unfurling down the wall into a heap on the floor -- a pretty brash way to mount a painting. The imagery is even more indelicate: A fractured diagram of flesh, hair, and squirting bodily fluids is rendered with a taut graphic style that seems to revel in lavish ornament, while large pools of flat color outlined by svelte ribbons of black heighten the architectonic qualities of the picture. Ramirez is enjoying a growing reputation for his art; one of his paintings even graces the cover of the current issue of Art Papers, reflecting the art world's love affair these days with all things beautiful. "Max 2001," as a whole, is likewise tinged with this pervasive sentiment.

If any paintings in this exhibit can hold their own next to Ramirez's extroverted image, they are Hamlett Dobbins' two luscious offerings nearby. It is paint that is Dobbins' passion, and looking at the striped Glimpse, one is swept up in the excitement of his piquant palette of neutral pinks, yellows, and beige. The artist has never been one to scrimp on paint, and he likewise lays it on thick here, but do I dare detect a newfound deliberateness in its application that borders on the slick? For HH (the stillness of skin) is a delightful pink-on-pink affair -- not rose, not mauve but the pinks of pink Cadillacs, Double-Bubble, and Pepto-Bismol. Pink Panther pink. This painting looks delicious enough to eat.

A bead or two of dribbled paint greets one at the entrance to the building and then follows a path to the museum inside, terminating with a leaky can of paint stuck to the gallery wall. A label beside the affixed can and runny trickle says that this is a work of art from the oeuvre of Francis Alÿs. Titled The Leak, it undoubtedly springs from the artist's past performances in which he took short treks carrying an upturned, punctured can of paint, marking a path that concludes where it begins. Alÿs could not come to Memphis to do the piece himself, so Block was the stand-in for a proxy performance. The notion of purposely spilling pigment from a ruptured vessel while following someone else's prescribed scheme, no matter how meaningful the intent, seems both ludicrous and pretentious, especially when its most enduring consequence will likely be what's left on the carpet after the show is over. Besides that, speaking as an aspiring Pollock myself, not just anybody can drip paint.

It might seem unusual to include photographs in an exhibit about paint but not when you're talking about the work of Phillip Andrew Lewis and Martina Shenal, two artists who utilize the medium with a painter's perspective. Shenal exhibits images from her recent show with Lewis at the Second Floor Contemporary Gallery, but it's never too soon to once again admire these beautifully austere images of objects veiled by scrim. Lewis breaks out a new triad of images of the Mississippi River floodplain, transforming the horizontal bands of the landscape into a sensuous gradient of azure, in which form is dissipated into pure radiant color.

When I heard that Roxy Paine was going to be in "Max 2001," my jaw dropped. I couldn't believe it. I had seen his contribution to "010101: Art in Technological Times" at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) just a few weeks prior. Paine's Scumak seems well-suited to that exhibit's theme of exploring the integration of art and technology, because one literally walks into a computer-operated sculpture factory. A high-tech machine slowly oozes a viscous mass into a lazy lump on a conveyor belt then sends it down the line to an accumulating stockpile of similar soft sculptures, with the production's limited set of variables all handled by a lil' laptop computer. Ironically, the only humans necessary are the ones guarding the merchandise and fancy hardware.

It is something of an anticlimax to see Paine's lumps at "Max 2001" sans the spectacle of the SFMOMA installation. Scumak (4) is a nice enough set of specimens from the production, with that characteristic shape somewhat akin to a lava flow or soft-serve ice cream. Perhaps part of the disappointment lies in the objects themselves. Because in the context of witnessing their origin, one's attention is fixed upon the manner of production, while the objects themselves are ephemeral, a remnant, one as valid (or not) as the next. As art objects, they're delightfully indulgent, tactually inviting yet mind-numbingly arbitrary.

Gee, there is so much other remarkable work and so little space left. Arturo Herrera's stunning Say Seven is a bolt of brown felt meticulously cut into a shape that resembles a splash of chocolate syrup dripping off the wall. Les Christensen, who was in the last Max, offers her 100 Maidens (Nuptial Shield) and 100 Widows (Death Shield), funky spirals constructed from the heels of women's shoes. Meikle Gardner unleashes his Ab-Ex tendencies with a couple of his slash-and-drip paintings. And there's even more.

Get out the Kool-Aid and lemon cookies. Although a happenstance, Emily Walls' installation in the adjacent Artlab gallery fits right in with the insouciant revelry of "Max 2001," as it is a twisted re-creation of prepubescent art-making. The artist has painted murals throughout the gallery with cheerful colors and anamorphic forms of preschool life. Populating the room are all manner of mutated doll, in every conceivable color, texture, and form, shoved into corners and dangling from the ceiling. Kitsch is Walls' ongoing obsession, and the inventiveness and industriousness of this effort is impressive. But ultimately, the installation offers a pastiche of the Playskool experience that is not too dissimilar from the original.

Through July 21st.

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