In the past 200 years, many have declared "painting is dead!" Paul Delaroche said it when he saw a daguerreotype for the first time in the 19th century. A hundred years later, critics repeated the mantra when artist like Lucio Fontana took an awl and slashed it through his canvas, pushing the boundaries of art and creating a new language of painting. Despite painting's rocky journey from abstraction to realism and back again, from the removal of the artist's hand to its gestural reemergence, painting may have abated from time to time, but it never truly died.
Just ask the 11 young New York artists showing their abstract paintings at Virginia Commonwealth University's Anderson Gallery. Organized by the poet and critic John Yau, "Young and Brash and Abstract" seeks to ponder painting's role through the fresh and brazen eyes of a new generation of artists. As Yau puts it, "This exhibition focuses on younger abstract artists who have transformed what may have seemed like the end of painting into a beginning. They recognize that history isn't over, that it is always open-ended, that it is always beginning, that it is always being both told and simultaneously revised."
While contemporary abstract painting may seem like an oxymoron, this show demonstrates how vibrant, original and alive two-dimensional abstraction continues to be. There are artists like Theresa Chong, whose crisp, sharp-edged paintings bring to mind a pop version of a computer's motherboard. With candy green and aqua oils, Chong produces insectlike meanderings superimposed on linear shapes. It is an impersonal, objective style that sufficiently equates the cold, autonomous circuits of PC hardware.
Steven Charles also seems to recreate the innards of a computer, or perhaps a buoyant mapping of land and topography. Layering thick glossy enamel into intricate lines, dots and swirls, the work entitled "eifoinbysetin" is a busy conduit for the frenetic energy of fast-paced technology. Nicely juxtaposed with this piece are the calm, soothing, mellow works of Jennifer Riley. She creates muted horizontal bands of color that fade and diminish as they near the top of the panel, evoking through format and atmospheric perspective a traditional landscape portrait.
A surprisingly salient feature of these works is the role biography plays in their making. For example, Christopher Francione's paintings, the ones that come the closest to recognizable figuration, are developed through his use of latex paint and household calk on canvas. He is a house painter, after all, and the integration of commercial-type materials is a natural progression for his art.
Likewise, Lisa Stefanelli's past history as a competitive ice skater is revealed through her boldly spun swirls of vibrant red on cream, clearly redolent of the figurative scrapings of an ice skate on a glossy sheet of ice.
Consummate surface treatment, too, is a common feature of all these paintings. In particular, the extraordinary pieces by Walter Biggs stand out quite literally. Projecting 2 inches from the wall, his large sculptural works are built up with graphite, mica, sand, and oil, then scraped and polished down and, finally, powdered with a pigmented dusting. The result is an organic cracked-earth effect that is primordial, desolate, fragile and timeless.
If painting is dead, these artists, fortunately, were never told. Their works bespeak a tenacious vitality and freshness that parallels the boldness and confidence that comes with youth. Let's say it all together now: "Long live painting!"
"Young and Brash and Abstract" continues at the Anderson Gallery, 907 1/2 W. Franklin St., through March 10. 828-1522