The press release for the group show “We Regret To Inform You There Is Currently No Space Or Place For Abstract Painting” (the bulk of which comprised-you guessed it!-contemporary abstract painting) consisted of just one sentence: “We regret to inform you there is no other information for this press release.” Cagey, perhaps lazy and certainly provocative, the one-liner reflects the slippery identity abstract painting has assumed since the days of Greenberg.
Featuring both established artists and newcomers, this exhibition focused on a loose genre of painting that might best be called “conceptual abstraction”-a term that was used in 1991 to describe a Sidney Janis exhibition (which included the likes of Ross Bleckner and Peter Halley) but gained little traction in the art-theory lexicon. The Janis press release was more forthcoming than that from Martos, characterizing the work as open to “narration, appropriation, language, illusion, internal imageries and the play of signs and styles.”
Already prevalent a generation ago, such abstraction has only continued to burgeon, and the work in “We Regret To Inform You . . . ” feels fresh: irreverent about its formalist ancestry (yet reliant on the visual pleasure it offers), committed to self-reflexivity (yet often achieving it through irony or transparency of process), unafraid of a bit of figuration (so long as it’s treated as a sign along with all the abstract elements).
Jules de Balincourt offered a black, blue and fluorescent pink text piece that spells out the exhibition’s title in charmingly clumsy block letters arranged in a square spiral. It’s a painting of which Malevich might begrudgingly approve. Sarah Crowner pushed hard-edge abstraction into the realm of craft with an Ellsworth Kelly-ish composition made of sewn pieces of painted fabric. Alex Kwartler provided two pieces whose rainbow hues are rendered in such dark values that the paintings’ material surface appears to vanish; Davina Semo took an opposite approach with two “paintings” that verge on sculpture thanks to their cumbersome medium (reinforced concrete) and installation (sitting on the floor). Most arresting was Wayne Gonzales’s Gray Pentagon (2005), an Op-arty, yet eerily emotive, large acrylic painting that visually hovers somewhere between television static and a grainy aerial photograph of our national defense building.
The show included works and artists ranging widely in age-from Olivier Mosset (b. 1944), represented by a nihilistic, Silly-Putty-pink monochrome from 1980, to Nick Van Zanten (b. 1988), whose multi-colored graphlike painting from 2010 is comprehensively subtitled Unemployment Rates of the United States as a Whole and All 50 States From April 2008 to September 2010 Within the Range of 3.75% and 10.25% on a Surface the Size of the Weekly Income of an American at Poverty Level Laid Out in One Dollar Bills.
Striving to be anything but capital-A abstract, paintings like these appear to gain leverage when “abstract” is used as a verb: to “conceptualize something,” “summarize something,” “extract something,” “steal something.” Viewed in that light, this exhibition’s cheeky title suddenly seems a bit more genuine, and its works resonated as an intelligent force still asking to be reckoned with.
Photo: Jules de Balincourt: We Regret To Inform You There Is Currently No Space Or Place For Abstract Painting, 2004, oil, enamel and spray paint on board, 101⁄4 by 123⁄4 inches; at Martos.