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Driven to Abstraction
Area Artists Keep Nonfigurative Art Alive

Timothy App’s "Bower" is one of the abstract paintings on display at Maryland Art Place.

Chance & Necessity: Paintings & Prints
Maryland Art Place and Goya-Girl Press through Jan. 9

Abstraction and representation have been duking it out in the postwar years. Abstract art was all the rage in the New York art world of the 1950s, as painters dripped and dribbled all over the canvas. When they weren't spewing paint, the abstractionists were making pronouncements about the dinosaur status of representational art.

The embattled realists sometimes seemed like a lonely minority, but they did not submit. Traditionalists trudged onward as always, while pop-art punsters ranging from Andy Warhol to Roy Lichtenstein relied on representational exactitude for their paintings of pop-cultural imagery in the 1960s. But then the conceptual art of the late '60s and '70s came along and made mental figuring seem more important than physical figuration.

Although a decade-by-decade scenario is much more complicated than a few sentences can convey, the pendulum definitely started swinging back in the direction of representational art in the early 1980s. And many artists of the 1990s, obsessed as they often are with social identity and political issues, find direct representation a congenial mode of expression.

Where does that leave abstract art today? Actually, in pretty healthy shape and in no need of life support. The 20 abstract artists contributing to the exhibit Chance & Necessity, curated by Power Boothe, are living proof that artists in Baltimore, Washington, and points between find abstraction of continued relevance. These artists are showcased in an exhibit of paintings at Maryland Art Place and an exhibit of prints at Goya-Girl Press.

For abstract painting in a geometric mode, check out Timothy App's acrylic painting "Bower." He relies on groupings of triangular, wedgelike, and circular shapes that coexist more than they cohere into anything you can name. His austere palette of blacks, whites, grays, and browns keeps your attention focused on his spare division of pictorial space.

Other artists also rely on geometric forms and/or gridlike compositions, though some do so more rigidly than others. Carol Miller Frost's oil painting "Sweet Nothings" is comprised of 16 similarly sized though differently colored circles arranged in four rows. The variously hued circles, together with tonal modulations in the whitish background, prevent the composition as a whole from seeming like a static color chart. This painting relies on variation within repetition, something that has interested many postwar abstractionists.

Tom Green's acrylic painting "Wall" is more realistic in the sense that you can think of it as an abstracted close-up view of a stone wall, but essentially it adheres to the same impulse motivating Frost. In Green's painting, irregularly shaped "stones" are spaced as if they form a wall. The stones are painted various shades of gray and white, making the contemplation of painterly variation the real subject matter here. The space between the stones--the mortar if you will--is painted pitch-black, which makes the stones stand out even more.

Geometric orderliness is further goosed in paintings by Madeleine Keesing and Ann Rentschler. Keesing's oil painting "Deep Indigo" is made up entirely of very closely spaced horizontal bands of black paint. The black paint is thickly applied, evoking strings of tarlike beads. An underlying layer of white paint peeks through between the black bands, so the entire picture becomes an exercise in peek-a-boo layering. Rentschler's untitled oil painting relies on the basic structure of a grid with dominant horizontal banding and a more ghosted vertical banding. The blacks, whites, and grays used to define these bands are applied loosely enough that the effect is of a severe grid that has started to melt.

Rigorous form also undergoes relatively spontaneous treatment in Joyce Wellman's "Heart Beat!," a predominantly hot-red acrylic painting in which the image of a "target" has been subjected to yellow, blue, and green scrawled lines and other painterly interventions that make this painting seem like an orderly Kenneth Noland "target" painting that has been attacked by a disorderly abstract expressionist. Such evocations of specific postwar abstractionists are inevitable in an exhibit whose artists are responding to the decades of abstract art that have come before them.

A number of the abstract artists in the MAP show rely on mathematical precision as a point of departure, if not as an end goal. But several other featured artists are abstractionist in the let's-push-paint-around manner. Joyce Wellman's acrylic painting "Thunder Blues" has a milky white-and-gray surface with underlaid blue poking through. As surfaces go, her painting seems more liquid than solid in nature. Against that backdrop the artist has painted thin blue and black swirls and squiggles that amount to gestural mark making akin to Cy Twombly's abstract graffiti.

Paint that has been vigorously moved around the canvas can really bring a painting alive. In fact, sometimes it's difficult to keep a painting flat against the wall. Sam Gilliam's untitled acrylic on plywood is a three-dimensional, wall-mounted piece that can be thought of as either a sculpted painting or a painted sculpture. Assorted colors brightly announce themselves and blend together as they zestfully cover this projecting, shaped plywood "canvas."

The same artists are exhibiting prints at Goya-Girl Press. In most cases, the prints follow through on the pictorial ideas given painterly expression at MAP. Rentschler has an untitled monoprint in which the gridlike structure is deliberately blurred; Gilliam has a solarplate etching/monotype, "Bluest," in which densely blending colors assume an organic vitality; App is geometrically precise in an untitled three-plate etching; Frost has black spheres anchoring her untitled monoprint; and so on.

But there are some interesting departures. Frost's monoprint, for instance, has unevenly spaced spheres surrounded by swirling lines that function like a force field; her print seems more activated compared to the stillness evoked by her painting at MAP. The possibilities of abstraction have hardly been exhausted.