Sunday, April 6, 2014

Richard Johnson at Cole Pratt Gallery; Edward Whiteman at Arthur Roger Gallery

Last week, influential New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz incited the masses to rebel against the Museum of Modern Art's plans for a new wing. His complaint? Too little wall space for paintings:  "We live in a time when power structures are impervious to and imperious about protest. Yet the plan so irretrievably dooms MoMA to being a business-driven carnival that it feels like something really worth fighting against...  I’m hearing that old 1980s painting-is-dead attitude rearing its head again. It’s been discredited everywhere else: We all know that painting is merely a medium, a place for the imagination, often a hybrid, and simply one of vision’s tools, not a doctrine." Exactly. Not only has painting remained relevant despite the longstanding predictions of its demise, abstract painting has come back with a vengeance. Which may help explain why a couple of local abstract painters who have been around for decades are looking somewhat au courant these days. Richard Johnson's new abstract-illusionist Altars and Monuments show is splashy and seductive, but everyone will probably see it differently. Here the rich, velvety colors of renaissance religious paintings appear in compositions that exude a secular, electric, pop sensibility. Yet there is something almost metaphysical about works like Altars and Monuments X, top, where a vaguely torch-like central armature engulfed in crimson suggests a Zoroastrian fire temple reduced to a pulsating electronic aura. In other compositions, red heart-like ovoids reminiscent of Roman Catholicism's Sacred Heart symbology seem to melt as colors and forms take on a mysterious life of their own, and it is almost as if the lightning bolts that once symbolized the inscrutable power of the gods had been subsumed into the digital electronics that now surround us and demand our allegiance no less forcefully, yet far more subtly, than the religious regimens of the past.
In Edward Whiteman's Swinging Pendulum exhibition of large scale paintings on reconstructed paper, simple yet potent looking forms sometimes resonate the aura of ancient hieroglyphics painted on stone even as they sometimes also span the ages, resonating art deco and pop sensibilities while maintaining allusions to sacred geometry. For all their decorous allure, Whiteman's latest works are as psychological as Rorschach blots and, like all portentous abstractions, what they have to tell us depends entirely on who we are and how we see them. ~Bookhardt

Altars and Monuments: Recent Paintings by Richard Johnson, Through April 27, Cole Pratt Gallery, 3800 Magazine St., 891-6789; The Swinging Pendulum: Mixed Media Paintings by Edward Whiteman, Through April 19, Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999. Above left: India by Edward Whiteman