Too much 'different' makes show 'uneven' 44th Corcoran exhibit of contemporary American painting is part serious art and part gimmicks.

At Washington's Corcoran Gallery right now, you can see a "painting" made of chewed sculpture compound, another whose central section is a rectangle of marijuana leaves, another composed of strips of film, another that incorporates a sofa, and another that includes a section of striped, knitted fabric.

They are all in "Painting Outside Painting," the Corcoran's 44th biennial exhibit of contemporary American painting. And if you're wondering whether they're serious art or gimmicks, the answer is that some are one and some are the other.


This is an uneven show, driven by a concept that puts too much value on the different for its own sake. But it is rescued from failure by the strengths of some of its artists.

Terrie Sultan, the Corcoran's curator of contemporary art, has organized the last three biennial shows, and they form a series. The first, four years ago, examined contemporary abstraction. Two years ago the subject was the body. This year's exhibit deals with what Sultan terms "post-structural materialism," or what Corcoran chief curator Jack Cowart describes somewhat more clearly:


"Setting aside, subverting, or transcending existing conventions of painting, the artists presented in this exhibition work to construct a new artistic language. The language finds its roots in post-war abstraction and Minimalism, but it is informed with fresh perspectives by all twenty-six participating artists."

In her introductory essay, Sultan splits the innovators in this show into three categories:

* Artists who use new and unusual materials, together with artists who use familiar materials in new and unusual ways. They include Charles Spurrier, who contributes one untitled work made of sculpture compound with his teeth marks in it, and another made with cellophane tape; and James Hyde, who paints abstract frescoes, but on plastic foam rather than plaster.

* Artists whose works leave the wall to inhabit space as sculpture does, or who create installations. They include Jessica Stockholder, whose sculpture/paintings incorporate such household items as a sofa, sink legs, a blanket, clothing and plastic fruit, and Lauren Szold, whose works consist of clothing dyes dripped onto various substances such as salt and egg white and left to dry on the floor.

* Artists who try to reinvent painting while remaining basically within the traditional form of picture plane and support structure. They include Carter Potter, whose work employs film (35 mm, 16 mm, etc.) rather than canvas; and John McCracken, whose work consists of painted planks leaning against the wall.

It's easy to say that while there are new materials here, the general concept is hardly new. Artists have been experimenting for a long time with ways to expand the definition of painting. A painting that uses collage, for instance, is a departure from traditional painting that remains within the picture plane/support structure form. And the use of collage is almost a hundred years old.

As for bringing your painting out from the wall and using new materials, Sultan freely acknowledges a number of precedents. One that she pictures is Robert Rauschenberg's "Monogram" (1955-1959), a floor piece incorporating a stuffed goat with a tire around its middle. Nothing in the present show is anywhere near as radical -- or exhilarating -- as that.

The fundamental problem with this show, however, is not that it springs from an old idea. If its artists were consis-tently fresh and challenging, it would justify its existence easily. But doing something in a new way does not automatically make a work of art. Obviously Sultan knows that as well as anyone else, but some pretty questionable choices have been made here.


John Beech's "Yellow Tray," which is just that, has nothing in particular to impart. Peter Hopkins' inclusion of a bottle of perfume in his "Capital Project: Perfume Site #3" adds nothing and amounts to a gimmick. Joining textile and painting can be -- and has been -- done in creative ways, but Jody Lomberg's works here don't qualify; each section of her part painting/part knitted fabric works just looks uncomfortable in the presence of the other. Rodney Carswell makes abstract paintings and then cuts pieces out of them so you see the stretcher behind; ho-hum. And there are other works that do not live up to the densely super-serious prose to which they are all too often subjected in the catalog entries.

But the show is rescued to a considerable extent by works that do have the ability to make you glad you came.

Jacci Den Hartog's wall-mounted works of plaster "rocks," and tinted polyurethane that flows over them in a downward cascade, struck me for an instant as repulsive and then as extraordinarily beautiful. They are, indeed, as the artist suggests, reminiscent of Chinese landscape paintings, and like them possess the virtues of understatement and suggestion in a world of the blatant and the loud.

Polly Apfelbaum's textile works, incorporating velvet, cotton and dye, are a blend of serious abstract art and lighthearted spoof of abstract art. Her striped "Between the Lines" reminds you, of course, of Gene Davis' stripe paintings of three or four decades ago, but the Apfelbaum work is so softly inviting that you want to curl up in it. Apfelbaum refreshingly asserts that a sense of humor need not condemn the artist to triviality.

Merrill Wagner's refined Rustoleum-on-steel paintings are confined mainly to black and gray bands of varying widths. In the catalog entry on them, Barry Schwabsky states that they have "subtle tonal relations whose dour naturalism evokes something between Whistler's nocturnes and the late work of Mark Rothko." A tall order, you might think, but it's true. One is tempted to call these works ravishing, but they exhibit too great an austerity for that.

Talk about your unusual materials: Fred Tomaselli's paintings incorporate pills (Tums and various other examples in "Blue Circles") and marijuana leaves (in "Green on Red"). But this is no gimmick. "Green on Red," with its wide red band around a central rectangle of green to gold leaves, is at once an abstraction and a landscape painting.


A few of these artists invade the Corcoran's nongallery spaces to create installations, of which the simplest and most effective is Sam Gilliam's "Bikers Move Like Swallows II." It consists of great swirls of painted linen draped in an area surrounded by classical columns.

Gilliam thus creates a lively discourse between opposites: the dynamic and the static, the soft and the hard, the colorful and the monochromatic. He also creates a piece that, as Leslie King-Hammond writes in the entry on this work, exemplifies Gilliam's efforts at "recreating the order of the beautiful."

One of this exhibit's greatest assets is that so many of its works unapologetically inhabit the realm of the beautiful. Among them, aside from ones already mentioned, are works by Fandra Chang, Heather Hutchison, John McCracken, Carter Potter and Robin Rose. Perhaps we are entering a period when beauty will again be valued as a positive quality, rather than suspected of being a weak escape from the world's harsh realities.

Art review

What: "Painting Outside Painting"

Where: The Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. N.W. at New York Ave., Washington


When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays (until 9 p.m. Thursdays), through Feb. 19

Admission: Suggested donation $3 adults, $1 seniors and students, $5 families of any sizes

Call: (202) 638-1439