Not Dead Yet 

New work inspires a lukewarm response.

Michael Byron’s 1960 Ernst.
This week I am compelled to review the work of three very different painters, Michael Byron, Barbara Zaring, and Tom Chaffee, but to do so, some prologue is in order.

For most of art history, the medium of painting has ruled supreme. With the exception of figurative sculpture, the history of art itself is virtually undifferentiated from the history of painting. Some of the earliest instances of representation are found among the depictions of humans and animals in the cave paintings at Lascaux, dating from the Paleolithic era. Over the centuries, among various cultures, technical and aesthetic innovations evolved that were rooted in the idea of creating an illusionary reconstruction of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. During the 19th century, however, the depiction of an external realism gave way to an acknowledgment of the painting as a flat plane upon which pigment is suspended, giving the world Impressionism, Cubism, Abstraction, and ultimately, Minimalism.

This reduction of painting to its logical terminus has inspired the declaration from time to time that the practice of painting is dead. Since the '60s, painting has played a secondary role in the art world as other forms of media have gained ascendancy.

Standing before the paintings of Michael Byron at Rhodes College's Clough-Hanson Gallery, I cannot help but consider them stillborn. Don't get me wrong, the artist is a consummate craftsman. His command of the medium of oil paint is evident in the sensitive depictions of images of modernist and ethnographic sculptures copied from black-and-white postcards. What leaves me cold is the self-consciousness of the whole enterprise. Byron is first and foremost a conceptual artist and painting for him becomes nothing more than a parlor trick at the service of his premeditated program.

For instance, each painting accentuates the flatness of the plane by way of trompe l'oeil water droplets. In an essay for the exhibit, Rhodes art history professor David McCarthy writes that "instead of the pristine picture plane needed to confirm the illusion of transparency, the stained surface calls attention to its opacity. This emphasis on surface returns us to the modernist insistence that a painting is, before anything else, an arrangement of pigment on a canvas." God bless Byron for his attempt to make the viewer reconsider the contributions of modernism, but the patented approach makes for aclinical experience.

On a different note altogether, as a practitioner of oil painting, one might say that Barbara Zaring is a true believer. Like Byron, Zaring is in complete command of her medium, painting in a style that seemingly borrows from Impressionism, early Kandinsky, and Bay Area figurative simultaneously. The artist, who is exhibiting work at the Cooper-Young Gallery, is well-known in the Southwest for her depictions of the local landscape, and I especially am enamored of images of rock faces, as in Earth's Crowning and Red Canyon in Spring.

What I found troublesome was the formulaic nature of Zaring's palette. What one recognizes immediately is that the artist's pungently chromatic colors seem to repeat themselves in practically every painting. I initially assumed that this was a reflection of the artist's stylized representation of the much-touted light of the Southwest landscape until I came across the tiny Notre Dame. This work, while neutralized somewhat, contains the same juxtapositions of complementaries found among the images of the Southwest. This recurring palette risks relegating Zaring's work to the simply decorative.

Tom Chaffee, professor of painting at Arkansas State University, is exhibiting several new works at the Jay Etkin Gallery. One would never accuse Chaffee of making pretty pictures. Rather his paintings juxtapose images of innocence with those of a mean world, as in Back Home in Indiana, in which a little girl in a pink dress stands side by side with the corpse of Mussolini, hanging by his ankles. Elsewhere, images of black buzzards, crumbling facades, haunted cathedrals, and angry dogs coexist among indecipherable texts and baby Jesus, and it seems that Chaffee's favorite color happens to be a murky asphalt gray. Chaffee's enigmatic layering of symbols and texts brings to mind the paintings of Basquiat.

Chaffee's paintings are, as always, engaging, yet I am somewhat disappointed that they don't seem to be a far cry from what he has been doing for quite some time now. Somehow, pairing innocence with degradation doesn't seem as shocking as it once did, and the experience of this show left me feeling like I had seen it all before.

If these shows are any sign of the potency of painting, then no, painting may not be dead, but it is certainly hurting.

"Michael Byron: The Grisaille Series 1997-2000" at Rhodes College Clough-Hanson Gallery through March 22nd; "13 Paintings" by Barbara Zaring through March 3rd at Cooper-Young Gallery; "Paintings for the South Wall" by Thomas Chaffee through March 16th at Jay Etkin Gallery.

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