Peeling Paint

PAINTING HAS HAD A ROUGH TIME since the end of the 1980s, when the market for neoexpressionism collapsed and ambitious young artists went back to making installation art. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., hasn't had it any easier. Attached to an art school filled with typically bumptious art students, it was -- in spite of a slightly frumpy collection -- long considered by artists to be their kind of open-minded place. In 1989, however, the museum caved in to political anxieties and canceled that Robert Mapplethorpe show. Censorship! cried artists. The Corcoran's reputation within the art world nose-dived and, as the brouhaha about nasty art in public museums played out, looked like it would never recover. A Corcoran rebound began when curator Terrie Sultan, who came from New York's trendy The New Museum in 1988, took over the museum's Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting in 1991. You might say painting and the Corcoran have tried to make a comeback holding hands. But judging from the 44th Biennial (on view through Feb. 19), the museum has bounced back better than the medium.

Corcoran Biennials have always been more conservative than the Whitney Museum Biennial of American Art in New York (which includes more than painting). Painting--however artists stretch it--is inherently less far out than, say, video installations. And there's nothing like the Manhattan art world's careerist feeding frenzy to promote institutionalized outrageousness. Still, the Corcoran Biennial has tried to kick out some jams. It dumped its jury system (in which George Bellows and Edward Hopper did duty) in 1967, and broke out of an East Coast bias with shows culled from various regions in the 1980s. Then Sultan set out to survey what she sees as the pervading themes in contemporary American painting. She tackled abstraction in 1991, featured figurative riffs in 1993 and, in the current show, scans the physical "boundaries and definition" of painting. In other words, how much can you fold, spindle and mutilate the convention of a flat, rectangular canvas and still come up with a painting? The answer (mostly by negative example): not much.

There are some good pieces among the Biennial's 90 works by 26 artists--who work preponderantly in New York or California and whose average age is a relatively seasoned 43 years. Leslie Wayne's diminutive "Ruckus" (1995) does meet Sultan's criteria by partly peeling paint off a panel to make a picture. But it does so with uncommonly elegant shapes, bright but un-cliched colors and a deft touch. Richard Artschwager, who's been in the boundaries and definitions business since the 1960s, converts cartoony images of chairs into what look hilariously like hides (legs splayed out to the side like, well, legs). And Jessica Stockholder does pretty well here with domestically sized versions of her usually huge, raucous assemblages.

But if the last 30 years of art prove something, it's that you can call anything -- a row of bricks, a ditch, two Englishmen singing atop a small platform -a sculpture and, it still falls within sculpture s flexible convention. Painting is more fragile. As soon as you lay it face up on the floor, let it droop from the ceiling in strips or add bun-gee cords (as do some artists in this Biennial), it turns into colored sculpture that isn't nearly as adventurous as bricks, ditches or a mu-sic-hall act. Biennial paintings made from lengths of movie film stock woven like a cheap lawn chair, or pharmaceuticals east in resin, or sheets of poured acrylic paint hung like shower curtains, may turn out to be surprisingly pretty, but they really don't push any envelopes. The 44th Biennial consists essentially of tepid sculpture gussied up with glitz, glue and glop. Perhaps the theme of the 45th should be "Back to the Drawing Board."