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Near Myth

Curator Bonnie Clearwater succinctly states the premise of "Mythic Proportions: Painting in the 1980s," now at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, in the introduction to the show's catalog: "This examination of the decade of the 1980s is not an arbitrary chronological focus: 1979 was a watershed year that marked the return of painting, a medium long considered dead."

After making your way through this ambitious but maddeningly uneven show, you may well come to the sad conclusion that painting might have been better off dead after all. For every piece that reaffirms the power of paint, at least two or three others suggest that the medium was a terminal patient on life support.

The exhibition includes 58 pieces by 25 artists. Many of the works are large, even monumental, in scale. In some cases the scale matches that of the artist's ego and reputation. Very early on, for example, the self-proclaimed genius Julian Schnabel is represented by a larger-than-life trio of his infamous "plate paintings," which are little more than huge slabs of wood encrusted with broken crockery and oil pigment. Clearwater has juxtaposed them strategically, with the largest of the three, The Walk Home (1984-85), occupying one wall, bracketed by the other two, Divan (1978) and 800 Blows (1983), which face each other from opposite walls. They're presumably meant to echo among themselves. The trouble is, the echo is hollow and meaningless. And paradoxically the grandly scaled Walk Home comes across with more force in reproduction in the show's catalog, where, drastically reduced in size, it looks less like an explosion in a dinnerware factory and more like a painting.

The Australian-born art critic Robert Hughes, writing in The New Republic in 1987, tellingly likened Schnabel to Rambo: "There was a more than accidental correspondence between Schnabel's success in meeting the nostalgia for big macho art in the early Eighties and Sylvester Stallone's restoration of American virtù through the character of Rambo. Indeed, Schnabel's work is to painting what Stallone's is to acting -- a lurching display of oily pectorals -- except that Schnabel makes bigger public claims for himself." (For two fascinating, contradictory takes on the artist, see his beautifully directed second film, the current release Before Night Falls, and read the lengthy cover story on him in The New York Times Magazine of Sunday, March 25.)

Around the corner from the Schnabels are three pieces by his equally overhyped contemporary David Salle. Like Schnabel (when he's not in his plate-smashing mode), Salle quotes and appropriates from all sorts of sources, including the art of the past, left, and right -- but to what end?

For the big oil-and-acrylic King Kong (1983), Salle even appends a three-tiered wooden end table and a light fixture to the lower right of the canvas, as if to simulate a domestic environment where the painting might be displayed. It's a cheeky postmodern gesture, undercut simply because the image itself is so empty: a pair of nude figures, buttocks to us, walking on what appears to be a sun-bleached stretch of sandy beach, with the title words superimposed on them and a sketchy head hovering ghostlike next to them.

Such '80s darlings as Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Kenny Scharf are represented here, though not at their best. Three untitled Haring enamels from 1981, all of which toy with Mickey Mouse as icon, are lifeless compared with so much of the rest of the artist's output, while a pair of Basquiats pretty much reconfirm the absurdity of his wildly inflated reputation. And the usually exuberant Scharf falls flat with his seven scenes from the animated TV series The Jetsons. "My love for the Jetsons cartoons represents the utopian dream promised to my generation that had gone sour," the wall panel proclaims, but Scharf does little to tweak the borrowed images other than to apply cheap tinsel borders to them.

Similar self-indulgent laziness appears in the works of other, less flamboyant artists in the exhibition. For the prolific German artist Georg Baselitz, the gimmick is to invert the central figures in his clotted images: a human in Letztes Selbstbildnis (Munich) (1982), a large bird perched on a chair in Die Wildnis Im Zimmer (1989).

Among most of the poststructuralists here, a fascination with French deconstruction theory boils down to scrapping the whole idea of artistic originality altogether. In such pieces as After Piet Mondrian (1983-85) and After Joan Miró (1984), Sherrie Levine goes so far as to re-create, in meticulous detail in watercolor on paper, paintings by other artists. Richard Wool regurgitates lame jokes (The Fireman and the Drunk, Are You Kidding?) and cartoons (What's New?), while Christopher Wool cranks out big words stenciled on aluminum (RIOT, ALUMINUM) and, in one case, mimics a shamrock-patterned wallpaper.

Fortunately "Mythic Proportions" also includes a handful of stunners. Three big oils on linen by the German artist Anselm Kiefer -- two propped against a wall, the other mounted on it -- are dark testimonies to his grapplings with his country's turbulent 20th-century history, with the thickly applied pigment given extra texture by the addition of other ingredients, such as metal and straw.

A small gallery is set aside for three big, exquisite pieces by Ross Bleckner that draw upon such influences as op art and the color-field paintings of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. Architecture of the Sky (1990) uses arcs of shimmering gold flecks to create an upward surge of energy, while The Forest (1981) is a deceptively simple but vibrant composition of vertical lines in greens and grays on black. And the magnificent Knights not Nights (1987) features barely visible hands and swords on a rich, dark field punctuated by points of light that seem to emanate from somewhere deep within the canvas.

The showstoppers here are two oil-on-linen works by Eric Fischl that reclaim painting in both figurative and narrative terms. Fischl embraces realism just far enough to seduce us into his sex-and-violence-charged tableaux, which bristle with ambiguous narrative possibilities. Haircut (1985) is ostensibly a portrait of a woman cutting her own hair, but she's crouched, awkwardly and provocatively, nude on the bathroom floor, with a small round mirror that seems aimed not at her head but at her crotch.

In A Woman Possessed (1981), the narrative possibilities accrue with alarming speed and intensity. The ingredients are simple: an old-fashioned station wagon, a bicycle, half a dozen dogs, a drinking glass, a stack of notebooks, and two humans, the title woman and another figure, who could be either male or female. But every attempt to concoct a potential scenario is somehow subverted. Each ingredient is conceivably a red herring that thwarts our efforts to make sense of the imagery, giving the painting an unresolvable -- and riveting -- ambiguity.

In the decade since the 1980s, of course, countless artists have made it abundantly clear that painting is far from dead. But of the artists in this show, it's Kiefer, Bleckner, and Fischl whom I'd trust to keep it alive, not Schnabel, Salle, and their ilk.

The Museum of Contemporary Art is also presenting To Sin or Not To Sin, another annual production by Cuban-born artist Pablo Cano, who constructs rod puppets from found objects. William Bilowit's script for this short morality play about the seven sins versus the seven virtues is numbingly facile, but Cano's ingenious puppets, some of them life-size, are a marvel to behold.

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Michael Mills

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