Last week Jerry Saltz, the influential New York magazine art critic, 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: "I'm hearing that old 1980s 'painting-is-dead' attitude rearing its head again. It's been discredited everywhere else. ... Painting is merely a medium, a place for the imagination, not a doctrine." Exactly. Not only has painting remained relevant, abstract painting has come back with a vengeance. That may help explain why a couple of local abstract painters who have been around for decades are looking quite au courant these days. Richard Johnson's new abstract-illusionist Altars and Monuments show is splashy and seductive, yet 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 (pictured), where a vaguely torchlike central armature engulfed in crimson suggests a Zoroastrian fire temple reduced to a pulsating electronic aura. In other compositions, red heartlike ovoids seem to melt as colors and forms take on mysterious lives of their own. It's almost as if the lightning bolts that once symbolized the inscrutable power of mythic deities had been subsumed into the digital electronics that now surround us and demand our allegiance no less forcefully than the old gods of the pagan past.
In Edward Whiteman's Swinging Pendulum exhibition of large-scale paintings on reconstructed paper, simple yet potent-looking forms resonate the aura of ancient hieroglyphics painted on stone. Look again and they appear quite modern. For all their decorous allure, Whiteman's latest works are as psychological as Rorschach blots and, like all successful abstractions, what they have to tell us depends entirely on who we are and how we see them. — D. ERIC BOOKHARDT