The 39th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting -- which excites and entertains and blasts you with its strangeness -- is all the things a Corcoran biennial should be.
Dorothy, in Oz, would have understood its spirit. She, too, met with monsters and undertook adventures and traveled into weirdness to find her way toward home. She wanted to return to the ordinary oddnesses, the awful cold and melting heat of America's Midwest. All the painters in this fierce and funny show are, by choice, Midwesterners as well.
There are 17 of them. Seven come from Illinois. The rest of them live in Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan and Iowa. Lisa Lyons, the guest curator who chose them, contends, perhaps demurely, that " 'Midwesternism,' that is, the revelation of a peculiarly regional spirit," was not among "the criteria for selection." But I am not so sure. Some aura of Chicago -- that unapologetic town of butchered hogs and butchered gangsters, of skyscrapers and slush, of Nelson Algren's witty words and Ivan Albright's painted warts -- presides over this show.
Almost all its artists wrestle with the figure. Several are famous (Jim Nutt, Roger Brown, Ed Paschke, Nicholas Africano) while others of high promise (Peter Huttinger, Jim Lutes, John Broenen, Michael Nakoneczny and Ken Nevadomi) are not yet well-known. But they are all in it together, sweating, grunting, grimacing, fighting the good fight. Their pictures put to shame most of the new expressionist scrawls now being ground out to feed the markets of New York.
Far too many New York painters, having noticed that abstraction has drifted out of fashion, now employ the human figure as an intentionally meaningless decorative device. The bodies that they scrawl -- here a devil's, there a dog's -- have been chosen with high nonchalance, the way a fop might pick his tie. That sense of surface, and of silliness, is almost never sensed in Lyons' exhibition.
These painters ground their figures in personal necessity. When Broenen paints himself, open-eyed, awake, in his coffin-bed ("Conversation With Plants," 1983), when Lutes puts himself among the barricaded stores of Chicago's Milwaukee Avenue ("Mr. Business," 1983), when Nevadomi shows us Hitler analyzed by Freud ("Hitler in Hell," 1983), when Brown portrays the killing of John Kennedy or Paschke conjures up the face of Johnny Mack Brown, we believe in what we see. None of this is froth. These images are rooted in the painters' souls.
It has been nearly 20 years since Nutt and his colleagues in the "Hairy Who" first displayed their sleek linoleum walls and their comic-strip inspired, high art/low art pre-punk dreams at the now-defunct Washington Gallery of Modern Art. Nutt still blends within his art the disgusting and the Deco, the graceful and the gross, but now he prefers shades of gray to bilious colors, and his recent paintings, although small, completely rule the wall.
Paschke portrays ghosts -- both those that haunt his memory and those that dematerialize in television snow. His colors are electric. Lyons writes that looking at his paintings "is rather like watching a wide-screen color TV on the fritz." Although Brown's heartfelt pictures struggle with acid rain and Russians, with tyrannies and death, their subject is himself.
Maybe it is the ordinariness of the Midwest that sends its painters screaming out towards the horizon. Chicago's Saul Bellow sent his "Henderson the Rain King" into Africa. So does Dennis Nechvatal of Madison, Wis., in a strange "Self-Portrait Diptych" here. The right half of the picture shows the painter's face, the left half shows what Lyons calls his "Afro-Picassoid" mask. All his painted visages, even when he portrays his wife, are masks as well as faces.
Masks conceal, masks reveal, masks sometimes just go "Boo!" There are masks throughout this show.
The dark-nosed birdmen in Robert Lostutter's tiny watercolors wear hummingbird-feather masks. That peculiar rabbit form that recurs so often in the extraordinary drawings of Cincinnati's Huttinger both hides and reveals complicated thoughts about fertility and sex. Petrouchka, the straw puppet, and the demure Evelina, both of whom appear in Africano's handsome pictures, mask, though incompletely, what the Normal, Ill., artist calls his "curious ardors, displaced passions." Narratives are wound into many of these pictures, but the viewer who unwinds them finds that he's been led toward the painter's soul. The tin woodsman with the blues who shows up so often in the painted illustrations of T.L. Solien of Pelican Rapids, Minn., is a sort of alter-ego. So is "the Lady" who recurs in the childlike, dreamy paintings of Hollis Sigler of Prairie View, Ill. So is Kay Miller's heavy, shaggy bear. The peculiar, three-dimensional figures of Grand Rapids' Macyn Bolt, with their small or missing heads and their legs like scissors, are also alter-egos, or so one suspects.
Many of these figures feel carefully predetermined. Others -- that whispering red one by Indianapolis' Tom Keesee or the Italianate torsos writhing in the paintings of Minneapolis' Lance Kiland -- seem to have appeared there of their own accord. Cincinnati's Nakoneczny also awaits visitations. "When I paint," he writes, "I try to shut up the internal chatter and scribble out images as blindly as possible . . . A dialogue begins." His figures call to mind the odd and playful ones that dance and strut in the drawings of Paul Klee.
There are no abstract pictures in the 39th Biennial, and no formal portraits, either. Lyons may insist that these narrative, soul-dredging, dream-evoking, mask-wearing, intentionally unsweet, figurative Midwesterners represent no school. But 100 years from now, or so one suspects, the differences between them will seem far less apparent than what they share. Compared with the last biennial, the one devoted to painting from Western states, hers is consistent and coherent. It will travel to Illinois and Ohio after closing here on April 7.