There's a social dimension to the art of painting. Paintings talk with each other in their own way and mix and mash into each other -- as do the painters who make them. Mostly it's right-brain speech, interspersed with the primal force of gesture. Fresher and more unsettling than words, a good painting can be like an unexpected smell or taste.
But that's fairly rare, which is why Light of Day/a reunion of painters at William Busta Gallery is a remarkable show. Almost all the visual exchanges here — between old and new, surface and pigment — contain one or more of those improbable, joyous somersaults of insight and association that are so unusual in day-to-day conversation.
Curated by 1999 Cleveland Institute of Art graduate Timothy Callaghan, Light of Day spotlights the work of six artists (including Callaghan himself) who rubbed shoulders at C.I.A. in the late 1990s and have now gravitated to art centers around the country. An array of stylistic approaches and subject matter includes Callaghan's large-ish mixed-paint-media works on canvas and Sam Martineau's (Brooklyn) collaged record-album covers. Most of the work is at least nominally representational, shining clean contemporary color on thoughts that tend to be idiosyncratic and private, if not necessarily dark. Most straightforward, or at least simplest in terms of his compositions, is Miami-based Craig Kucia. Known in area shows over the past few years for complex, hallucinatory paintings, Kucia currently is working on a series of coy, larger-than-life cat portraits, two of which are on view at Busta. A smirking tabby named "kenny" has his head stuck all the way down to his nose in a sort of hat of ovate, dewy-green leaves. The worried-looking white feline "thea" sits on a stump. A depiction of a brown branch a couple of inches wide travels across the canvas, blocking her mouth — a duct tape-like gesture that silences sentiment as it pushes the work toward landscape, like a stick-on horizon above the foreground curve of the stump.
As in terminally cheeky early works by Dana Schutz (another well-known member of the same generation of C.I.A. students), materials and subject matter dance around each other at Light. These are abstract paintings masquerading as stories, scenes and vignettes. But you're never allowed to forget you're looking at mere, sheer stuff out of a can or tube, mixed on a palette that also features post-ironic squirts of autobiography and blobs of real things — like a self-referential Disney cartoon where the brush sweeps across blankness, setting a whole scene with a couple of magic strokes. William Newhouse (Chicago) deals in a meta-painterly way with male sexuality and the rushing hide-and-seek of intimacy. Jeff Bechtel (Brooklyn) and Matthew Johnson are mysterious in a similar but less figural vein, veering back and forth across the perceptual boundary separating recognizable patterns from the itchy products of the unconscious. Like everything at Light, Bechtel's brushy near-abstractions and Johnson's heaps of ink lines that sometimes play keyboard peer under the door between what we know and what we are.