It's said that marketing is the real American genius. The notion is so familiar most people chuckle when they see a product labeled "new and improved." Sure, sure, same thing, different wrapper. Given this, it's nearly impossible to suppress a smile on encountering the Pasadena Armory's current exhibition, "Practice and Process: New Painterly Abstraction in California."
The exercise was organized as a joint venture by Jay Belloli and Jeff Nathanson, gallery directors, respectively, of the Armory and the Bay Area's Richmond Art Center. Most of the 10 selected artists have decent exhibition credentials going back to the '70s. None, however, has a reputation remotely approaching that of California's best-known, now-departed, abstract painters, Sam Francis and Richard Diebenkorn.
Since 1970, the art world has become hugely overpopulated and abstraction repeatedly pronounced dead. Actually it never expired but it did attain the condition of jazz as an American art form. Abstraction is here to stay but, like jazz, its practitioners can't expect to attain the candlepower of Duke Ellington or Dizzy Gillespie unless one happens to be the visual equivalent of Wynton Marsalis. That's because the painters are trapped in a historical spot that virtually precludes the absolute innovation of, say, a Jackson Pollock.
If, then, these painters are stuck with careers of theme-and-variation, the good news is that the permutations of abstraction are virtually endless.
Geographically, the opposite poles of the state are equally represented. Writing in the catalog, curators claim that their artists are united by concentration on unplanned works they allow to develop over time. The practice is so hoary only politeness prevents one from wondering what else is new.
For this critic, the binding quality is a leaning to brightness, sonority and sensuality that's fairly typical of California's version of Abstract Expressionism. Viewers who like to make regional distinctions will have trouble wedging a sigh between the sensibilities of North and South.
L.A. people may be a trifle closer to the local reputation for coolness and control modified by a certain moodiness. So much said, the stereotype is immediately blown by Marie Thibeault, among the best-represented artists on board. Her "Reservoir" might be termed a thoughtful explosion in a Hans Hofmann. It splashes into haunted blobs suggesting nightmare canines surrounded by squared-off storm clouds and streaks of pink and baby-blue ice cream.
The participant who calls himself Hyesook takes Expressionism toward its extreme. Big pictures like "Endless Heat of Being Alive" appear painted with large brushes in an even bigger frenzy. He brings to mind the old European COBRA group. (The acronym stands for "Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam.")
Elizabeth Chandler resembles the long-obscured French painter Nicholas De Stael in gridded compositions suggesting aerial photography. Working in subdued ochres with a fine doodle-like touch, she creates a scale at once epic and intimate.
As a particular fan of Charles Fine's work, it is disappointing to find him represented by transitional examples like the downbeat, worried "Field Theory 1995." Lavi Daniel is seen in characteristic semi-illusionistic images that look vaguely out of place.
Bay Area artists are supposed to be eccentric, heartfelt and funky. John Zurier immediately deflates that cliche with "Maersk: Einmal 1995." It's a big, blue field painting with vertical striations. Gregory Wiley Edwards makes wonderfully orgasmic blasts of wormy gestures. Come to think of it, both look the way L.A. artists are supposed to.
Kim Anno doesn't. This artist makes curious shaped canvases that create implausible illusions that are somehow completely convincing. "Sway," for example, looks like an easy chair with a stripped cover, even though it shouldn't. Alan Treister's operatic hurricanes get a little too theatrical. Thekla Hammond's landscape-like "Solitude: The Great Skau #1 1996" suggests an artist thinking simultaneously about J.M.W. Turner and Alfred Pinkham Ryder.
Taken together, these artists suggest a diminution of regional differences and a resemblance to early postwar European work. That seems to suggest increasing cosmopolitanism and homogeneity, like everywhere else.
* Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena; through Sunday, closed today and Tuesday, (626) 792-5101.