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by Michael Brennan
|It's summertime and even though the art world is open for business, it's hard to shake that seasonal sloth. Our bodies may be here, but our minds are someplace else. Dealers chat about Basel and other trips, but not much else. Many of us will not be going away any time soon, and why should we care when there's plenty of art to see here and now in every section of the city? It was an unusual June. I found myself reaching for my jacket nearly every time I stepped outside. Since it felt like April it seemed okay to continue hunting indoors.
My first stop was close to home. I saw Ellen Berkenblit's most recent show at Anton Kern Gallery (558 Broadway, up through July 15) which includes over 40 small to medium-sized paintings and works on paper priced from $900-$4,500. The subject of the artist's work seems to revolve around the misadventures of a Pinocchio-like snub-nosed woman-child who wanders/wonders around a dreamy forest/cityscape that's overrun with cobwebs and Spanish moss. Her fellow travelers are a bestiary of lumbering Gentle Ben-type honeybears, playful Tiggerish house cats, and guardianlike doe-eyed big cats.
Berkenblit paints with confidence and her oil technique is hard and bright, although alternately washy like a watercolor at times. I'm not big on magical journeys myself, but I found these paintings disarmingly engaging. I had to laugh when I saw the large Harry Potter sign through the gallery's front window, which faces Broadway. It was hanging in front of Scholastic's new Aldo Rossi building (which was probably financed through the runaway sales of the Potter books) across the street -- could this be just mere happenstance or was some other wizardry involved?
I ventured over to Chelsea next, and down into the basement space of DeChiara/Stewart, which is located 521 W. 26th Street. Ellen Harvey's new show, entitled "Painting is a Low Tech Special Effect," was on view there through July 1. All of the paintings (nearly a dozen in the main gallery and a frieze of 21 smaller paintings of funny faces in the project room, $700-$3,500) are painted in the familiar, white-framed format of Polaroid photographs.
Harvey's paintings explore that extremely popular and supposedly critical space located somewhere between the fiction of painting and the fiction of photography. I wasn't turned on by the premise, however, considering that this ground has been so well covered over the last 150 years, from Edgar Degas to Gerhard Richter. Not that Harvey's paintings are unappealing, but they are staged and the Polaroids themselves may or may not actually exist as "real" source material.
These paintings are rendered on plywood panels so everything about them was hardened and they lacked that special chemical softness that gives actual Polaroids their lovely glow. Real Flowers seemed the most potent, perhaps because it's subject was a close-up of fake glass flowers and the hardwood panel reinforced that image's radiant and brittle transparency.
Two minutes and two blocks later I was inside Luhring Augustine (531 W. 24th Street) looking at Gunther Förg's colossal new abstract paintings ($60,000-$130,000). Förg is a titan of European abstraction but like Richter, Helmut Federle and Sigmar Polke, Förg seldom shows in New York and one often gets the feeling these painters' best work gets first look elsewhere. Förg's last show at Luhring Augustine was in 1995. Six huge paintings dominate various spots in the gallery, each one commanding the full breadth of the bays.
Förg's paintings are coyly titled after New York locales: White Street, Coney Island, Williamsburg, etc. Image-wise, Förg is still channeling the ghosts of Barnett Newman and his style of the supercharged sublime -- as well as that of the late German abstract painter Blinky Palermo, who was infinitely more inventive and intuitive than Förg. River House has a large windowpane structure that is redolent of James Bishop's painting.
Although Förg's works are deeply impressive, they retain the same fascist scale that the artist has frequently photographed before in the modern buildings of Giuseppe Terragni, among other architects. I admire the clarity and aspiration of Förg's painting a great deal, but he's a cold-blooded painter, and I suspect that his work suffers from the same affliction that most corporate architecture does in that his paintings, despite the impact of their "heroic confrontation," belong in the class of the "monumental temporary."
A gentler brand of modernism could be seen at Lawrence Markey's new uptown gallery (42 E. 76th Street) where the linear sculptures of the famed Minimalist Fred Sandback rearranged the interior volumes of this charming townhouse space. One of Sandback's trademark yarn sculptures deftly appeared to pass through the fireplace mantle like a pale blue javelin.
In addition to his vapor-colored bisecting spatial sculptures, this inaugural show also included assemblages made of knifed cardboard and low reliefs of routed plywood ($4,000-$25,000). The random dangle of the cable TV wires outside the gallery's window made an interesting contrast to Sandback's taut strands of yarn. One cannot help but be impressed by an artist like Sandback, who supposedly showed up for his show at the Dia Center in Chelsea a few years ago with everything he needed for installation inside a small tackle box.
Also seen: "Minimal Maximal" at Feigen Contemporary (535 W. 20th Street, $2,500-25,000), a group show that features paintings by the estimable Shirley Kaneda, who exhibits there. Other standouts included Dennis Hollingsworth's Fantastic Voyage painting that was covered with sea urchin spiked "monkey balls" of paint, and Jeremy Blake's mysteriously haunting-yet "of the moment" C-print titled Guccinam.
Another interesting group show that's mainly works on paper is on view at Brent Sikkema (530 W. 22nd Street, $800-$10,000). Highlights here for me included Ruth Root's small abstractions that resemble gaily-glazed airships; Arturo Herrera's ten-piece constructivist drawings with peek-a-boo doodles in their margins; and David Dupuis' fantastic yet eerily earthy drawings that seem to emit a strange gamma-ray type volatile light of their own.
MICHAEL BRENNAN is a New York painter who writes on art.