Like a precocious adolescent making good on early promise, the Williamsburg gallery scene is getting its act together. Professionalism is high, and the consistency of quality among the top tier of galleries is unprecedented.
Happily, for the day-tripper, the scene is still discoverable, being fairly concentrated (and riddled with coffee spots and high-carb lunch options). What's more, gallery staffs tend to be approachable and interested in discussing the work that's on view.
The artist and gallery owner Joe Amrhein has been a fixture in the neighborhood since opening Pierogi nearly a decade ago. Williamsburg-watchers have until Nov. 17, 2003, to see "Slightly Cryptic," Amrhein's second solo show at Roebling Hall, the veteran gallery located on Wythe Avenue. For his densely painted word-works, the artist takes especially portentous sentence fragments from contemporary art criticism -- phrases like "quirky, pointless rigor" and "playful, wistful, allusive, and profoundly female." Using the techniques of sign painting, he renders them in enamel and gold leaf on mylar. These text blocks are typically arranged in overlapping bands, which makes them even harder to read -- layers of meaning compete with levels of obfuscation.
This cerebral work is also very funny, but Amrhein claims he's not concerned with mocking art critics -- much. It's clear that he must have a certain affection for this recondite, flashy, hyperspecialized language in order to have so much fun with it. The ocean of verbiage culminates in the tidal wave that is Retro (2002), a monster piece measuring 12 x 20 x 12 feet. It stands as Amrhein's most physically commanding expression of contrasting hothouse rhetoric and display type.
Over on South 1st Street, Plus Ultra Gallery cofounders Ed Winkleman and Joshua Stern have recently doubled the size of their space, and are showing new sculpture and photography by Joe Fig there through Nov. 17. The exhibition, Fig's second at this venue, consists of small, tabletop-sized models of artists' studios rendered in minute detail, from painting racks and work tables right down to squashed coffee cups and rags on the floor. Each artist (Fred Tomaselli, Inka Essenhigh, Matthew Ritchie among others) is shown in a moment of inactivity, alone, doing what artists actually do most -- looking glumly at their work in progress.
Fig's work is compelling not because of any glam connection to celebrity culture, but for its depiction of the isolation of creative activity. A recent SVA grad and longtime Brooklynite, Fig has been conducting interviews with his subjects as well as making extensive photographic records of their studios (on which the models are based), bringing the methods of the anthropologist to this odd tribe, contemporary artists.
Having exhibited her work in a number of group shows around town in the last few years, 30-something Yale grad Jackie Gendel makes her New York solo debut with a show titled "Let Go" at the very polished Jessica Murray Projects, on view through Nov. 24. The paintings are in oil and paraffin wax on panels, and the most interesting of them feature complex, tactile surfaces characterized by sharply incised lines and vigorous scraping and reworking.
In paintings like Wake (2003, 40 x 60 in.) and the especially beautiful Kablasto (2003, 40 x 30 in.), figurative references are barely discernable, subsumed into the overall matrix of marks in a process that appears to be largely improvisational. The element of drawing in these pieces is so central and varied that it's easy to overlook the artist's understated but evocative palette of delicate blues, greens, grays and a jaunty yellow.
Simplified color and complex drawing are used to entirely different effect in new paintings by Hunter College alumnus Evan Lintermans, now on view at star67 through Nov. 10. Gallery co-owners Claire Lemetais and Ron Segev have occupied their current space, on the remote west end of Metropolitan Avenue, for the last year. This dramatically spare presentation of Lintermans' work is dominated by the wall-sized M (2003), a 10 x 14 ft. acrylic and enamel painting of an Alaskan mountain peak.
The artist has taken charge of his photographic source material and transcended it completely, meticulously translating the image into irregular shards of icy blues and whites, its sculptural massiveness enhanced by raking light and attendant deep shadows. Up close, the faceted, interlocking shapes flatten to eccentric tiles.
In two related, smaller pieces, Lintermans makes his surfaces seem even more anonymous, painting them in acrylic on the reverse side of sheets of clear Plexiglas. A 30-year-old Los Angeles native now based in Greenpoint, Lintermans has previously exhibited shaped paintings of glassy modern buildings at the gallery. He likes his surfaces slick and shiny, and the care and reserve he brings to his painting insists on its own kind of brio.
Don Burmeister, director of Safe-T-Gallery on Bayard Street, has given himself a show -- quite rightly. His large, crisply detailed color photographs of Indian burial mounds that punctuate the landscape of the south and midwest are quietly stunning. The ancient sites -- the oldest cultural artifacts on this continent -- have in some cases been carefully isolated from their middle-American surroundings and to some degree protected, within state parks or as national monuments.
Burmeister's interest is clearly in the clash between the sanctity of the cemetery and the profanity of the encroaching strip malls and housing developments. The pictures chillingly capture that tension. In one, a grass-covered mound looks especially incongruous even as it perfectly frames a basketball backstop. After ten years as a photographer, Burmeister knows what he's doing, and these prints, from 4-by-5-inch negatives, are a nice break from the out-of-focus school that seems to be everywhere now. The show is on view through Nov. 8.
Another noteworthy show, now unfortunately closed, was Peter Scott's installation at Schroeder-Romero, located in the center of the Williamsburg scene at North 3rd Street. Called "Mirrors," the exhibition was a clever exploration of domesticity and the horrors that may hide beneath its calm exterior. Literally so, as Scott floats painted illustrations of violent encounters behind one-way mirrors, so that the action, which hides behind the viewer's own reflection, can be made out only on close inspection.
Also on display were photographs of the same mirror pieces, hanging in cold, cozy domestic interiors -- a sitting room, a hallway -- in which the violent image is barely visible in the mirror, a ghostly suggestion of mayhem insinuating itself among the mundane trappings of an apparently benevolent, familiar setting. But is it? Shades of Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt.
TODT soldiers on. The celebrated 1980s art collaborative, until recently ensconced in Cincinnati, has now relocated to Williamsburg and gone public with an "exurbia" installation at Sideshow on Bedford Avenue. TODT has always made gloomy, low-tech mood pieces, and this show was no different. A cascading water trough like a mountain brook was suspended in the center of the space, surrounded by elements of "plastic nature" -- fake foliage, little toy animals, styrofoam rocks. The show also featured welded steel structures with cheesy light boxes suggesting billboards defiling the landscape. It was a small monument to a culture winding down, its fecundity exhausted, crossing over into decay.
About 18 months ago, Naked Duck Gallery opened its modest space off the beaten track on Jackson Street (near the now-defunct Flipside). Recently on view there was "Layered Wax Paintings" by Joanne Ungar. The artist follows a procedure she characterizes as "obsessive" and maybe it is, though that term can imply a visual tedium that's absent from her lustrous, mysterious objects. Each monochromatic work consists of multiple layers of waxes, resins and other materials (the gallery literature is delightfully specific on this topic) embedded with an enigmatic, emblematic shape, usually darker than the surrounding field and always some variation on the circle.
Ungar often adds pigments during the process, altering the beeswax amber with dusty reds, violets and greens. The largest paintings are about two feet square but over an inch thick, the edges unfinished and the plywood support undisguised, revealing something of the means of their making. That such abundant physicality should give rise to a visual experience so delicately nuanced and ethereal -- spiritual, even -- is the paradox driving this work.
A lot of artists are thinking about architecture conceptually, but Steel Stillman's approach is essentially phenomenological, having to do with the visual shaping -- of transom, handrail, molding, faade, finial -- that qualifies our experience of man-made space, that defines it by cluttering it. In his recent exhibition at Momenta Art on Berry Street, this mid-career painter showed two smallish flasche-on-wood pieces, in vermilion, terra cotta and black, built around concentric shapes that paradoxically flatten space while at the same time suggesting the deep recession of a hallway or a staircase.
Two larger pieces were eccentrically shaped, monochrome panels in more neutral colors, floating slightly off the gallery wall. The accompanying black-and-white works on paper, silhouettes derived from bulky furniture, suggest that the paintings have their origins in representation. It was a great-looking show by an artist with an exquisitely refined and personal visual vocabulary. Next stop for this busy painter is Galerie van Gelder in Amsterdam, later this year.
Sometimes the naming of a show introduces a linguistic component that may not be in the best interest of the viewing experience. "Chandeliers," a strong group of new paintings by Laurie Thomas, was recently on view at Priska C. Juska Fine Art on North 9th Street and helpful though the title may have been, it gave away a bit too much. Knowing from the outset that the imagery was based on fancy lighting fixtures did a disservice to these expansive, buoyant paintings, which might otherwise have remained more allusive; the nested, dotted ellipses that are the leitmotif of this work might have evoked a broader range of associations. The paintings, in oil on linen and most about four by five feet, were individually good, if collectively unfocused; the anomalous, veiled works on paper (too artfully presented, arrayed in a corner), because they were more personal, were much more engaging.
STEPHEN MAINE is an artist and writer who lives in Brooklyn.