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by Michael Brennan
|I thought it was lonely being an abstract painter until I discovered what it meant to be a Mets fan in Manhattan during last month's world series. Fall is a time of heightened expectations, whether the game is art or athletics -- not to mention presidential politics. Eyes and minds are geared to spot any kind of clutch performance during this peak season.
In New York's Chelsea art district, the October-November slots are strictly reserved for Main Event features (which quickly overshadow any undercard players in the neighborhood). Who will rise to the occasion? Will the big move be executed with grace, or will it be just another professional job well done?
It's easy to lose sight of what's really at stake. Artists seem to prefer pummeling viewers senseless with strong-arm tactics on the showroom floor. All of us know that big moves count in the end because they're often the only thing that's remembered once the game is finished.
David Diao's first one-person show at Postmasters in six years picks up right where his last exhibition (which carried the telling title, "Bitter Tea") left off. Once again, Diao silkscreened images of Kung-Fu superstar Bruce Lee onto monochrome color fields in a trenchant, Asian-focused postmodern critique. Diao pairs images of Lee with photographs of himself or images of Jackson Pollock painting to raise complicated questions of ethnicity and the conventions of modernism.
Lying 2 is a teal canvas overlaid with a dye transfer print of Diao lounging somewhat coquettishly on a chaise in front of Pollock's famously severe black and white painting Number 32, 1950. Twin Dragons,a triptych, mixes an emblematic image of Lee in a martial arts move with one of Pollock in the midst of his painterly dance.
Diao has made many beautiful paintings over the years -- he has an extremely keen sense of color -- but he has also made some arch postmodern gestures. He once took one of his early abstract paintings -- one that looked something like a curvy and illusionistic Al Held -- and re-exhibited it after he had silkscreened all of the magazine reviews he had received right onto its surface. Only an artist zealously dedicated to an idea could commit this kind of violence to his own work.
In any case, Diao's new paintings, with their wry humor and disarming beauty, are more generous. His use of iconic Pop images works strategically with his subtle painterly gifts. Diao's conceptual approach is important, but I think that his deep knowledge of painting is what makes these works most interesting.
With their simplified shapes and standardized color, Bill Smart's paintings have a certain blank appeal, and so have been a quietly subversive presence in numerous group shows over the past few years. Smart's current installation of six large paintings (individually colored orange, blue, yellow, red, black and teal) at the Elizabeth Harris Gallery again betrays this mildly mischievous charm at work behind the veneer of a coldly formal approach.
Smart's work has often been compared to the gentle and sophisticated abstraction of Myron Stout, who himself was a master of the quaking contour line. Smart's paintings have a generic quality that clearly relates to signage, but not literally so, and it's the painter's hidden wit that seems to lend a glow to their subtle craft.
Although these paintings were made just a few years ago, shortly before the artist's untimely death at age 44, Martin Kippenberger's series, "Jacqueline: The Paintings Pablo Couldn't Paint Anymore," look like throwbacks to the "Neo-Expressionist" style of the early 80's. Kippenberger's eight paintings at Metro Pictures of Picasso's wife Jacqueline have all of that same hot garish color, fast handling of material and bogus bravura that defined that once-popular mode.
While looking at Kippenberger's last works one can't help but be reminded of Julian Schnabel's many self- and celebrity portraits that were painted in the Antonin Artaud style of slash-and-cigarette-burn mark making. This unfortunate association is complicated by the fact that Schnabel has been so adept at aping Picasso's lifestyle via glossy magazine spreads. Schnabel's latter-day Picassolalia, like Kippenberger's paintings of Jacqueline, are based on photographs by David Douglas Duncan, part of a series that documented every aspect of Picasso's later years and was published in Life Magazine before being reprinted in several coffee-table monographs.
Kippenberger's paintings, like Duncan's photographs, are an attempt to capture some of Picasso's brutish glamour by recreating his fecund surroundings -- recording his last beautiful (almost handsome) wife and Old World environs overrun with the last Old Master's copious handiwork. Despite the genuine verve that radiates from Kippenberger's paintings -- and they do make many of today's paintings look hopelessly anemic -- their relationship to their subject could not be any more superficial (and that's superficial in the wrong way). Kippenberger's secondhand romance with Picasso's Jacqueline seems like a woefully misguided attempt to front-load some meaning into his work.
Once again, Matthew Ritchie has found a way to ratchet up the volume of his art still higher. In his fourth one-person exhibition, and his first at Andrea Rosen, Ritchie gives us "Parents and Children," a painting-based installation that literally wraps around the entire space, extending from floor to ceiling before projecting out from the wall and replicating itself into the center of the room.
The artist has expanded upon his cryptic, scientific and mythic narrative that encompasses a kind of explosive Theory of Everything. Here, in annotated whip-crack lines of magic marker and lucid color, he gives us cataclysmic drafts of the Creation and Apocalypse. All manner of encoded and seemingly villainous superheroes perform multi-dimensional tasks of elemental importance, while a Princess Mononoke-type transmutation of materials seethes within and without the rectangular confines of traditional painting.
Ritchie's hand displays a level of confidence reminiscent of that last great Italian old master, Giambattista Tiepolo. Like Ritchie, Tiepolo was a genius at projecting high-flying spirits and heavenly universes, drawing motion itself to the point of distraction, and was clearly capable of making paintings on any surface, in any kind of space. In a move that seems geared more towards weighing impact over experience, Ritchie even gives us a work at the entrance of the gallery done on a large light box.
Lydia Dona has further developed her mechanistic model of abstract painting in an installation of several large and exquisitely diaphanous paintings at Von Lintel & Nusser. Although Dona's vocabulary has been thoroughly developed over the years, the level of execution in these new paintings is absolutely commanding. Their every sensory aspect seems more visibly heightened and accentuated.
For example, the anemone-like microvilli painted with sign-painter's enamel seem more fulsome and animated as they creep over the painting's interior edges. Dona's use of color and line is more exacting, and there's a clarity working through every element of the entire installation that hasn't struck me so completely since I saw her first show in Tom Cugliani's westernmost gallery several years ago.
Blake Rayne's new show at Greene Naftali, which is titled "The Winter Line," is the fourth installment in a series of exhibitions corresponding to one of three seasons (Fall and Winter so far, with Summer in the works). Rayne's ability to address such well-traveled themes is amazing. The seasons are practically the stock in trade of J. Crew catalogues, yet Rayne still manages to come up with images that are inventive and aloof yet moving, images that sustain and linger from moment to memory.
Rayne's paintings are known for their warm, Polaroid-like glow and a deft, Alex Katz-like manner of extracting the maximum meaning from the most minimal and perfectly placed dash of paint. Rayne's soft-focus cinematic seasons have an undeniable and precise beauty. His manner of painting is just so smooth and idealizing. Some of the images in this particular show, such as bare branches extending into fading evening light, are reminiscent of Ralph Eugene Meatyard's "Zen Twig" photography.
Rayne's spell is broken, however, in the wallpaper piece Snowblind, in which a black and depthless field of night, punctuated by dancing flurries of snow and crystal light, is rudely interrupted by a few electrical outlets at bottom. At some point, I'm sure, seeing Rayne's entire season cycle will prove to be an opiate pleasure.
MICHAEL BRENNAN is a New York painter who writes on art.