Stick around the gallery scene long enough and certain figures become ubiquitous. So ubiquitous, in fact, that visiting their most recent exhibition is less a matter of necessity than of duty and grudging duty, at that. This outlook borders on the cynically apathetic and can ultimately lead to the most pickled of perspectives. But in a scene where a successful longevity is often a matter of reiterating a trademark style, bland intolerance is more sensible than we might like to admit. I mean, if Robert Ryman finds another minuscule variant on fudging white paint across a flat surface, the presses can surely keep on rolling.
All of which was brought to mind when the invitation for HOT!!, an exhibition of paintings by Robert Kushner at the DC Moore Gallery, arrived in my mailbox. Mr. Kushner is a fairly ubiquitous painter, one who has exhibited regularly in New York for close to 30 years. I don’t want to give the impression that he’s an artist whose work we’re better off skimming over lightly. His lavish depictions of flora, inspired as much by Henri Matisse as by Japanese Rimpa painters like Ogata Korin, are those of an artist for whom the decorative isn’t simply a passion but, one feels, a way of life. I’ve been an admirer of Mr. Kushner’s work since his 1995 show at the Midtown Payson Galleries threw me for the most ecstatic of loops. Each picture in that exhibition was a giddy yet deep-felt celebration of color, line and material. His subsequent work has maintained that jubilant high. Still, I more than briefly wondered, while fingering my invitation for HOT!!, if Mr. Kushner might not have begun digging himself the most engaging of ruts. Was he really capable of earning an exhibition title that required not one but two exclamation points?
These doubts were dispelled when I finally got around to visiting HOT!! If Mr. Kushner’s continuing use of botanical motifs will surprise no one, his sense of color continues to gain in resonance a not-unimpressive fact given an oeuvre whose vibrancy would seem hard to expand upon. Although simmer might not be as scintillating a trope as hot, simmer is what the paintings do radiate a heat that is steady, nourishing and strong, but not so strong as to overtax our central nervous systems. Mr. Kushner’s use of glitter and gold and palladium leaf key in to his chromatic knack. In lesser hands, these materials would result in the gaudiest kind of pictorial kitsch. In Mr. Kushner’s hands, glitter and gold are a surprisingly organic component of his palette. There are a lot of painters who use a lot of color, but there are few we would feel justified in dubbing colorists. Mr. Kushner is very much the latter.
In the exhibition catalog, gallery owner Bridget Moore writes that Mr. Kushner “is particularly interested in the high key palette of the 1960s and considers Pop Art as one of the last great painterly traditions in American art.” As someone who considers Pop Art a nihilistic steamroller whose bright accessibility is part and parcel of its sneaky bad faith, I can only scratch my head that an artist as life-affirming as Mr. Kushner should esteem it as much as he does. Of course, everyone is allowed one mistake: If Mr. Kushner divines inspiration in the Day-Glo palette of that overrated epoch, well, more power to him.
As it stands, I find that his paintings have less in common with Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist and company than with Hans Hofmann. Like that volcanic pedagogue, Mr. Kushner isn’t always capable of sustaining a composition all the way through; the pictures, with their encyclopedic compendium of painterly techniques, are a mite tricky. Nonetheless, Mr. Kushner, again like Hofmann, is propelled by an unadulterated exuberance and a gift for translating that exuberance into paint. His canvases are shamelessly, winningly seductive. New Yorkers in need of respite from a brisk beginning to spring are advised to head over to DC Moore in order to bask in Mr. Kushner’s generous, over-the-top bravura. Robert Kushner: HOT!! is at the DC Moore Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, until March 31.
Even the Intricacies Are Self-Conscious
Like John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage, Julie Heffernan is a figurative artist who yokes newfangled ends to oldfangled means. Her paintings, currently on exhibit at PPOW and Littlejohn Contemporary, picture a fairy-tale-like realm abundant with symbol and captained by theory. Ms. Heffernan employs the conventions of Old Master painting and puts them in the service of an art that takes the credo “the personal is the political” at face value. One doesn’t have to read the press release to intuit the work’s preoccupation with issues of gender, identity, adolescence and eco-politics it’s there to scan in the pictures. Yet as plain as Ms. Heffernan’s art may be, it’s also adamant in its evasions. Mistaking the impenetrable for the poetic, the artist conceals nothing and withholds everything. This is frustrating one canvas of a dozen or so bathing beauties frolicking in what appears to be a doomed Edenic setting hints at a futzy, Rousseau-like charm. Yet Ms. Heffernan’s canvases aren’t charming; mostly they’re just dreary.
As accomplished as her pictures are, one isn’t tempted to plumb their intricacies, not least because their intricacies are so pro forma. The thing about having a vision is that one has to give it credence in order to give it life. This is something an artist as self-consciously remote as Ms. Heffernan is incapable of doing. Spend some time with her brown and brittle cosmos and one almost begins to pine for the ersatz porno of Mr. Currin and Ms. Yuskavage. Julie Heffernan is at PPOW, 476 Broome Street, and Littlejohn Contemporary, 31 East 57th Street, until March 31.