No-Nonsense Portraits Of Wild, Naked Women

Arrogance isn’t a trait we usually single out for commendation, but in art it has its uses. In the art of Neil Welliver, whose early figurative paintings are the subject of an exhibition at the Alexandre Gallery, arrogance is, if not the work’s defining characteristic, then the engine that powers it. His paintings of beautiful young women immersing themselves in mountain streams are no-nonsense, tersely put into shape. Covering the canvas with an edge-to-edge emphasis, Mr. Welliver’s brush endows every inch of his surfaces with an unyielding pressure. Concomitantly, the pictures have a stubborn physicality. This in-your-face quality accounts for the work’s arrogance, as well as its “abstractness.” Yet Mr. Welliver isn’t an abstract painter. His pictures are representational–and sexy, too.

Ken Johnson of The New York Times accurately described the women posing in the pictures as having “bodies a Playmate of the Month could envy”–just don’t call them “bunnies.” What gives the paintings their erotic charge has something to do with nudity, but just as much–and probably more–with the cool self-possession Mr. Welliver’s subjects exude. These women know their own minds, are confident in their sensuality, and aren’t about to put up with any guff. I doubt Mr. Welliver has much patience for theories that postulate the oppressiveness of “the male gaze.” But I like how his pictures play into that nostrum, confirming it from the outside in, and subverting it from the inside out.

Not that these are feminist paintings. They’re just very great ones. And if the little voice in the back of my head tells me I overrate them, I’m not going to listen to it. Neither should you. Neil Welliver: Early Figurative Paintings is at Alexandre Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, until Jan. 26.

Excellent Bad Taste

Steve Gianakos has been such a ubiquitous figure in the New York art scene for the last 20 years or so that it comes as a surprise to learn that the exhibition of his drawings, collages and paintings currently at the Fredericks Freiser Gallery is his first in seven years. Walking into the show, I was equally surprised to discover that I missed him.

A Pop-wise ironist whose specialty is Surrealist titillation, Mr. Gianakos uses as his launching pad the fantastic scenarios found in the collage novels of Max Ernst. He works with a revolving bank of found images and plucks them out to cut, tuck and splice. In one picture, an octopus violates an elephant maiden; in another, a baseball speeds neatly between the buttocks of a fashion model. Women, in Mr. Gianakos’ cosmos, are cheesecake and cheeseheads and ducks and clowns, horny and vengeful.

Having once been an adolescent, I can understand the appeal of Mr. Gianakos’ naughty high jinks. I can also appreciate his way with materials, if not in the paintings (a medium for which Mr. Gianakos hasn’t a clue), then in the patchy expertise of the collages. Yet after spending time with his art, one not only gets a whiff of snobbery–the artist’s excellent bad taste places him well above the rabble–but of a sexism that isn’t a target of satire so much as a tendency to which he capitulates. Mere expertise can’t redeem anything that sour. Come to think of it, maybe I didn’t miss Mr. Gianakos. Steve Gianakos is at Fredericks Freiser Gallery, 504 West 22nd Street, until Jan. 19.

A Blow To Brazil

The centerpiece of Brazil: Body & Soul , an exhibition currently at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, is the main altar of the Benedictine church of São Bento de Olinda. Measuring some 44 feet high, 26 feet across and 14 feet deep, the altar is staggering in its scale and effusive in its Baroque stylings. As with many of the objects featured in Body & Soul , the awe that it inspires lies less in the aesthetic than in the devotional. This isn’t to say that the altar should not be considered an object of consequence. It’s a Brazilian national treasure and deserves to be. So why put it at risk by schlepping it all the way to Manhattan?

Body & Soul isn’t the first exhibition to prompt qualms about the transportation and possible endangerment of precious stuff. Nor is the Guggenheim the only museum whose curatorial wisdom should be called into question regarding such matters. Yet the Guggenheim’s example is particularly egregious in that Body & Soul is such a stunning example of everything that’s wrong with the contemporary museum. From walls that have been painted black to the video documentaries blaring from the stairwells, the exhibition is headache-inducing and attention-deflecting, claustrophobic and cacophonous. It’s a spectacle attempting to pass as an exhibition of art. That the objects on display have been strong-armed into playing second fiddle to showbizzery is an insult to the richness of Brazilian culture–one for which Jean Nouvel, the architect who installedtheshow,and Guggenheimdirector Thomas Krens owe the Brazilian people an apology. Don’t hold your breath waiting for it, though. Brazil: Body & Soul is at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, until Jan. 27.