Paintings With Issues Have a Mood That Lingers

To describe the painter Irving Petlin as uncategorizable is to soft-pedal his essential strangeness. An American who divides his time between Paris and New York, the 68-year-old Mr. Petlin is a loner, an odd duck and a tough nut to crack. His peculiar brand of figuration avoids even the most encompassing of generalizations. It traverses the diaristic, the Surrealistic, the Expressionistic and the ideological without settling snugly into any one camp.

The closest one can come to pegging him is to say that his pictures recall those of the 19th-century French painter, Odilon Redon–another idiosyncratic artist consumed by magical and often bizarre visions. Even so, Mr. Petlin can’t be considered an imagist–that is to say, an artist who uses representational means to achieve fantastic ends. Image isn’t his forte; the pictures don’t stick in the memory. What does stick is mood: a piercing admixture of regret, reminiscence and longing. With its wan, acidic light and skittering outlines, Mr. Petlin’s art abjures the concrete.

The reason I can describe Mr. Petlin’s recent efforts, currently the subject of an exhibition at Kent Gallery, is that I’ve inventoried them in my notes. The paintings and drawings on display depict soldiers, bedraggled figures, charging horses, a recurring cobblestone street, Tyrolean architecture and a mass of people undergoing what appears to be a massacre. Given this unsettling list, it’s clear that the artist has big issues on his mind. The centerpiece of the show–a panoramic canvas measuring seven by 16 feet–is titled Hebron . With its allusions both to the Bible and contemporary events, as well as its repeated gougings of red paint, the canvas would seem to be unequivocal, political and provocative.

Yet even when Mr. Petlin explicitly sources his art, his art resists the explicit; there’s just too much give to the images to pin them down. Compare Hebron to the paintings of Leon Golub, with which it bears some comparison, and one can’t help but appreciate Mr. Petlin’s disquieting ambiguity. Indeed, resistance and ambiguity are, for this artist, a conduit for reverie. Colluding the awful sweep of history with the soft-focus particularity of a dream, Mr. Petlin’s art haunts to the extent that it remains ungraspable. I’ve visited his show three times now and still don’t know if the pictures are any good. I can tell you that they nag at the conscience. I can also tell you that I want to see them again. Irving Petlin: Endgame is at Kent Gallery, 67 Prince Street, until March 30.

A Sporty Show That Rebounds With Cheer

It’s impossible to visit the Washburn Gallery, which is currently hosting an exhibition of abstract tondo paintings by Leon Polk Smith (1906-1996), without leaving with a smile on one’s face. Smith, an American disciple of Mondrian’s neo-plasticism, took inspiration where he found it–often in unlikely places. Leafing through a catalog of athletic goods in 1954, he became intrigued by illustrations of various types of balls and subsequently based a group of paintings on them.

One doesn’t have to know the specific source for the pictures in order to register their esprit. The exacting pliability of Smith’s contours, as well as the manner in which his flat, uninflected shapes connote volume and propulsion, exhibit a painter off on a lark and enjoying every minute of it. The whimsy informing these boomerang-like paintings is clear–as is the curiosity driving them.

Washburn has installed the ball pictures with an eye towards maximizing their compositional commonalities, and the gallery rebounds, as it were, with good cheer. Of course, one might question just how well they would fare seen one at a time. But why quibble with a show as buoyant as this one? As for Smith, he’s tidy but not too tidy, playful but sharp, and more relaxed than Ellsworth Kelly has ever been. Leon Polk Smith: Baseballs, Basketballs and Tennis c. 1955 is at the Joan T. Washburn Gallery, 20 West 57th Street, until March 30.