Still Life With Melodrama: Mansdorf in the Bedroom

Each time I’ve run into a painting by Eve Mansdorf, mostly in group shows here and there around the city, I’ve come away impressed by its flinty integrity. Ms. Mansdorf’s one-woman show of still lifes and figurative compositions, currently at the First Street Gallery, reiterates this virtue. A model of diligence, Ms. Mansdorf is also a draftsman and paint-handler of tremendous ability. For those who esteem the rigors inherent in depicting the human form, or the spontaneous coalescing of shifting patches of color, Ms. Mansdorf’s paintings will do the trick.

Or, one should say, a good part of the trick. While Ms. Mansdorf’s gifts are undeniable, her attempts at narrative painting are less so. Her disaffected couples and families put out of their homes by fire are stunted in that their staging underscores artifice rather than cultivates fiction. Ms. Mansdorf is at her best when sticking to the plain-as-day particulars of her craft. We aren’t drawn to her six-packs, toy guns and nude model in the stairwell for their dramaturgy. We go to them because they are pictures we can believe in.

Having said that, the glimpse Ms. Mansdorf proffers of a woman cutting a man’s hair hints at an intimacy that is becoming and true. In the meantime, she might want to reacquaint herself with the old saw about the art that conceals art and see where it leads her. To good places, I’ll bet. Eve Mansdorf: Recent Paintings is at First Street Gallery, 526 West 26th Street, Suite 915, until April 13.

Union Boss’ Cityscapes

The self-taught artist Ralph Fasanella (1914-1997), whose work is currently the subject of the exhibition Ralph Fasanella’s America at the New-York Historical Society, painted what he knew best: the working-class neighborhoods of New York City. His depictions of family, street fairs, stickball and Harry & Bud’s Service Station-the business of which he was co-owner-dote on detail while reveling in the larger urban panorama. As might be expected of a former trade-union organizer and onetime member of the Young Communist League, Fasanella often touched on politics in his work: Joseph McCarthy, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the assassination of J.F.K. figure prominently in the pictures. As is expected of a folk artist, the paintings are unadulterated by pretension, heartfelt and pure.

The most charming of Fasanella’s paintings, like the encomiums to sandlot baseball and home sweet home, keep it simple and bucolic. The beneficent sun in Main Street-Dobbs Ferry (1985) should shine on us all. Yet the majority of Fasanella’s pictures do less with more. For all of its specificity, the work is pretty generic. The major exception is Farewell, Comrade-The End of the Cold War (1992-97), a picture that puts Communism to rest more with regret than good riddance. As art, Farewell, Comrade is cluttered but fascinating. As evidence of a true believer’s confusion when faced with the brute fact of history, it is arresting, terrifying and sad. That’s why it’s the strongest thing here. Ralph Fasanella’s America is at the New-York Historical Society, 2 West 77th Street, until July 14.

Dear Jack: Lose the Gimmick

Like a lot of young artists, Jack Featherly, whose recent abstract paintings are on view at Team Gallery, has talent, an “eye” and the irritating inability to take his work seriously. Of course, this latter tendency could just as well be a savvy marketing strategy-sincerity and gravitas being the last things likely to propel one into the front ranks of the contemporary scene. And Mr. Featherly’s clever post-mortems on abstract painting are nothing if not with it. Picture Clyfford Still and Cy Twombly funneled through the Pop aesthetic, peppered with postmodernist affectation, and given a sheen so hard and shiny one could ice-skate upon it, and you’ll have an idea of how this artist transmutes a great tradition into a trivial pursuit.

What’s dispiriting about Mr. Featherly is that he’s clearly capable of better things. The friction he generates between stenciled calligraphy and the fluffy forms that engulf it catch the eye. I’d even go so far as to call Psychobuildings (2002) a good picture. Yet the habit of conspicuously signing each canvas in a different font is the giveaway-as if we didn’t already know that Mr. Featherly’s main priority in life is to prove himself way beyond cool. We get it, Jack, we get it. Now shut up and paint. Jack Featherly is at Team Gallery, 527 West 26th Street, until April 20.