Newly Contrarian Puryear:
His Best Sticks in the Craw
Deadeye (2002) is the title of the first thing we see upon entering the McKee Gallery, which is currently hosting an exhibition of four sculptures by Martin Puryear. Made of pine, Mr. Puryear’s dimpled biomorph is immaculately crafted, thoroughly considered and streamlined in its eccentricity. It is, in short, everything we have come to expect from this artist, except for one thing: It’s kind of boring. True, as far as boring goes, Mr. Puryear’s amalgam of Modernist clarity, Shaker purity and emblematic concentration is rather amazing. One can’t help but goggle at the sheer seamlessness of Deadeye . Yet seamlessness is, for an artist as gifted as this one, less a challenge than a given. There’s no resistance to Deadeye ; it hasn’t been realized so much as polished off.
That’s only one sculpture, though. The three other pieces at McKee are less perfect and better off for it. What they share is a curious literalist flourish-an overlay, if not quite an imposition, of “meaning” on abstract structure. Whether it be the belligerent
ampersand of Vessel (1997-2002), the mute stoop leading to Confessional (1996-2000) or the surrealist grenade that is Nightmare (2001-2002), each work questions the inviolability of form. This is a troubling tactic, yet it’s also a fascinating one. Mr. Puryear’s sculptures stick in the memory to the extent that they stick in the craw. It’s as if he’s forsaken Brancusi as an artistic model only to take up with a contrarian like H.C. Westermann. This isn’t necessarily an improvement, but it has done Mr. Puryear a world of good. It’s done us a world of good, too-better to have an artist we can argue with than an unapproachable master. And the new stuff is approachable indeed. Martin Puryear: New Sculpture is at McKee Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, until June 21.
Someday I’ll learn to ignore press releases. Take the one that accompanies the exhibition of paintings by Shoshana Dentz currently at the Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery. In it we read that Ms. Dentz’s pictures “combine the ineffable beauty of abstraction with personal and political narrative.” And what does this “narrative” entail? “Humanitarian ideals,” we’re told, along with “values” and, most conspicuously, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By employing the Kuffieh, the scarf worn as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, as a pictorial marker, Ms. Dentz uses her paintings as a means of ideological discovery.
I would be the last to deny anyone their conflicted emotions about a seemingly intractable crisis. Nor do I want to suggest that one’s political leanings should cloud one’s response to Ms. Dentz’s paintings. What I do want to suggest is that Ms. Dentz’s political leanings cloud the making of her art. Clearly she considers “ineffable beauty” an inadequate objective. It’s certainly not on view at Klagsbrun, largely because this artist has yet to
realize that her layered surfaces and fractured patterns can’t sustain the
extra-aesthetic baggage they’re claiming. As a consequence, the paintings waffle: They’re too big when they’re big, too small when they’re small, and half-baked when they’re in between. Since Ms. Dentz has the goods to become a terrific painter, perhaps it’s best to consider these canvases a step toward greater things. Just keep your fingers crossed and hope that she doesn’t get distracted along the way. Shoshana Dentz: Paintings is at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, 526 West 26th Street, Room 213, until May 25.
Herculean Tribe Beats His Chest
Sculptor Lee Tribe is an artist of immense talents, and like a lot of immensely talented artists, he likes to show off. There’s a lot of huffing and puffing going on at his current exhibition at the Robert Steele Gallery. Not in terms of stylistic diversity-if anything, the stunted nature of this retrospective makes one curious to see a wider array of his art-but in terms of effort. An heir to the tradition of Constructivist sculpture, Mr. Tribe is aware of how lineage can bind as well as inspire. Setting out to prove that he’s his own man, Mr. Tribe has met his goal. One only wishes that he didn’t have to beat his chest in doing so.
Then again, given the ambitious character of Mr. Tribe’s accomplishment, a little chest-beating isn’t out of order. Unlike his Constructivist forebears, Mr. Tribe is a sculptor who concerns himself with mass. Utilizing cut-out parcels of steel, chains and what appear to be armaments, he gives body to monoliths that are hulking, contorted and not a little menacing. Their heroic muscularity can be rousing, but I prefer Mr. Tribe when he verges on the ridiculous. Prayer III (2002), for instance, locates a droll pathos in an over-the-top phallocentrism, just as Prayer IV (2002) transforms the male anatomy into a Dadaist cousin of Happy Hooligan. It would be crass to say that Mr. Tribe is at his best when making penis jokes. Yet one does wonder if his not-always-apparent sense of humor doesn’t strengthen the work by undercutting its brawn. In the meantime, Mr. Tribe tussles with precedent-deeply, dramatically and to Herculean effect. Lee Tribe is at the Robert Steele Gallery, 547 West 27th Street, until May 18.