The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward , an exhibition currently at the James Cohan Gallery, takes as its inspiration the art of Harry Smith (1923-1991), painter, filmmaker, folklorist, anthropologist and magician. Actually, it’s closer to the truth to say that Smith’s life is the inspiration here, just as it has been for the following he’s acquired in the decade since his death. Notwithstanding his myriad interests, Smith was less a Renaissance man than a loner given to visions. Therein lies his appeal: Terminally broke, perpetually stoned, given to rages and adept at black magic, Smith is a shaggy anti-establishment figure who shunned conventional society in pursuit of a higher truth. His “unforeseen cultural eminence,” as the press release has it, owes much to the contemporary tendency to mistake eccentricity for genius and pathology for virtue. A movie is undoubtedly in the offing; perhaps Julian Schnabel will direct.
The authenticity of Smith’s art can be gauged by the distance it keeps from ordinary human experience. Forever remote, his psychedelic talismans are notable primarily as emblems of a scattered mind. When seen alongside the pictures of art-world insiders like Philip Taaffe and Fred Tomaselli, as they are at Cohan, the oddball integrity of Smith’s work is gratifyingly apparent. An array of zodiac circles that he painted around 1980 pulses with a humble urgency. Neither Mr. Taaffe or Mr. Tomaselli can claim this lack of guile; both men reiterate their conceptualist underpinnings even as they attempt to shirk them. Their work is too schooled to get out from under its own pretensions.
Mr. Taaffe’s Rorschachian blips and blots are high-end Surrealist pastiche, likable and O.K. Mr. Tomaselli’s meticulously collaged ruminations on man, God and the nature of the universe bear the same relationship to philosophy as taxidermy does to animal husbandry. Seen all together, however, Smith and his disciples make a splendidly obsessive case for craft as a viable conduit to revelation. Their arguments may be woozy, but The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward is more than the sum of its painstaking parts. Credit should go to curator Raymond Foye for putting together a surprisingly appealing show from some lean diversions.
The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward: Selected Works by Harry Smith, Philip Taaffe and Fred Tomaselli is at the James Cohan Gallery, 41 West 57th Street, until Oct. 19.
Bump, Clunk and Grind
Did I read in The New Yorker that the abstract paintings of Andrew Masullo, currently on display at the Washburn Gallery, are “pleasantries”? I detect a dismissive tone. Mr. Masullo’s kitsch-inflected amalgamations of cut-rate biomorphs and askew geometries are cheerful, bright and bouncy; they flirt with frivolity. But watch your back: His art has bite. Acerbic and abrasive, the paintings are sharpened with irony, if not defined by it. I thought those tweedy types at The New Yorker cared about words. Sure, Mr. Masullo’s pictures are “pleasantries”-if your idea of pleasant is sucking on a Jolly Rancher laced with vinegar.
The sweet exterior of Mr. Masullo’s art is a façade for some pointed stylistic recycling. This is an artist who trivializes precedent even as he honors it: Hanna-Barbera and Myron Stout, retro-futurism and utopian longings, crusty textures and drop-dead elegance-they’re all the same to him. Yet Mr. Masullo does love painting. It’s there to see in the tautness of his rhythms, the clean authority of his contours and the tenderness with which his forms bump, clunk and grind. Not that he’s perfect: The gloppy forays into relief painting succumb to a cuteness that is Mr. Masullo’s downfall. There are moments when I worry that he doesn’t have an original bone in his body. But there are other moments-most of the time, in fact-when I think he’s one of the best painters working.
Andrew Masullo: Recent Paintings is at the Washburn Gallery, 20 West 57th Street, until Oct. 19.
Rumbling With Love
Like many artists, Chuck Connelly, whose recent paintings are on view at Lennon, Weinberg, has felt compelled to address 9/11 in his work. Catastrophic scenes have long appeared in Mr. Connelly’s pictures, but their presence here is freighted with history in a way that’s new for him. Fire in the City (1995), a small canvas of the southern tip of Manhattan in flames, has been included for its awful prescience; Fireman I (2001) is a diaphanous homage to heroism. Mr. Connelly’s biblical scenes, centered around the tale of Noah and the ark, churn with apocalyptic fury, and their relevance is disconcerting. Elsewhere, scrawling words large and emphatic, the artist ruminates on rainbows, good tidings, Christmas Day and Enron.
Mr. Connelly’s topical paintings are honorable failures: The anguish is real, the impetus nonexploitative and the results sentimental rather than grand. More compelling are the pictures of Mr. Connelly’s surroundings in suburban Philadelphia. When he’s focused on home and hearth, he’s a different man- rejuvenated and exuberant, happy to be where he is. The tag “Expressionist” never sat comfortably on this painter’s shoulders, largely because his roiling surfaces and pasty paint-handling felt gratuitous, more a matter of style than necessity. Here, Mr. Connelly slathers oil paint in a way that’s purposeful, spirited and, at times, winningly perverse. His tributes to domesticity aren’t only refreshing; crowded with transgressors of one sort or another, they’re radical, too. His pictures rumble with love.
Chuck Connelly: Recent Paintings is at Lennon, Weinberg, 560 Broadway, until Oct. 12.
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