Focusing on Nature’s Sweep: Vast Images of No Man’s Land

In his review of Winogrand 1964 , an exhibition currently at the International Center of Photography, Daniel Kunitz, art critic for The New York Sun , wrote that “given enough rolls of film and enough time, almost anyone could come up with a handful of great shots.” Mr. Kunitz’s qualifies his remark with a strategic “almost,” thereby making the distinction between Walker Evans and my Aunt Ethel. That photographers have the ability to cull hits and discard a preponderance of misses is a fact that a lot of artists-painters especially-use in arguing for the medium’s status as a lesser art. I’m not about to open that can of worms here. Suffice it to say that there are days when I believe it’s a lesser art and days when I don’t. One of the “don’t” days occurred when I visited the Alexandre Gallery, which is hosting an exhibition of photographs by Melville McLean.

To describe Mr. McLean’s photographs of the coastline of Maine and the deserts of Nevada as beautiful pictures of beautiful places won’t do; it makes them sound like postcards. What distinguishes his work isn’t its size (big) or the context in which it’s seen (a 57th Street gallery), but the way in which it amplifies the experience of looking. Though he takes in traces of man’s presence-beehive boxes, running fences-Mr. McLean’s photographs are notably devoid of human figures. They are, almost literally, pictures of no man’s land. The all-over concentration Mr. McLean brings to the particulars of each landscape makes for an almost unbearable clarity; it requires us to fathom nature’s sweep in a way we’re not accustomed to-one bit at a time, all the time. This approach starkly underscores our separation from the landscape and makes it otherworldly and distant. Codroy Pond can be found in Newfoundland, but seen through Mr. McLean’s lens, it may as well be in Oz.

The human presence in Mr. McLean’s photographs turns out to be our own. His art rebounds back onto the viewer and makes us aware of our status as onlookers. I don’t approve of this tactic; art should be something we get lost in, not knock our heads against. But Mr. McLean makes self-consciousness exhilarating-and not a little demanding. His photographs, with their brusque compositions, vivid colors and unremitting focus, make no allowances for wandering attention; they’re like magnets for the eye. Only artists make the extraordinary even more so. Aunt Ethel can’t do it. Mr. McLean can-and does.

Melville McLean: Recent Photographs, Northeast by Southwest is at the Alexandre Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, until Oct. 26.

A Slow Burn

I ducked into Lori Bookstein Fine Art to get out of the rain and found myself confronted with as perfect a case for the continuing relevance of abstract painting as one could hope for. O.K., I’m exaggerating-I was glad to be warm and dry. All the same, anyone skeptical about the well-being of abstract painting will find their doubts allayed by the gallery’s current exhibition, Abstraction: Four Painters . Its organization is anything but haphazard. The painters included-MarkLaRiviere,Tine Lundsfryd, Peter Sullivan and the late Andrew Forge-share similar concerns. Each of them pursue all-over structures that nevertheless admit the particulars of process. All work intuitively, placing their faith in the surprises, hoping for the riches, that improvisation can bring. All four artists trace their roots, to one extent or another, to Abstract Expressionism. Just don’t expect action painting. The work at Bookstein isn’t loud and tumultuous; it’s ruminative and methodical. It burns slowly and lasts long.

The standard-bearer of Four Painters is Forge, whose style was inspired by the Pointillism of Georges Seurat. Forge is less codified-less “scientific”-than his neo-Impressionistforebear: His canvases, with their jitterbugging dots, dashes and dabs, are a deeply considered antidote to the quick fix. Mr. LaRiviere’s massive forms, worked surfacesandcreamy palette owes much-perhaps too much-to the Abstract Impressionism of Philip Guston; still, he shows up SusanRothenbergand Terry Winters for the painting poseurs they are. Peter Sullivan has been the perpetually promising artist-until now, that is: His layered accumulations of wormy brushstrokes have gained in command and depth. Finally there’s Ms. Lundsfryd, whose notational talismans and percolating triangles bring to mind circuitry, cosmological symbols and blueprints for plumbing. As a painter, she’s too responsive to process to let her obsessive tendencies get the best of her, but she’s obsessive enough to endow her pictures with a peculiar urgency. Willful yet open, convinced yet skeptical, wary yet undeterred-Ms. Lundsfryd is an artist of immense, if quietly stated, contradictions. She bears watching.

Abstraction: Four Painters is at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, 50 East 78th Street, No. 2A, until Nov. 2.

Unapologetic Artifice

Among the masterpieces (and scattered clunkers) found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of 19th-century art is The Pardon in Brittany (1886), a painting by the French academic artist Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret (1852-1929). It’s not a great picture-as with most academic artists, Bouveret sacrificed pictorial vitality in order to emphasize anecdote and technique. Yet this stark depiction of a religious procession has never failed to snag my eye. The piety of the image is reiterated in the regulated crispness of Bouveret’s forms. His palette, particularly in the mottled whites of the women’s habits, is subtle and rich. Most peculiar is the composition’s shift in space-a shift so abrupt and sharp that it can’t help but intimate modernity. I’ve often wondered what the rest of the Bouveret oeuvre looked like.

Be careful what you wish for. Against the Modern: Dagnan-Bouveret and the Transformation of the Academic Tradition , an exhibition currently at the National Academy of Design, makes plain that Bouveret is not a forgotten master. His work is mannered and mild, tepid when it’s not ridiculous. The big news, presumably, is that Bouveret employed photographs as references for his paintings-a technique he kept mum about during his lifetime. This may make him seem somewhat contemporary, but so what? Who cares about pictorial subterfuges when the pictures themselvesareasstuffyas these? I will give Bouveret his due: The unapologetic artifice of Breton Women at a Pardon (undated) would’ve made Manet envious. A couple of other studies, by virtue of their lack of finish, are attractive. But only the most ardent kitsch enthusiast could find something nice to say about Bouveret’s portrayals of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The rest of the work is eminently avoidable.

The Bouveret show isn’t a product of the National Academy. It’s been organized by the Dahesh Museum of Art, an institution devoted to “reclaiming” 19th-century academic art. Currently in the process of moving to a new venue (it used to be at 601 Fifth Avenue at 48th Street), the museum has rented out space at the National Academy. That the academy agreed to host Against the Modern is curious: At a time when it’s attempting to shake its fusty image, it has taken on a fusty exhibition. Then again, maybe that’s the plan: Bouveret, with his cloying reliance on caricature and sentiment, is reminiscent of Norman Rockwell, and Rockwell’s hot stuff right now. Which makes the National Academy … the new Guggenheim? All I know for certain is that the next time I run into The Pardon in Brittany at the Met, I won’t let my curiosity get the best of me.

Against the Modern: Dagnan-Bouveret and the Transformation of the Academic Tradition is at the National Academy of Design, 1083 Fifth Avenue, until Dec. 8.