Monumental and Meaningful, Sculpture Measures Humankind

Some works of art are ahead of their time, some are of their time, and some behind the times. Some art is said to be timely. And, of course, great art is supposed to be timeless-an adjective I’m not about to use in describing the sculpture of William Tucker (in part because it sounds too much like Hallmark greeting-card poesy). Mr. Tucker’s art, which is currently the subject of an exhibition at the David McKee Gallery, bears a curious relationship to time and history. A couple of years back, I wrote that Mr. Tucker envisioned sculpture as it might have appeared on Day 1. That’s still the way I feel: His lumpy (though not lumpish) monoliths of plaster and bronze are distinctly elemental-you might even say mythic. They give to our inexpressible yearnings both symbolic and physical form. Yet if Mr. Tucker’s sculpture embodies beginnings , it also suggests culmination : Each piece, somber, immovable, is a memorial to history come and gone. I don’t want to suggest that Mr. Tucker can see into the future-just that works of art can bring forth truths the artist himself might not be privy to.

That all sounds terribly portentous. The cynic in me wonders whether Mr. Tucker hasn’t bit off more than he can chew, whether the work isn’t a throwback to an epoch that never existed-a “good old days” of aspiration, nobility and majesty. Admittedly, my skepticism only kicks in when I’m not actually looking at the work. Walking among Mr. Tucker’s monoliths, I’m transfixed by their determination, heroism and drama. In their hugeness of scale and ambition, as well their roughhewn surfaces, they recall the sculpture of Auguste Rodin-with a vital difference: Mr. Tucker is a man without bluster. He doesn’t strain or sweat or huff or puff; he certainly doesn’t advertise his talent. His sculpture subsumes ego to the point where it gains a commanding, if not invulnerable, independence. He has his quirks: Messenger (2001), a disembodied plaster foot over 10 feet high, is a jest of monumental proportions. So Mr. Tucker has a sense of humor; more importantly, he has a sense of measure that doesn’t prevent him going for broke. Typical of his self-effacing gift is Emperor (2002), wherein humankind-in all its folly and grandeur-is epitomized in one hulking crag of muscle. It’s a daunting sculpture, and the feelings it evokes cut close to the bone.

William Tucker: New Sculpture is at the David McKee Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue at 58th Street, until Dec. 7.

Subtle Turns

I set out to write about the fundamental strangeness of William Hudders’ paintings, which are currently on display at the Tatistcheff Gallery, but then it dawned on me that much of the strangeness was extrinsic to the pictures themselves. Mr. Hudders’ still lifes and cityscapes, in contrast to so much of contemporary art, are solid and silent, maybe even a bit bland: There’s nothing outré or flashy about them. Indeed, “strange” seems the wrong word for paintings as tempered and even as these-until, that is, one takes notice of how they unfold. The shifting compositions allow for unnervingly subtle turns in incident: The collar of a white button-down shirt rises like a phantom; an empty goldfish bowl signals uncomfortable tidings; the Empire State Building, seen up close and wrested from its context, is a teetering, malevolent force. The dead-endromanticismofthese streamlined and depopulated vistas brings to mind the skewed visions of the Surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico, particularly when Mr. Hudders portrays the Manhattan skyline: In their dreamlike precision, concentrated light, and sweet and moody blankness, these paintings show a city troubled by memory. They’re strange and they’re strong, too. And less surreal than we’d like to think.

William Hudders: A Place of Silence and Light is at the Tatistcheff Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, until Nov. 30.

Interstellar Orifices

Recently, while I was shuffling through newspapers readying them for the recycling bin, my 8-year-old son caught sight of The New York Times Weekend section-or, to be precise, of the reproduction of a painting by Carroll Dunham on its front cover. How could he miss it? With its sour colors, blunt lines and combative cartoons, Mr. Dunham’s picture positively blares, even on newsprint. Pulling the paper out of the pile, my son took a good look at the piece- Fly-Agaric Men (1994)-and said, “What’s that?” I explained that it was a painting by an artist many people consider significant. He replied: “An artist? But that’s not art!” I’m not one to wax romantic about the innocent wisdom of children, but there is something striking in the way they refuse to accept mendacity while those who should know better (i.e., adults) will gladly have the wool pulled over their eyes-at least if it’s done in the name of art.

The retrospective of Mr. Dunham’s paintings currently on view at the New Museum of Contemporary Art begins in the early 1980’s, when he engaged in a postmodernist juggling of painterly mannerisms-scribbles, smears and textures, both real and faux-and

semi-abstract imagery, usually of a phallic or scatological nature. As the exhibition progresses, methodology takes a back seat to fantasy: Mr. Dunham’s tuberous characters, no longer content to serve as pictorial markers, begin to intimate a world of their own. At first, this cosmos is beatific and psychedelic, done up in Kandinsky-like runs of color. Increasingly, it becomes darkly comedic: Armageddon is the rule, and blazing guns, squirting penises and interstellar orifices predominate. Though these later pictures are hard to dislike-they’re silly but basically unpretentious-Mr. Dunham’s puerile gift is better suited to artifice than to fiction. His rude and rowdy universe never convinces; as a painter, Mr. Dunham is too fussy and artful, too self-conscious to get out of the way. Not surprisingly, the best pieces are the most superficial: Peanut Figure (1984), Fifth Pine (1984-85) and Transit (1986-87) eke a flimsy tension from the most discursive of means. That’s not nothing-it sure as hell beats anything Julian Schnabel or David Salle have put to canvas-but this is one more oeuvre that doesn’t merit the hoopla it’s generating.

Carroll Dunham: Paintings is at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, 583 Broadway, until Feb. 2.