Prints Point the Way Forward For a Painter Who Has Stalled

Of the many artists included in Freestyle , a group exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem a couple of years back, one of the few whose work has stayed with me is Jerald Ieans. Freestyle was an accurate and therefore saddening measure of our scattered, anything-goes Zeitgeist (if I may flog that poor word one more time). In all the hubbub, Mr. Ieans distinguished himself-not so much by the quality of his art as by his chosen medium. He refrained from peddling dancing boobs, life-sized donkey mannequins and anything that required an electrical outlet or a manifesto. Instead, he put oil paint to canvas, making big pictures of big, overlapping biomorphic shapes. Picking up a brush came off as a quietly subversive gesture. Mr. Ieans proved himself an independent spirit.

Which is fine, but independence, in and of itself, doesn’t guarantee much of anything. The Ieans paintings I’ve seen have been elegantly considered, though never as seductive as they want to be. He knows how to cover a canvas with paint, but he doesn’t yet know how to inhabit or vivify it. The brushwork is workaday, the surfaces overdetermined-the paintings are lobby-friendly. I’m hoping Mr. Ieans’ recent monoprints at the Lucas Schoormans Gallery have taught him a lesson, in a roundabout way, about the dynamics of painting.

In these prints, surface is almost beside the point. A cool, almost anonymous viscosity is the rule, allowing the viewer ready access to the artist’s strengths: a palette that hews to close juxtapositions of value; a gift for slow, embryonic rhythms; and a sense of humor that, while aloof, is nevertheless supple and sensual. As it stands, Mr. Ieans cruises on casualness. When he brings flex and fullness to the interrelationships of form, the pictures will gain in rigor and complexity. When he gives up the gimmicky experiments in format-like letting images “break” free of the print’s rectangular format-the pictures will do more than decorate the wall. When he consistently comes up with images as enticing and funny as Brown 27 (2003), a great crush of blobs that suggests Hans Arp trapped on the No. 6 train during rush hour, the pictures-not to mention Mr. Ieans-will have arrived.

Jerald Ieans: Monoprints is at the Lucas Schoormans Gallery, 508 West 26th Street, No. 11-B, until Aug. 8.

Making Her Mark

I wasn’t planning to visit Summer Series , a group show of drawings at Anthony Grant Inc.; in fact, I didn’t realize it was up. I only stopped by because I spied some pieces through the gallery window as I was walking along 57th Street. From across the way, they appeared to be either by Willem de Kooning or Leon Goldin. Inside, I discovered they were the work of Susan Hartnett-a telling misattribution, I think. After all, what de Kooning, Mr. Goldin and Ms. Hartnett share is a deep-seated commitment to the natural world, an inclination to settle imagery within the parameters of the page, and a love of mark-making as a primal gesture of individuality. Ms. Hartnett marks with a virtuosity that is simple and sure. Allowing charcoal to stutter and flow, thicken and thin, smudge and smear-she makes it look easy. Her drawings of canary grass, made with the precision of a botanist, have the economy of a haiku. Drawing #1 (Aug. 6, 2000), with its delightful and, one suspects, unexpected inverted triangle, is the best of the bunch. As for the nine other featured artists: They’re professionals all, with the concomitant loss of urgency that implies.

Summer Series is at Anthony Grant Inc., 37 West 57th Street, until Aug. 29.

Whale-Watcher

High-school students are told that if they want to attend art school, they have to present only their most accomplished work to the college-admissions counselors. This means they must edit their portfolios, preferably with the advice of others. If 17- and 18-year-old kids can learn this, why is it so difficult for exhibiting artists (i.e., adults) to get with the program? There are a handful of drawing exhibitions in New York just now by artists who don’t seem to know when to lock up their flat files. Let’s name names: James Siena, Louise Bourgeois, Helmut Federle. Of the three, Mr. Federle is the only one who gets away with it: His unceasing curiosity endows the drawings with vitality and variety. As for the other two, overkill underlines how threadbare Ms. Bourgeois’ art is, and how predictable Mr. Siena’s is.

Now here comes Chuck Webster with his 163 works on paper-tacked gingerly to the wall and running edge-to-edge around the perimeter of the ZieherSmith Gallery, with a pause provided by 15 framed pieces. The work was inspired, at least initially, by the artist’s experience of whale-watching off the coast of Massachusetts. Whale-like motifs, some more abstracted than others, can be seen in several watercolors; all of the pieces reference nature, whether explicitly (suns and crystals) or less so (boxes and patterning). Mr. Webster’s iconographic images are almost always in a state of metamorphosis and evince an empathy for the elements reminiscent of Arthur Dove, a seminal American Modernist. Mr. Webster is also clearly enamored of the densely crafted abstractions of Thomas Nozkowski-I might go so far as to say that Mr. Webster lavishes on Mr. Nozkowski the sincerest form of flattery. This means Mr. Webster has good taste; it also means he doesn’t dig very deeply. These lightweight, light-hearted drawings are unlikely to lodge themselves in your memory-but if you run into them again, you’ll be pleased to see them.

Chuck Webster: Plenty is at ZieherSmith, 531 West 25th Street, until Aug. 8.