A Quiet Facility Thrills: Still Lifes With a Deft Touch

Boy, does Sydney Licht have the touch. Ms. Licht, whose still-life paintings are the subject of an exhibition at lyonswier gallery, works predominantly and adroitly with a palette knife. Spreading oils with a crisp concision, she brings a sense of give to the surfaces, a flexibility and airiness. She brings to them a density, too, though it may take a moment to recognize just how intensely physical the pictures are. Ms. Licht revels, though with judicious restraint, in the malleability of her medium. She loves the way a buttery smear of pigment sits upon the canvas; and she loves it just as much for its ability to refer to tangible stuff. The assurance of Ms. Licht’s approach is appealing, though it can make you a little suspicious: Is she coasting?

What you notice right away about her paintings of oranges, eggplants, gift boxes and paper bags is an unwavering facility. It’s not an ostentatious facility-and yet, what a thrill it is to watch this painter quietly go to town!

Should Ms. Licht be making more of her gift? True, her habit of placing objects on a tabletop aligned with the bottom of the canvas, then playing the flat patterning of the tablecloth against volumetric forms, generates pictorial tension. This may be the artist’s idea of a challenge, but the game is rigged. The meticulousness with which she composes her pictures (she takes great care with the edges of forms that touch or fail to touch; she sneaks them into the viewer’s line of sight)-that game offers more artistic promise. Relationships between objects, rather than collisions of genre, are more suited to Ms. Licht’s astringent realism.

Sydney Licht is at lyonswiergallery, 511 West 25th Street, until Sept. 30.

Wish You Were Here

Ms. Licht’s work, which is based on direct observation, is a healthy exception to the rule: Doing the rounds of the galleries, you might think there isn’t a painter alive who doesn’t want to be a photographer. (You might also conclude that a lot of contemporary photographers want to be painters.) There are, of course, painters who work from photographic sources and still make good art. But the technique is now so prevalent that painters are losing touch with the physical demands and metaphoric possibilities of their medium. Spreading pigment on a flat surface doesn’t make a painting any more than shuffling three-dimensional objects makes a sculpture. Working from a photograph can be an artistic aid; it can also constrict the imagination. Just take a look at the work of Chuck Close and Gerhard Richter, and you’ll see how deadening a dependence on the photograph can be.

Enoc Perez, whose recent pictures are at the Elizabeth Dee Gallery, paints from photographs lifted from vintage postcards and guidebooks, as well as from his own snapshots. He depicts mid-20th-century hotels in Puerto Rico, places with names like Caribe Hilton and Hotel La Concha. Looking at Mr. Perez’s anonymous architectural “monuments,” you would hardly know that they “speak to a legacy of colonialism and exploitation”-that’s for the press release to clarify. This is the old coy, Warholian endgame: an indictment of culture (Modernism) and its failure (kitsch) so blandly articulated that it’s barely worth acknowledging. Mr. Perez’s grainy way with oil paint mimics the smudging of mass-produced imagery. Oddly, his palette reminds me of Joan Mitchell, an artist who took the art of painting seriously. Maybe that explains why these sad and empty pictures nag: Their dry, secondhand textures can’t help but underscore the sickly-sweet nostalgia propping up the artist’s toothless, ready-made critiques.

Enoc Perez: Monuments is at the Elizabeth Dee Gallery, 545 West 20th Street, until Oct. 4.

Generic Outsider

When I received my invitation to Morris Newman: Paintings , an exhibition at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery, I was hoping for an artistic discovery on the level of Joseph Garlock’s Untitled (Beach at Coney Island) (1952), a masterpiece of American folk painting seen at the same venue in the spring of last year. The Newman picture reproduced on the invitation-three gnarled and clustered forms floating above a bucolic pictographic landscape-promised the kind of oddball electricity we want from outsiders. Here, I thought, is another unheralded visionary ready for inclusion in whatever museum is savvy enough to snatch him up.

Having seen Newman’s untitled canvas (1978-1980) in the flesh, I’m obliged to report that not all visionaries are created equal. Credit for the painting’s promise lies solely with the photographer; to put it another way, never trust a gallery invitation. So forthright in reproduction, Newman’s painting is in reality milky and vague, drab and dull. Newman himself was nothing of the kind: Born in Ethiopia in 1883, he claimed to have been reincarnated 33,906 times, spoke 28 languages and practiced voodoo in between stints as a rabbi and an M.D. Would that the work’s eccentricities were so colorful and grandiose.

The magic of outsider art lies in its ability to transcend its untutored and often ungainly means, to tap into truths the rest of us are too sophisticated or too rational to pursue. Newman’s Edenic landscapes, with their rickety frames and casual-to-careless demeanor, are merely generic-O.K. for a diversion, not likely to lessen our grip on the everyday.

Morris Newman: Paintings is at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, third floor, until Oct. 11.