Listening to Fred Scruton describe his photographs, which are on display at the O.K. Harris Gallery, you’d think he was a card-carrying pomo theoretician. Mr. Scruton travels through the United States taking big color photographs of street murals, hand-painted signs, graffiti and robots on the front lawn. We’re told that these “artifacts adrift in cultural time” prompt “era-specific understandings,” revealing “new messages” that “comment reflexively on our shifting perceptions.” Mr. Scruton places scare quotes around the words “straight,” “good” and “real” when referring to photography. He’s coy as to whether he uses digital technology to manipulate the images. (I’m still not sure if he does.) The upshot to all of this? “The viewers [ sic ] understanding of photographic representation is metaphorically linked to the ‘work-in-progress’ nature of their cultural interpretations.”
What to make of the obfuscating verbiage? Not much. But I’m being unfair: An artist should be judged on the art, not the words the art is packaged with, and Mr. Scruton’s pictures are terrific. Neither innovative (celebrations of oddball Americana have a long tradition) nor political (though Mr. Scruton is drawn to locales marked by poverty), nor even transgressive (no ersatz porn here), the photos are visually stunning, thematically coherent and nurtured by a profound reserve of feeling. He should junk the jargon; his art doesn’t need it.
Mr. Scruton’s appreciation for the crude handiwork of untutored craftsmen is blessedly free of condescension. He has a talent for underscoring the extraordinary in the everyday. In his photographs, La-Z-Boy loungers ascend to the heavens, an angel blesses the cinderblocks of an abandoned building and, in one heartbreaking picture, a homemade totem pole covered with fractured metal placards informs us of its maker’s despair, spelling out the phrase “Nobody cares.”
Mr. Scruton has a painter’s eye for texture-peeling paint, cracking plywood and grainy concrete are reproduced with compelling clarity. (How often do we nose up to a photograph, the better to appreciate its surface?) The color sense is unobtrusively rich. Just as important is Mr. Scruton’s self-effacing approach. He doesn’t advertise his sophistication; he places it, quietly, at the service of his vision. By skipping the showy self-involvement of so many contemporary photographers, Mr. Scruton distinguishes himself from the pack-rises above it, in fact. His art is open to experience, encompassing and sure.
Fred Scruton: Sites, Signs, and Displays is at the O.K. Harris Gallery, 383 West Broadway, until Oct. 18.
With her new exhibition at Rosenberg and Kaufman Fine Art, the painter Gudrun Mertes-Frady is no longer an artist to whom one politely pays attention: She’s become an artist to get excited about. The recent abstractions, canvases filled with expansive architectural networks, share the densely layered surfaces and gritty, muted tones of her earlier work. What’s new is that Ms. Mertes-Frady has forsaken the all-but-guaranteed unity of modular, all-over structures; now she creates quirky relationships by playing off a grid. As a consequence, the pictures have opened up, and thanks to the off-center rhythms, they’re also sharper, less run-of-the-mill. Associations abound-the pictures bring to mind tile work, circuitry, pictographs and the paintings of Myron Stout. The two best canvases, Shift to Myth and Manhattan (both 2003), concentrate the city: its skyline, its light, the abrupt juxtapositions that define it and that stately calm that brings you up short.
Gudrun Mertes-Frady: New Paintings is at Rosenberg and Kaufman Fine Art, 115 Wooster Street, until Oct. 18.
The Clementine Gallery, located in the labyrinthine 526 building on West 26th Street, has become one of my favorite stops in Chelsea, even though the gallery has yet to mount an exhibition that could be recommended without a qualm or three. Almost everything I’ve seen there has been unapologetically trivial or cheerfully pretentious. But it has also exhibited enough promising work to give you hope that the verities of art aren’t completely lost on younger artists. I don’t know how old Christine Heindl is, but her paintings, now on view at Clementine, are typical of a recently minted M.F.A.-typical of the gallery, too.
Ms. Heindl’s pictures of cartoon fireplaces and exploding suns are Pop-wise and occasionally clever. They’re also involved with materials and process to a heartening degree; you almost forgive them their headlong superficiality. (Actually, there’s no forgiving the fireplace pictures, which are self-conscious about being stupid and just plain dumb.) The sun pictures-with their bright palette, impermeable surfaces and discreet fragments of collage-are less obvious and more encouraging. An untitled sun canvas from this year, featuring overlapping traceries of conflicting pinks, makes me look forward to Ms. Heindl’s next show.
Christine Heindl: Suns is at the Clementine Gallery, 526 West 26th Street, Suite 211, until Oct. 11.
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