Currently Hanging

Painting That’s Alive Today

And Makes Its Home in the PastThe first thing you might think upon entering James Graham and Sons’ ground-floor space on Madison Avenue is that the gallery has mounted an overview of an unheralded 19th-century painter, something along the lines of the Walter Gay show seen at the same venue last spring. The pictures of castles, duels, naval battles and soldiers on horseback in full military regalia smack of a pageantry whose time has long gone. The smoky post-Impressionist dabbing-as dense as Vuillard, as yielding as Bonnard-has strong period connotations. Compositional strategies hint at a knowledge of Japanese prints, an important resource for painters like Degas and Whistler. Just as you’re about to conclude that you’ve discovered a mysteriously neglected minor French master, you begin to notice how off the pictures are. Suffused with nostalgia and powered by romance, the paintings surrender to neither; the mood is just short of acerbic and decidedly contemporary. Despite the lusciously applied paint, the work is dry, disinterested. The artist, David Fertig, alive and working somewhere in New Jersey, is a conundrum.

He’s prolific, too. Over the course of 47 smallish pictures, Mr. Fertig is a remarkably consistent paint-handler, able to sustain pictorial clarity when working with closely valued scumbles of color. His gift for abbreviating form while remaining true to its specifics is stunning. True, some of the paintings do get splotchy; and when he runs a comb through a patch of wet oil, he makes me grit my teeth.

Mr. Fertig transforms influence to singular effect, creating a haunting, uncategorizable art from sources as diverse as Sergei Eisenstein, John Marin, Saul Steinberg, R.B. Kitaj and Gerhard Richter. Tapping into history with uncanny ease, Mr. Fertig shows up painters like John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage and Julie Heffernan for the callow dabblers they are. Like most postmodernists, they can’t imagine not pretending. Mr. Fertig, in contrast, loses himself in history’s flow, respectful of its authority but refusing to be cowed by it. That’s how he manages to put brush to canvas like it’s 1809 without straining credulity-it’s the place where he lives. And when we’re looking at his elusive images, it’s a place we don’t want to leave.

David Fertig: Paintings is at James Graham and Sons, 1014 Madison Avenue, until Nov. 8.

Penitent Joy

A curmudgeon might describe the collages of Janet Malcolm, currently on display at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, as the extracurricular dalliance of a renowned highbrow journalist-and the curmudgeon would be right. Maybe. Ms. Malcolm crafts small abstract collages from sources mundane (old ledgers, tattered letters), mass-produced (vintage magazines) and charged (Nazi insignia). She’s content to tread in the byways of precedent. Kurt Schwitters and Kasimir Malevich-both of whom are acknowledged by name-provide the compositional model; Joseph Cornell and Anne Ryan, the fragile diaristic tone. The ephemeral scraps Ms. Malcolm has collected evoke the troubled culture of early 20th-century Europe. The elegiac tone is unmistakable, as is the gentle knack for suggestive juxtaposition.

Ms. Malcolm takes tempered, almost penitent joy in cutting and pasting. It’s as if she were relieved to discover that the optimism inherent in making art, though sorely tried by world events, endures. That’s exactly the kind of delicate truth a curmudgeon would miss. The rest of us are free to acknowledge the quiet candor of Ms. Malcolm’s accomplishment and give her a hand when occasion merits. Take a close look at the understated beauty of Bible (2003) and Ascension Day (2002) and you’ll see occasion merits, and then some.

Janet Malcolm: Collages at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, 50 East 78th Street, No. 2-A, until Nov. 26.

Non-Precious

The Ryan McGinness exhibition at Deitch Projects is notable only as an example of a common phenomenon: The young, ambitious artist happy to piss away his talent for the sake of notoriety. Mr. McGinness overlaps absurdist logos-Viking women, businessmen punctured by safety pins, an intestinal tract as blandly anonymous as a deer-crossing sign-against glossy fields of pungent oil color. He has a knack for organizing his free-floating, ornamental arrangements of icons, and he has a knack for screen printing (he ably manipulates the transparency of the process). What he doesn’t have is integrity.

Mr. McGinness’ pictures replicate the sterile uniformity of assembly-line product-the Warhol thing again. The maze of mirrors, emblazoned with the artist’s signature decals, partakes of the funhouse aesthetic typical of trendy mainstream art. He offers a line of custom-designed skateboards and long-sleeved T-shirts. We’re told that his approach provides an “antithesis of the traditional art-world concept of the precious original.” A picture by Mr. McGinness can set you back $6,500-that’s a chunk of change for non-precious merchandise. Never trust an artist who uses theory as camouflage for his careerist hypocrisy.

Ryan McGinness: Worlds Within Worlds is at Deitch Projects, 76 Grand Street, until Nov. 1.