Imaginary Portraits of Women, Odd, Intense, Hugely Alluring

Visitors to the Nolan/Eckman Gallery stand transfixed by the paintings of Jim Nutt, as though they were face to face with the most alluring objects on God’s green earth. Portraits of imaginary women, odd and beautiful descendants of Nefertiti , of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa , of Picasso’s Gertrude Stein , of almost everything Joan Miró put his brush to, they’re ravishing proof of Mr. Nutt’s exceptional talent. That he should be making odd pictures is what we’d expect from a painter who achieved early notoriety for cartoonish scatological fantasies. But beautiful? That would have been a long shot.

Mr. Nutt has always been a meticulous artist. In these portraits, with his painstaking approach (finely cross-hatching acrylics using what must be a single-hair brush), he achieves a rare, underplayed intensity. The surfaces are dense, the palette muted yet pungent, the character of the dreamed-up sitters complicated. Who these women are, with their asymmetrical features and implacable demeanor, is less important than the fact that they are at all. Mr. Nutt has imagined them with a terrible intimacy. A current of anxiety runs through the portraits, but that’s not what hooks us. It’s the squiggly-nosed tranquillity of these women-and the discordant nostalgia they invoke-that compels us to take in their every eccentricity.

The 12 drawings on display, all impressively incisive, are almost beside the point: It’s the three paintings that reveal Jim Nutt to be an artist capable of magnificent, full-bodied illusions.

Jim Nutt: Drawings and Paintings is at the Nolan/Eckman Gallery, 560 Broadway, until Nov. 26.

Divine Perfection

The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreotypes, 1839-1855 , an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, documents the photographic process invented by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851), then traces its subsequent popularity and eventual obsolescence. An early champion declared the daguerreotype-a unique photographic image on polished, silver-plated sheets of copper-as “divine perfection,” an accolade we’re likely to agree with, never mind how primitive the technology seems in this age of the digital quick-fix. But, really, who cares about progress when you’re looking at photos as uncanny as these?

“Crystalline” doesn’t begin to describe The Seine and the Louvre (1847), a photograph by Baron Jean-Baptiste Louis Gros. Marie Charles Isidore Choiselat provides a cinematic rush in The Pavillon de Flore and the Tuileries Gardens, Paris (1849). There are also studies in ethnography, startlingly matter-of-fact erotica and lots of portraiture. Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas catch the eye, but they’re no more vivid than an anonymous veteran of the Napoleonic Wars or three generations of the Le Boeuf family.

It sometimes happens that history confers on artifacts the blessings of art. It happens often enough in this exquisite show to keep you gasping for air and asking for more.

The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreotypes, 1839-1855 is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, until Jan. 4, 2004.

Say ‘Cheese’

Like every other conceptual artist whose work I’ve had the misfortune to encounter, Paul Kos mistakes clever notions for simple truths. A veteran Bay Area artist and teacher with a retrospective on view at N.Y.U.’s Grey Art Gallery, Mr. Kos trades in absurdist one-liners about a distinct set of subjects: the failure of ideology, the permanence of spirituality, the strictures of play-and cheese. In Tunnel (1995) Mr. Kos carves into a round of Leerdammer cheese so that a toy train can chug through it on a perpetual journey to nowhere. In another piece, he arranges 2,500 magnetic chess pieces in the shape of a pawn on an up-ended sheet of steel. Elsewhere he marks the end of Communism with 15 hammer-and-sickle cuckoo clocks, summons the Virgin of Guadalupe with the ring of a bell and, as seen in a photo, broadcasts the sound of ice melting.

A quick tour of the exhibition is all you need to register Mr. Kos’ mostly gentle, sometimes biting wit. But it’s worth taking a second look: Mr. Kos is a conceptual artist with a difference. He admits to the primacy of stuff, and employs objects as vehicles for metaphor rather than emblems of theory. “Respect simple, humble materials” is the mantra. The work is as spacey as you might think, but rarely as pretentious as you might fear. It’s heartening, too: A 27-channel video installation recreating a 13th-century stained-glass window from Chartres unexpectedly confirms the succor provided by prayer, as does the aforementioned Guadalupe Bell (1989), though in a kitschier manner. In the end, Mr. Kos has less in common with the aggrieved narcissism of Bruce Nauman than with the tender vagaries of Joseph Cornell. A conceptual artist who believes in magic-who’d have guessed such a creature existed?

Everything Matters: Paul Kos, A Retrospective is at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 100 Washington Square East, until Dec. 6.