In a Dark Hour for Abstraction, A Welcoming Impurity Beckons

This is a good time for abstract painting.

(The loud thwack you just heard is the sound of abstract painters all over the city smacking their foreheads in disbelief: What is he talking about?)

Take a look at what dominates the scene: big-budget installations, obscurantist videos, interminable performances, conceptualist novelties, anti-art high jinks and photographs by photographers who don’t know how to focus their cameras. The best-known contemporary painter at the moment is a figurative artist: John Currin.

Painting itself is not having an easy time of it: Though news of its death has become a joke even to those who pine for the day, many artists continue to view painting as a plaything to be mocked rather than its own independent pleasure. Try putting brush to canvas with sincerity, passion or ambition and you’ll be shown the door-and given large-type directions to the nearest pasture.

As for abstraction, it’s no longer the engine of culture or the culmination of Modernism; it’s now a specialist’s pursuit. The minimized status that abstraction was given in the millennial exhibitions mounted by MoMA only ratified current opinion: Abstraction is just there , another byway of artistic pursuit in the anything-goes bazaar of the contemporary scene.

Sowhat’sgoodabout all that?

Out from under the burden of historical necessity and away from the limelight of successful innovation, abstraction is free . Having been marginalized by Pop, politics, fashion and theory, abstraction has retrenched and set off on pathways that might once have been thought inappropriate, untenable or ridiculous. The quest for “the final painting”-a goal once considered the hallmark of Modernism-degraded the form into a feeble simulacrum of itself. (Just stroll through the gallery at Dia:Beacon devoted to the austere pseudo-paintings of Robert Ryman-you might as well be visiting a tomb.)

Purity, having been achieved, was not the apogee of painting, but a dead end masquerading as artistic truth. Having seen how much could be taken out of a painting and still leave a painting (or something like it), many contemporary painters want to discover how much you can put back into a painting and still have an abstraction. In fact, the best abstract painters working today are a rather impure lot. Inclusiveness is their watchword: They’re willing to try anything once, maybe even twice. They take the whole of human experience as their inspiration.

This inclusive approach is not brand-new. Robert Delaunay, Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis and Piet (“Boogie-Woogie”) Mondrian all invited the world into their abstractions, and the results were salutary. The list of today’s abstract artists who favor a welcoming impurity includes Thomas Nozkowski, Shirley Jaffe, Laurie Fendrich, Bill Jensen, Ross Neher, Juan Usle, Andrew Masullo, Harriet Korman and Pat Adams. Their efforts constitute a healthy, if unheralded, artistic moment.

And now we can add Abraham Lacalle to the list. Mr. Lacalle is a youngish Spanish painter (he’s in his early 40′s and hails from Madrid) who’s having his first one-person show in New York, at Marlborough Chelsea. Knowing that inspiration is various and eternal, Mr. Lacalle looks for it everywhere. The paintings are mix-and-match accumulations of pattern and geometry and-less so-color and representation. He makes a brusque patchwork of cross-hatching, dots, stripes, lozenge-like forms, doodles and drips, as well as cacti, hats, fish and hands.

The juggling of pictorial motifs is reminiscent of any number of contemporary painters who promiscuously lift and juxtapose motifs from history’s warehouse of style. But no one will mistake what Mr. Lacalle does for appropriation. Like the proverbial child in a candy store, Mr. Lacalle surveys 20th-century art (particularly, though not exclusively, Cubism) and likes what he sees. His enthusiasm is infectious.

The paintings, with their distinctly Spanish palette of scrubby ochres and grays, revel in disjunction. Mr. Lacalle’s touch, unencumbered and endearingly clumsy, evens the temper of the fragmented compositions. The bigger canvases are overcomplicated machines; their size and ambition can’t disguise a certain flimsiness or a bent toward formula. The less-cluttered smaller pictures are playful and loose; a minor key suits Mr. Lacalle’s informality. Particularly smart are Sarasine 4 (2003) and Sarasine 6 (2003), both of which neatly mark the distinction between sophistication and amateurishness. At the moment, Mr. Lacalle is less a fully formed painter than a precocious talent; his best work lies ahead of him. Still, you’ll be happy to make his acquaintance.

Abraham Lacalle: Pinturas de Ida y Vuelta (Back and Forth) is at Marlborough Chelsea, 211 West 19th Street, until Feb. 9.

Flea-Market

Mummification

The aesthetic terrain mined by Joseph Heidecker, whose work is on display in the back room at Ricco/Maresca Gallery, is so meager it’s a wonder he unearths anything at all. Anti-portraiture is his specialty: Mr. Heidecker applies beads, string, collage snippets, metallic spangles and sundry other materials to vintage photographs and small plaster busts.

Decorating the heads, and sometimes the bodies, of the individuals portrayed, Mr. Heidecker plays a Dada-inspired game of identity and denial. The key piece is a photo of a dowdy matron from Norwich, Conn., for whom Mr. Heidecker has fashioned a cock-and-balls mask clipped from the pages of a porno magazine. A clever shtick like this can be good for a chuckle-after which you’ll feel sorry you were suckered.

What Mr. Heidecker does to the plaster busts is less predictable. He obscures the faces by covering them with twine, say, or polka-dot fabric, or flattened and rusty bottle caps. The results are creepy-a flea-market mummification-not least because it’s done with consummate dedication.

This is Joseph Cornell territory, a place where emotion is wrung from discarded tchotchkes. But Cornell’s accomplishment-singularand grand-doesn’t allow much room for complication or development. That’s why Mr. Heidecker spends most of his time cracking jokes. Still, the fact that he’s managed to eke out a little weirdness from the three-dimensional pieces counts as a kind of feat.

Joseph Heidecker is at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, third floor, until Feb. 7.