Here’s a recipe for disaster: Mix the efficiency of James Rosenquist’s neo-Dadaist commentaries on commodity culture with the drab cut-and-paste aesthetic of David Salle; add a dollop of Gerhard Richter’s slick and soulless professionalism; blend, and pepper lightly with Eric Fischl’s ready-made indictments of middle-class America. Place in oven until lukewarm. After 15 minutes (of course), frost with a fine veneer of Pop-wise irony and color it black and white. Then call in Dave Hickey, the contemporary scene’s sultan of smooth, to bless the results: “In this domain, the easy metamorphoses of living creatures into cultural icons into fugitive images and back again,” blah, blah, blah.
You’d never guess that the work under discussion was any good, would you? That turns out to be the case, though how Martin Mull pulls it off is a truly puzzling question. I mean, talk about déjà vu all over again: Mr. Mull, whose paintings are on display at Spike Gallery, has shamelessly co-opted the stylistic shticks of some of the most overrated artists of the last 20 years. (Better known as a comedian, Martin Mull is wise to shtick.) He seamlessly juxtaposes snippets of paint-by-numbers patterning, family snapshots and sub-par cartoon illustrations. The pictures hint at the surreal but never lose their grounding in the banal here-and-now-think Francis Picabia meets Ozzie and Harriet. A gray sfumato, clearly approximating mass-produced black-and-white photography, gives the work a grainy documentary feel.
Mr. Mull distinguishes himself from his precursors by actually painting about something: the American Dream. He comments on it cruelly (there’s a predictable intimation of illicit goings-on), yet he also longs for its promise (which is not so predictable). Though glib, the paintings tug at the heart. Their connection to America’s collective memory bank is suffused with a querulous affection. The work admits to emotions that are complicated and real.
I wouldn’t recommend Mr. Mull as an artistic exemplar-exploiting appropriations, twice-removed, is too singular and risky a gambit. But I would recommend the pictures, for their cool dexterity and unexpected emotional heft. They don’t depend on their maker’s renown to put them across-and Mr. Mull puts more across than his pomo kin ever will.
Martin Mull: Admissible Evidence is at Spike Gallery, 547 West 20th Street, until March 20.
Bone and Muscle
Having received in the mail Esteban Vicente: Early Works , the catalog accompanying an exhibition at Ameringer Yohe Fine Art, I flipped through its pages, took a gander at the reproductions, read the interview that Barbara Rose conducted with the artist in 1998 and filed it away, both in my head and on my bookshelf. I figured: Why bother with another batch of fusty Ab-Ex paintings? Just because Vicente, who died in 2001 at the age of 98, was a first-generation member of the New York School doesn’t mean the pictures have escaped time’s ravages. Kline, Pollock and Motherwell aren’t looking too hardy at this point in the 21st century; why should an unheralded minor light do any better? Derivations of Philip Guston we can live without.
Doing the rounds on 57th Street, I found myself at Ameringer Yohe by accident (someone else pressed the elevator button, and I entered the gallery on autopilot). Confronted by Vicente’s canvases from the late 1950’s and early 60’s, I was surprised and pleased by the absence of must. Identifiable in style, the abstractions aren’t defined by that distinct historical moment. With their compressed compositions, chunky forms, warm palette and fleshy trails of oil, the paintings make a virtue of restlessness. A big picture from 1963 is typical, its lack of definition redeemed by an underlying sense of bone and muscle. The collages are less vibrant: They’re stifled by the firmness of their relationships. A passionate irresolution was Vicente’s strength, though it may have deprived him of the limelight lavished on his peers. Who’s to say he wasn’t better off without it?
Esteban Vicente: Early Works is at Ameringer Yohe Fine Art, 20 West 57th Street, until March 20.
Where the Wild Things Are
The paintings of Tom Uttech at Alexandre are steadfastly rooted in the local. He depicts panoramic scenes of densely wooded forests densely populated-at times absurdly overrun-by fauna. The forests are part of a protected wilderness area in Ontario, but the macro geography is less important to Mr. Uttech than his embrace of the particular: There’s no place he’d rather be.
He paints with the precision of a naturalist. We’re never in doubt that these often encyclopedic pictures are scientifically correct. The same goes for the depiction of light: Whether painting the sparest of rainbows or the northern lights, Mr. Uttech is true to the drama and sweep of the specific moment. Yet the paintings have been orchestrated with a decidedly unnatural theatrical flair. The animals loitering on the scene are acutely aware of themselves as objects of observation. At times, they look out at us resentfully, as if our presence were an encroachment on their territory. (Is there an eco-political moral buried in the pictures? The only animal not pictured is man.)
The gulf between viewer and image is unbridgeable, the distance emphasized by Mr. Uttech’s touch, which keeps us at bay. And there’s a mysterious recurring motif, also distancing: a lone black bear with a curious demeanor, standing on its hind legs. It’s too close to being a cute gimmick-and after a couple of cameos, it’s an annoyance. Not cute at all-in fact, arresting-is Awassabang (2003), which depicts the uniform migration of innumerable species of birds, all heading resolutely stage right.
Imagine pictures painted by the love child of Corot, John Frederick Kensett, John James Audubon, René Magritte and Jackson Pollock, and you’ll have some idea of Mr. Uttech’s unlikely and eccentric sensibility.
Tom Uttech: New Paintings is at Alexandre Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, until March 6.