Currently Hanging

Versed in Two Mediums,

Seidl Imparts Beauty, Fortitude

Rosenberg + Kaufman Fine Art is asking for trouble. In pairing the paintings and photographs of Claire Seidl, the gallery can’t help but prompt the viewer to compare and contrast the artist’s efforts in both mediums. That’s the point, I know, but it seems risky all the same, particularly for an abstract painter who has been exhibiting regularly for almost 30 years. Writing in the catalog, the critic Karen Wilkin notes that “Seidl has kept her activities as painter and photographer parallel, but essentially separate.” Learning that Ms. Seidl has only recently taken up photography is likely to color our response to the work. Does the medium answer a need that painting has proven itself incapable of fulfilling? Or is it that Ms. Seidl isn’t capable of realizing that need with oil paint? Alarm bells should go off when someone applies the word “diversity” to an artist’s technique, as the gallery does in its press release. More often than not, it signals an inability to focus energy and skill on the aesthetic requirements posed by a single medium.

Ms. Wilkin accurately divines in both mediums “the same obsession with the permutations of the act of looking, with perception itself.” Yet there’s a significant difference in how deeply Ms. Seidl engages with each art form. Nature informs the paintings, whose layered, improvisatory approach follows in the tradition of the New York School. The mysteries of light and space, channeled through scenes of domesticity and leisure, define the photographs. Studio and Clothesline (Quilts) (both 2003), photos whose beauty is unquestionable, are probably the most authoritative things Ms. Seidl has ever put her name to. What they can’t claim is the fortitude that courses through canvases like Landlocked (2003), with its tender and fleeting geometry, or the field of exclamatory brushstrokes that is World of Good (2003). Ms. Seidl demands more of herself as an artist when she eschews the familiar, picks up a brush and heads for places unknown. Photography gives her pleasure; oil paint makes her live. The distinction is illuminated by Rosenberg + Kaufman’s well-placed gamble.

Claire Seidl: Paintings and Photographs is at Rosenberg + Kaufman Fine Art, 115 Wooster Street, until April 24.

Flash in the Pan

The Whitney Biennial is like Janet Jackson’s nipple: a momentary distraction from matters at hand. Art is the matter at hand for any museum dedicated to its conservation and promulgation-or so you’d think. The only thing the Whitney offers in the latest version of its signature event is an institutional stamp of approval for careerists of all sizes, shapes and tendencies. The dizzying collection of thingamajigs, dark rooms, adolescent ennui, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and-oh, yes-paintings owes its consistency to a uniform disinclination to take a stand. The avoidance of principle-like, you know, being engaged with the shaping of a work of art-may have been a provocative gambit for artists a hundred or so years ago, but now it’s business as usual, a cop-out. The curators don’t buck the trend: Their tastes are so accommodating that they may as well have no taste at all. Only the painter James Siena, whose tokens of obsessive craft look positively miraculous here, merits attention. Otherwise, don’t you have better things to do than stand in line, fight the crowds and rue our culture’s lack of artistic consensus? I thought so.

Whitney Biennial: 2004 is at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, until May 30.

Gilding the Epidendrum Calceolape

The Drawing Center is, by general consensus, a valued institution. One of the few Soho venues that hasn’t relocated to Chelsea, the museum has devoted itself to the art of drawing since its inception in 1977. Of course, “drawing” as an artistic category has become as pliable as “art” itself. The Drawing Center has exhibited objects that have only a tenuous relationship to drawing. Who can forget the Royal Art Lodge’s huge, grungy puppets? Even so, deference is paid to the fundamental act of putting marks on a sheet of paper. The museum’s track record is impressive: People are still raving about shows devoted to Ellsworth Kelly, James Ensor and the Plains Indians. The Drawing Center’s dedication to young or unheralded artists, who are showcased in the regular series of exhibitions titled Selections , is commendable.

Still, there are moments I’m convinced the Drawing Center is a dangerous place-dangerous, that is, to the life of art. Take its current exhibition: Ocean Flowers: Impressions from Nature , an array of 19th-century drawings and photographs of natural phenomena, mostly botanical, from Britain and Scotland. There’s nothing wrong with scientific illustration; it has its uses and, indeed, its charms. The trouble is that one can’t see the epidendrum calceolape for the plexiglass display panels, marbleized wall treatments, uniform hanging and overweening tastefulness. The curators laud the “fluidity of media in Victorian natural history illustrations”; but what they’re really interested in is interior design. More than 300 pieces have been strong-armed into serving the prerequisites of installation. The overall effect is suffocating and chilly, an overstuffed, elegant blur. In more perceptive hands-say, those of the Morgan Library- Ocean Flowers would have been a modest crowd-pleaser. As it is, the exhibition does a disservice to the crowd-not to mention science, history and drawing itself.

Ocean Flowers: Impressions from Nature is at the Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, until May 22.