Mythical Landscapes Born Of
A New Brand of Irony
Eccentricity isn’t a virtue in and of itself, but it has its attractions. Take the paintings of Colin Brant, on display at the Adam Baumgold Gallery. Mr. Brant apes the conventions of 19th-century American painting, especially folk painting, and uses them to invent faux-historical panoramas of parks. His fabrications are particular and convincing: You’ll have a hard time telling yourself that Sylvan Pond Panorama (2002) isn’t Central Park. History, art and geography are Mr. Brant’s subjects-or, rather, his toys. Whether referencing Thomas Cole, romancing Arcadia or competing with the pictures hanging at the local Elks Lodge, Mr. Brant engages in a dry-witted game of cultural bait-and-switch. His “pastoral outings” hew closely to the standards set by precedent-so closely that one could almost mistake these stoic fictions for the real thing.
As a stylist, Mr. Brant knows his stuff. His work’s keening light is pure Hudson River School theater, and the compositions (darkened foregrounds set against distant, sparkling vistas) parody pictorial formula. The mannequin-like figures dotting the landscapes-a bagpiper, a quartet of women in Spanish dress, boys swimming in the lake-connote, albeit it with tongue in cheek, the civilizing influence of cultivated greenery. If you’ve stuck with the paintings this long, you’ll note how their gentle mockery is a form of love: Mr. Brant’s brand of irony precludes condescension or distaste. He’s a far cry from a cynical operator like John Currin. Mr. Brant is closer in temperament to a genuine oddball like Louis Eilshemius. That doesn’t make him genuine or, for that matter, an important artist. It does make him a painter capable of piquing-and sustaining-your curiosity.
Colin Brant: Pastoral Outing is at the Adam Baumgold Gallery, 74 East 79th Street, until May 1.
Small Moments of Grace
Susan Hartnett, whose works in charcoal and pastel are on view at the Danese Gallery, suffers from Twomblyitis : the inability to develop a painterly corollary for an art predicated solely on drawing. The striking difference in quality between Ms. Hartnett’s charcoal drawings and her large, colored pastels is rooted in two distinct pictorial approaches (though one could quibble that the pastels aren’t painting per se). Ms. Hartnett takes inspiration from the bounty of form, rhythm and incident provided by the natural world, in particular plants. Wielding charcoal, she’s capable of breathtaking feats of calligraphic concision, augmenting scientific fidelity with a lean, poetic gift: A suite of drawings depicting blue lyme grass is spidery, elegant and true. But when she picks up a pastel stick, Ms. Hartnett doesn’t know what to do. Mostly she dithers; sometimes she panics. All the while, she’s clueless about how to fill up those big sheets of paper. Major ambitions are well and fine: Should Ms. Hartnett pull off a pastel drawing, I’ll be the first to offer a high-five. All the same, some artists are better suited to small moments of grace than to brawling, expansive epics. Ms. Hartnett is one of them.
Susan Hartnett: New Work is at the Danese Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, until May 15.
Garden of Unearthly Delights
The last thing I wanted to do in writing about Mille Fiori , an exhibition of blown-glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, on view at the Marlborough Gallery, is to reiterate shopworn arguments about whether the decorative arts-or, if you prefer, craft-can be high art. Distinctions between media are real and important, and how well-suited a particular medium is to artistic expression is a question of great weight.
You could make a good case arguing that the malaise nagging the contemporary scene is a result of the lack of definable artistic boundaries. Once anything goes, consensus is lost and meaning is diminished-if not altogether wiped out. The blurring of artistic categories-the “legacy of the experimental spirit of the 1960s,” as the art historian Barbara Rose reminds us in the catalog-promised liberation. In reality, it has delivered a generation or three of artists left bewildered and blind by their own rootlessness.
Mr. Chihuly’s uncanny-indeed, sensational-knack for working with glass makes such arguments seem quaint. At Marlborough, he’s conjured an extravagant botanical fantasy, a garden of unearthly delights. Imagine yourself as Alice in Wonderland wandering through a crystalline land of flora and fungi, and you’ll have some idea of what Mr. Chihuly has accomplished. His sculptural forms are distended, twisting and ascendant, the colors luminous and ripe, the atmosphere arch, erotic and overheated. Lumping these dazzling creatures under the rubric of “craft” is impossible: Their untamed character refuses to conform to anything so mundane. Having said that, filing the pieces under “high art” isn’t tenable, either. In its extravagance and vulgarity, Mr. Chihuly’s work comes precariously close to being kitsch. Sheer mastery can redeem a lot, but mastery that goes untested is mastery misspent. You leave Mille Fiori uncertain as to how rigorously Mr. Chihuly has deployed his gift-a telling indication, I think, of his limitations as an artist.
Dale Chihuly: Mille Fiori is at the Marlborough Gallery, 40 West 57th Street, until May 1.