Aggrieved Agitprop Lefties Offer Narcissism as Activism

By the time this column sees print, the Presidential election will have been decided-or not, if we undergo a replay of the 2000 rigmarole. One thing is certain: If George W. Bush is re-elected for a second term, the art world will only have itself to blame. Really, how could any thinking lefty not run in to the arms of the R.N.C .after suffering the deluge of puerile anti-American art seen in recent months at the galleries?

Take, for instance, Alex Bag’s The Coven Services/Demo Reel (2004), a video included in Election , a “varied, vital and strategic” group show organized by James Meyer for American Fine Arts Co. Parodying the conventions of television advertising, Ms. Bag and a few of her cohorts appear in a series of skits taking on Halliburton, AOL/Time Warner, Abu Ghraib prison, metrosexuals and, if the bit on “Charmin anal paper” is an indication, bodily hygiene. Interspersed between these segments are snippets of Paris Hilton’s infamous green and ghostly sex video.

What’s shocking about The Coven Services/Demo Reel is not the amateurishness of its execution (though it is pretty sad) or its reflexive politics. It’s not Ms. Hilton contorting herself into a variety of compromising positions. It’s the scope of Ms. Bag’s self-regard-it exceeds that of the world’s most famous hotel heiress. Now that’s an accomplishment.

Watch Ms. Bag plow her way through one humorless skit after another: She radiates an insufferable condescension, as if she couldn’t imagine a world that didn’t take her word as bond. (She probably can’t.) Narcissism posing as political activism is par for the course, but Ms. Bag-well, she’s done something special here. The Coven Services/Demo Reel makes the conceptualist bric-a-brac seen elsewhere in Election look nuanced by comparison.

Thank the Lord, then, for John Waters-yes, that John Waters. His sculpture, an oversized campaign button with the enthusiastic inscription “Have Sex in a Voting Booth,” reminds us that if we must have political art, it should, at the very least, have the courtesy of being (a) funny and (b) unpretentious. Would that Mr. Waters’ fellow travelers in aggrieved agitprop were hip to that simple lesson.

Election is at American Fine Arts Co., 530 West 22nd Street, until Nov. 18.

Attractive Effects

Beatriz Milhazes, whose art is the subject of an exhibition at James Cohan Gallery, gives the art of painting a bad name by making paintings that look good. Each picture is a compendium of superimposed, ornamental motifs-stripes, arabesques, expanding arrays of circles-keyed to a vibrant, heated palette. Gently abraded surfaces and fetching blots of acrylic paint share space with snippets of representational imagery-a bird here, a butterfly there. All of it is delineated with a secondhand scruffiness.

The abundance of color and painterly incident in the pictures is in stark contrast to the chilly puritanism of the reigning, post-conceptualist aesthetic. After a slog through Chelsea, you might find yourself falling in love with Ms. Milhazes.

But that’s at first glance. Take a longer look: For all the razzle-dazzle, Ms. Milhazes’ paintings fail to follow through on their ecstatic promise. They’re bright but not buoyant and, notwithstanding the initial punch, fussy, cautious and cluttered. Painting, for Ms. Milhazes, is a matter of attractive effects artfully put forth. Brash though it may be, her art is markedly absent of get-up-and-go.

Robert Kushner, whose paintings of flowers were recently seen at the D.C. Moore Gallery, could teach Ms. Milhazes a thing or three about exhilaration. Chief among them is that aesthetic bliss is generated in direct proportion to how thoroughly an artist embraces the sensual properties of a given medium. Until Ms. Milhazes gets with that fundamental truth-at present, she manipulates paint as if she couldn’t bear to get her hands dirty-the art is fated to remain beautiful enough to ignore.

Beatriz Milhazes: Summertime is at the James Cohan Gallery, 533 West 26th Street, until Dec. 4.

Our Great City, Outdoors

It is a blessing, I think, that Olive Ayhens’ recent canvases in oil at the Gary Tatintsian Gallery show that she’s not a particularly gifted paint handler. Were she possessed of a touch, we would likely be less impressed by her frumpy, kaleidoscopic paintings of teetering skyscrapers, a “dream studio” in the country, a subway train heading into infinity, and oddball collisions of urban environs and the great outdoors. There are, after all, few things more off-putting than a big-city sophisticate making like a backwoods folk painter. Not that Ms. Ayhens is a folk artist exactly, but the fidgety way she handles a brush evinces a painter who gets by on intensity of vision and not on fluency with materials.

Ms. Ayhens’ best paintings, Urban Strata (2004) and Bristle Cones on the Balcony (2003), are panoramic vistas packed with minutiae: Rooftop gardens, a snake-like trail of yellow taxis, a car show and National Guardsmen wielding submachine guns, the lone marker of our post-9/11 world. The space in the paintings is lopsided and fractured; we’re never quite certain where we’re situated. Architecture is lumpish and pliable, prone to feverish, hallucinatory rhythms. The images wibble and wobble. Ms. Ayhens’ city can barely contain its pumping, jagged energy.

You’ll be reminded of the paintings of John Marin and Florine Stettheimer-Ms. Ayhens is as propulsive as the former, as quixotic as the latter and as New York as both. Just keep away from the watercolors: Ms. Ayhens’ ease with the medium makes for images that are homey and bland. She should stick to oils; some artists are better off not being as good as they could be. Olive Ayhens: Changing Reflections is at the Gary Tatintsian Gallery Inc., 525 West 25th Street, until Dec. 2.