The City as Artists’ Muse: N.Y.C. Before and After 9/11

The motivation behind NYC, a group show at DFN Gallery, is to offer testimony to the city’s role as a “muse and model” for contemporary artists. It does, I suppose, though it’s hard to take in the paintings and photographs-over 50 pieces by 45 artists-without feeling that the exhibition’s more of a memorial than a celebration. The organizers had to be aware that 9/11 would inform their efforts. With a number of the included painters having participated in the studio program at the World Trade Center, how could they not be? And yet I wonder if they realized the extent to which the events of that day haunt the art.

An unfair conclusion, perhaps: Not a few of the pictures were created before Sept. 2001. I suspect the location of DFN, a short walk from Ground Zero, underscores a mind-set altered by terrorism. Nonetheless, the urban romance inherent in much of the work has been tempered and transformed by history. Sometimes it’s filled with awful portent. Tom Birkner’s Skyline II, Flatiron (1990), deftly rendered in black and white enamel, depicts the southern tip of Manhattan. The Twin Towers, though seen in the distance, are the linchpin of the painting and given definition by abrupt and exacting strokes of silvery gray. An unmistakable anxiety informs Mr. Birkner’s superlative picture-an otherworldly calm, too. It’s impossible to look at it without a chill traveling up the spine.

Study for Violet Fog (1995), a painting hardly bigger than an 81¼2-by-11-inch sheet of paper, confirms that Alex Katz, notwithstanding his gift for working on a large scale, is more incisive and approachable when keeping things small. Olive Ayhens’ From the Underground (2001) is a portrayal of elevated subway tracks that somehow manages to be both apocalyptic and joyous, and may be the single finest picture this peculiar artist has committed to canvas. Rackstraw Downes’ Columbia University (1975) is marvelously severe in the artist’s paint handling, and mercifully absent is the eye-stretching theatrics typical of his work. In Night Skylight (2004), Jacqueline Gourevitch renders architectural miscellany as a kind of Cubist reverie, all shifting angles and tawny browns.

There are other worthy pieces on display that bear discovery-not least among them, works by Robert Selwyn, Peter Schroth, Rick Finkelstein, Ben Aronson and Joan Mateu. Unfortunately, the finest pictures of New York City created in recent years, John Dubrow’s majestic views of Manhattan as painted from a perch in the World Trade Center, didn’t find their way to DFN. There is, in fact, a lot of unmajestic art in NYC. Would that a less charitable curatorial hand had whipped it into shape. Still, the good stuff is attuned to the city-its rhythms, grit and exasperating energy-so you forgive the exhibition its fair share of clunkers.

NYC is at DFN Gallery, 176 Franklin Street, until Jan. 29, 2005.

Framed Palettes?

Stroll into the Jason McCoy Gallery, look at the current exhibition of abstract paintings by Texas-based artist Terrell James, and rue her unquestioning reliance on the conventions of the New York School. Take note of her fluid and hasty drawings, all-but-abstract studies of the human form. Then head to the rear gallery. There you’ll encounter what is either an irresistible body of work or a hoax perpetrated on the public: 19 paintings on transparent paper so spritely they show up the rest of Ms. James’ pieces as being dead in the water.

The paintings evince an artist having fun for the first time in her life-swabbing, daubing and splotching oil paint, marveling at the independent life that can be generated by touch, color, surface and speed. The thing is, I’m not altogether sure Ms. James hasn’t gone ahead and framed a bunch of used, disposable palettes; the work is that casual. Either Ms. James is as cynical as they come, or she knows that what’s missing from her canvases is abundant in the works-on-paper. Given the winsome sensibility typical of all the work, I’ll choose the latter and take pleasure where I can find it.

The Paintings of Terrell James is at the Jason McCoy Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, 11th floor, until Dec. 24.

Disaffected Puddle

There’s exactly one good painting by Karin Kneffel at the Barbara Mathes Gallery, in what is the German artist’s first solo exhibition in the United States. It’s an untitled canvas-none of Ms. Kneffel’s pictures have titles-depicting a puddle of liquid on a wooden floor, as seen from the vantage point of a rumpled, unmade bed; in the puddle, there’s a reflection of a bay of windows. Ms. Kneffel’s tableau hints at bourgeois disaffection, erotic intrigue and domestic discord. I imagine the puddle on the floor was once the contents of a glass one person flung at another, either before or after having made love. Yet the painting’s main claim to our attention, the characteristic that stops us in our tracks, is its stark and unsettling shifts in space. Narrative is superseded by form.

And chilly form it is, too, contrived and sophisticated. Ms. Kneffel’s other paintings-of a zebra-skin rug, a coddled poodle, ornamental tiles and people lounging-manipulate space and texture in a similar but less evocative manner. Ms. Kneffel has learned a lot from her teacher, Gerhard Richter: how to create photographic blurs from the smearing of oil paint; how to devalue the art of painting by putting it in the service of an idea; how to craft slick, brand-name commodities; and how to funnel a certain level of expertise through a hollow, apathetic vision. Really, the world doesn’t need any more of this stuff. Still, the puddle painting is something to look at. It’s certainly more interesting than anything Ms. Kneffel’s mentor has put his name to.

Karin Kneffel is at the Barbara Mathes Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, until Dec. 23.