Robert Bauer’s Californian Vistas: Observed and Erased in Pencil

Technically speaking,Robert Bauer’s works on paper, the subject of an exhibition at Forum Gallery, have to be categorized as drawings. In rendering gardens located in Santa Monica, Calif., Mr. Bauer employs a traditional medium-graphite on gessoed paper. Yet to claim any one of the pieces as drawing endows the work with a stability-indeed, a concreteness-that it can’t withstand. “Intimations” or “wisps” is a description closer to the truth.

Mr. Bauer is an exacting artist with an abiding sense of duty to observed phenomenon. When drawing, he’s true to the vista that opens up before him. The particulars of the view, whether plants and trees, sloping expanses of land or buildings in the distance, are all given their due. His self-effacing touch nonetheless brings them into question. The pictures seem forever on the verge of definition; contrasts are at a minimum. Santa Monica is transformed in to a high-keyed tonal blur.

Mr. Bauer is as adept with an eraser as he is with a pencil. For every jot, shading and smudge, there’s an equal and opposite force effacing or augmenting it. A Giacomettian probity pervades Mr. Bauer’s art, though his investigations into the nature of appearances are less compulsive than those of the Swiss master.

Less agitated, too: Mr. Bauer approaches his subjects with a polite regard. There’s no frustration (or heroics) to his efforts-only the will to refine the dynamic between the hand, the eye and the surrounding world. The reproduction located nearby won’t begin to approximate what the drawings do, but, then again, neither will the drawings themselves. They’re that elusive-and compelling because of it.

Robert Bauer: Landscape Drawings is at the Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, fourth floor, until Jan. 22.

Webster’s Candy Factory

The last time New Yorkers had the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the art of Chuck Webster, there was too much of it on display to get a handle on its merits. According to the press release accompanying Hard Candy, an exhibition of Mr. Webster’s oil paintings at the Zieher Smith Gallery, 280 drawings were tacked up on the walls of the same venue during the artist’s 2003 debut.

Rifling through my clippings, I was shocked to discover that 280 drawings is about 120 more than accounted for in my review of Mr. Webster’s show. No wonder I tut-tutted his output: Overkill tends to prompt impatience, not consideration. Better an artist should leave some fat in the studio than spoil the entire meal.

The amount of pictures currently on display at ZieherSmith, somewhere around 20, could use pruning as well, but I didn’t feel like tallying their number. Instead, I was charmed by the work’s unkempt, sad-sack disposition. Mr. Webster’s frumpy, emblematic shapes are meticulously limned and sandwiched, often comically, within the parameters of the picture’s edge. They’re whimsical, not a little pathetic and somewhat melancholic. The forms, while distilled, are not polished and retain a loose-limbed goofiness. His pictures have an endearing habit of mocking their own finesse.

Mr. Webster isn’t as forceful an individual as one might hope. Cartoon abstractionists, being a dime a dozen, are a mainstay of the art scene. Mr. Webster seems content to shamble in the wake of the rest of the pack.

Still, a loving attention to surface counts for something-the paintings are buffed to an irresistible density and sheen-as does their loopy connection with the natural world, sometimes made obvious (the self-explanatory Cactus), sometimes obscure (the not-explanatory-at-all King Buzzo). Pop culture wheedles its way to the fore (so what else is new?) in a bright, impermeable palette, brash, declamatory compositions and, here and there, in a title like James Bond Laser.

This show is a definite step up from the last, but what Mr. Webster really needs to do is step out. Stating his case decisively isn’t beyond him, but it’ll require more initiative than he’s presently able to muster. In the meantime, quirky pleasures are to be had, and that’s no small thing.

Chuck Webster: Hard Candy is at the ZieherSmith Gallery, 531 West 25th Street, until Feb. 5.

Chelsea Prep

It’s been years since I’ve seen the movie City Slickers-you remember, with Billy Crystal and Jack Palance. Other than the basic storyline-three guys from New York City visit a dude ranch out west in an attempt to come to terms with approaching middle age-there isn’t much else from the film that’s stuck with me. That is, with the exception of one good joke, in which the character played by Mr. Crystal castigates his friend for going out with younger women. Noting that the age of the girlfriends recedes in direct proportion to each advancing year of his friend’s life, Mr. Crystal quips: “[T]he older you get, the younger your girlfriends get. Soon you’ll be dating sperm.”

I was reminded of the line while making the rounds of Chelsea, where it seems that no artist can be young enough to suit the tastes of dealers in contemporary art. Raiding the studios of M.F.A. students has become standard practice, presumably because it guarantees galleries an abundance of hot and new artists. The upshot of this pandemic of cradle-snatching: a slick and shiny glut of undigested art product.

Take Sugar and Stress: Young Painting in New York. Give the Fredericks Freiser Gallery credit for owning up to the fact that immaturity is the exhibition’s governing conceit. But is that something to encourage-particularly in a culture in which adolescence has become a terminal affliction? The four featured artists, Justin Craun, Gregory Edwards, Selma Hafizovic and Miyeon Lee, aren’t without talent, but the only experience they have with life, based on the evidence, has been gleaned from the pages of Artforum.

How young artists cope with a scene that regards them as disposable agents of fashion is a deep-seated concern for anyone who cares about culture. Careerism inculcated at an early age will likely stifle, and probably quash, genuine artistic growth. Mr. Craun’s satires on suburban life are predictable in their spite and overstatement, but they do evince a sharp, painterly hand and the talent to go the distance. Whether Mr. Craun or his colleagues recognize that there is, in fact, a distance to traverse is only the first step in determining their credibility as artists.

Sugar and Stress: Young Painting in New York is at the Fredericks Freiser Gallery, 504 West 22nd Street, until Feb. 5.