David Fertig’s Peculiar Subject: Re-Imagining the Napoleonic Wars

Looking at the photograph of David Fertig in the catalog accompanying an exhibition of his paintings at James Graham and Sons, I was taken aback by how normal he appears to be. I don’t know what I was expecting, really. Given Mr. Fertig’s continuing series of pictures depicting the Napoleonic Wars-a subject that is, for the artist, not quite an obsession, but more than a casual fascination-you’d expect a more colorful or, I don’t know, squirrelly figure. Mr. Fertig, standing in the studio holding a mug of coffee, is just a regular, middle-aged guy, someone you’d pass in the supermarket without a second glance.

Mr. Fertig’s paintings you can’t pass without a second glance. His pictures of battleships with their flags unfurled, soldiers on horseback, men in rowboats heading ashore and Captain Marbot, an officer in Napoleon’s army, are odd and alluring, just short of inexplicable. Mr. Fertig’s investment in his subject is never in doubt-the paintings don’t lack for a pictorial rationale-yet its import remains elusive all the same.

Were he any more compulsive, Mr. Fertig would be easier to peg as an out-and-out nut, someone we can all get a handle on. As it is, he stands at a sober remove from the tumult of history. During the course of over 60 small panels, Mr. Fertig transforms the Napoleonic Wars in to a stylishly deadpan comedy of manners. There’s something caustic about Mr. Fertig’s enterprise, though what that causticity portends I wouldn’t hazard to guess.

Mr. Fertig frustrates ready comprehension-not an endearing trait, to be sure, yet it can make for compelling art. So, too, can a paint-handler of extraordinary, if somewhat conflicted, gifts. A strange mix of intuition and affectation, of unrelenting rigor and impatient caprice, Mr. Fertig can do anything with oils. Whether smearing, splotching or finger-painting, he creates seductive, abrupt and, at times, harsh passagesofatmosphere,lightand space. Imagine an information-age Edouard Vuillard or a Gerhard Richter withheartand you’ll have some idea of the puzzling figure cut by Mr. Fertig. Would that he were capable of ingraining a single image with the authority brought to bear on an entire run of pictures. Once that happens, watch out. In the meantime, watch Mr. Fertig go and marvel at the peculiarities of one man’s vision.

David Fertig: Paintings is at JG/Contemporary, 1014 Madison Avenue, until March 5.

Fleeting Fashion

Consider these titles: Man Versus Human Nature, Time to Plant Fears, God Is Dad, Jesus Was Married. Note how each phrase expresses contempt for the big idea it poaches upon. Take a look at the sculptures the titles belong to: Ramshackle assemblages cobbled together from wire hangers, concrete blocks, light bulbs and (just so you know sex is in the mix) panty hose, often tautly stretched.

Read the press release and learn that the work explores “rickety concepts of domesticity and religion” and “assumed linguistic and gender codes.” Ponder how inflated jargon is deployed as cover for a paucity of artistic invention. Realize that the artist, Sarah Lucas, gained notoriety during the 1990′s as a Y.B.A. (Young British Artist), one of several savvy careerists responsible for turning Dadaism into the defining style of our corporate age. Wonder what happens when a Y.B.A. is no longer Y or, rather, H (hot). Conclude, finally, that the Barbara Gladstone Gallery will come full circle when it dumps Ms. Lucas for the next big and fleeting thing.

Sarah Lucas: God Is Dad is at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery, 515 West 24th Street, until March 14.

Small Charms

If it’s ambition-free art you crave, the paintings of Sue Chenoweth, the subject of an exhibition at the CUE Art Foundation, will float your boat. That’s not an entirely qualitative distinction: There’s something to be said for an art of small moments. Ms. Chenoweth’s layered compendiums of rude doodles, collaged cutouts and arrant splatters of acrylic give body to private, all but inarticulate reveries. The images-that is, when they haven’t been obscured by Ms. Chenoweth’s sanded and scuffed surfaces-can be childlike (women sticking out their tongues), schematic (shambling, fantastic architecture), decorative (geometric cutouts) or weirdly reverent (cartoonish scenes of material and sexual excess hinting at a Bible-thumping righteousness).

None of it adds up to much, which may be the point. Trading in half-rememberedsensations,Ms. Chenoweth errs on the side of the nebulous. The three best pieces, seen on the east wall of the gallery, bring some measure of clarity and structure to an overabundance of imagery, ambiguity and pictorial incident. Unfortunately, they hang adjacent to The Rich Man (2005), a lumpish wall painting crafted from Wikki Stix, a waxy, thread-like and altogether unappealing substance. Painters who capitulate to the installation aesthetic only underscore the belief that painting, somehow, isn’t enough. I don’t think that was Ms. Chenoweth’s intention, yet it’s enough to prompt qualms about the work’s unkempt charms.

Sue Chenoweth is at the CUE Art Foundation, 511 West 25th Street, until March 12.