Anonymous, Mythic Heads Sculpture Playing for Big Stakes

Looking at the recent sculptures of Philip Pavia-an array of terra-cotta heads on display at the OK Harris Gallery-I was reminded of recent and current exhibitions devoted to Georg Baselitz’s immense wood carvings and the paintings and drawings of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Mr. Pavia doesn’t necessarily benefit from the comparison; the high-profile efforts of Mr. Baselitz and Basquiat are, artistically speaking, thin gruel. Rather, it’s the desire to tap into the authority of non-Western art-what was called, in less polite times, “primitive art”-that unites the three men. Their work delves into archetypes so elemental that we can’t help but recognize ourselves, or part of ourselves, within them.

That’s true for Mr. Pavia’s art, anyway. As for Mr. Baselitz and Basquiat: They’re primitivists-that is to say, they skim from Native American effigies and African masks only to the extent to which it gives their work a rough-hewn gloss of significance; their debt to precedent has the heft of a sheet of aluminum foil.

How much Mr. Pavia knows about the cultures to which he looks for inspiration-Africa, Easter Island and ancient Egypt, among them-I don’t know and, frankly, I don’t care. What’s clear from the work is that he understands how culture can manifest itself through form and, just as important, how form can express ideals that transcend the specifics of a given culture.

Mr. Pavia’s heads-lumpish and anonymous, coarse in facture and larger than life-evince an ambitious sculptor playing for big stakes. Each scrabbled, monolithic visage has the entirety of history rolled up within it. The gallery touts Mr. Pavia’s bond with the New York School, the generation of artists in which he came of age, but that’s selling the work short. There are other connections to be made. You can add to the short list the sculptures of Michelangelo, Medardo Rosso and Alberto Giacometti; the paintings of Piero, Jean Dubuffet and Giorgio Morandi; and the often horrifying artifacts excavated from Pompeii-none of which will lead you, in the end, to pegging Mr. Pavia’s achievement as one thing or another.

Time is likely to weigh heavily on anyone who’s passed his 90th year, but for Mr. Pavia, time is less a burden than a liberating force. His recent efforts have the go-for-broke ease only experience can bring to fruition. If the work seems old-fashioned-as it did, at first, to me-ask yourself whether that’s indicative of the shortcomings of Mr. Pavia’s aesthetic or the shortcomings of the era in which we live. At which point, you’ll conclude that the heads have more to offer than 99 percent of the stuff that’s out there. History will be kinder to Mr. Pavia than the current gallery season.

Philip Pavia is at the OK Harris Gallery, 383 West Broadway, until April 9.

It’s Electric

To reach Mr. Pavia’s sculptures, you’ll have to pass through the front gallery at OK Harris, where a batch of abstract paintings by Gary Bower will divert your attention. Juxtaposing tight grids of smeared acrylic against expansive fields of blots and stains, Mr. Bower engineers formulaic elisions of surface, space and image. Did I say “formulaic”? Make that “satisfyingly formulaic”: At their most basic, Mr. Bower’s paintings provide immediate visual electricity for those with the eyes to see it.

Of course, after the electricity fizzles, the eye starts to quibble-with Mr. Bower’s overreliance on black and white (no one will mistake him for a colorist) or, say, his attitude toward the pictorial ground (distressingly blasé). The eight pictures stop just short of wearing out their welcome-not a good sign. A better sign: the canvas on the gallery’s north wall, with its Rorschach accents of yellow ochre-it’s the kind of thing Brice Marden would paint if he weren’t such a sensitive soul.

Gary Bower is at the OK Harris Gallery, 383 West Broadway, until April 9.

A Fulsome Palette

For the last decade or so, the veteran New York painter Paul Resika has been coasting on his stylistic merging of the School of Paris and Abstract Expressionism, of the stern hedonism of Henri Matisse and the roiling gestures of Willem de Kooning. Mr. Resika’s color-saturated pictures devoted to the female nude and sailboats docked in the bay, while rarely without virtue, are never quite as enthralling as the artist’s self-congratulatory bravado leads him to believe. The new paintings at Salander-O’Reilly threaten more of the same, except this time they deliver the goods.

It’s hard to say what it is, exactly, that makes a difference. Mr. Resika’s motifs-particularly the amply proportioned woman lounging on the beach-are overdetermined. The air of casual classicism is self-conscious, his paint-handling fast and lazy. The fulsome palette is undoubtedly part of the answer-Mr. Resika studied with Hans Hofmann, after all-as is a line that knows when a light touch is the right touch.

Mostly, I suspect, the answer lies in the pictures-particularly Aphrodite (2003), Ariadne and Composition (both 2004)-wherein an economy of image and means elicits a deeper emotional and pictorial commitment from the artist. In those three canvases, the lush eroticism gains in heat, the brush cascades with purpose, and Mr. Resika’s ego earns its size. The rest of the time, the paintings are sumptuous enough in their fits and starts to make you forgive the relative lack of rigor.

Paul Resika: Paintings is at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, 20 East 79th Street, until March 26.