A Shared Aesthetic and Goal Raising the Bar at Sideshow

Raising the Bar is the title of a show at Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg, and it’s been irking me to no end. What on earth can it mean? I know it’s a sports analogy-something about setting new standards and posing new challenges. But please explain to me what it has to do with Thornton Willis and James Little, two abstract painters currently sharing exhibition space in Brooklyn.

Does it mean that each man is raising the bar on his own art? If so, the title’s redundant-any artist worth his snuff is already working to build upon past achievements. Does it mean that these two “painter’s painters” have established the, ahem, New Paradigm of Abstraction? Confidence is one thing, self-aggrandizement another.

Maybe Mr. Willis and Mr. Little, veteran painters both, want to “raise the bar” on all those hip young whippersnappers for whom Williamsburg is an artistic Mecca? That’s too easy: The Williamsburg aesthetic doesn’t ask for much. Or can it mean, finally, that Mr. Willis and Mr. Little are engaged in a healthy competition predicated on similar interests and mutual respect?

Now that’s more like it-and, I hope, the case. Certainly Mr. Willis and Mr. Little are of like mind when it comes to the art of painting. Forget, for a moment, the specific pictorial commonalities they share-a fondness for diagonals, say, or an interest in heraldic arrangements of shape. Each man loves the art of painting for the expressive potential inherent in its fundamental characteristics. They’re particular artists-specialists, in fact. The optical heft of a considered surface; the physical presence of uninflected color; the monumental shift of form that can occur from the slightest tweaking of proportion-Mr. Willis and Mr. Little coax a richness of affect from subtleties unique to their craft.

They do so within rather limited frameworks. Mr. Willis paints kaleidoscopic pictures whose basic building block is the triangle. Relishing the unexpected juxtapositions that can occur from improvisation, Mr. Willis doesn’t cover his tracks: The surfaces of his origami-like pictures are various and layered, open-ended and often haphazard. Washy underpainting, frantic clots of texture and errant drips-Mr. Willis’ facture can be showy, a self-conscious patchwork of approaches rather than an organic whole. His debt to the New York School is plainly stated and heartfelt, but misapplied; the pictures are, at times, too rough for their own good. Besides, Mr. Willis isn’t an expressionist. His true calling is structure. Cubism informs the oeuvre as a whole, but powers only the big pictures. Spinner (2004) is rigorous and clunky in the right measures.

As a paint-handler, Mr. Little is more polished and smooth, given to forethought rather than intervention. Favoring sharp lines and silky surfaces, he creates spare and striking pictures out of fields of radiant color and zooming arrays of stripes. Eye-popping contrasts in the tone and temperature of his palette result in remarkably fluid elisions between figure and ground. Quid Pro Quo (2005) is divided in two sections: an expanse of blue interrupted by inverted shards of red and a grouping of no-less-strident bars of yellow, blue and a refreshing, out-of-nowhere green. The overall effect, given the artist’s jolting way with color, is surprisingly serene. Not all of Mr. Little’s canvases are as at odds with each other as Quid Pro Quo, and they’re less complicated (and compelling) because of it.

Would that he took a lesson or two in establishing tensions and harmonies-in other words, composition-from Mr. Willis. Having said that, Mr. Willis should look to Mr. Little for coloristic invention; his reliance on the primaries is unimaginative when it isn’t pedantic. Here’s a suggestion: The two men should spend less time raising the bar and more time going the distance. Mr. Willis or Mr. Little get pretty far as it is, but you do wish they’d stop advertising the fact that they have something to prove.

Thornton Willis and James Little: Raising the Bar is at the Sideshow Gallery, 319 Bedford Avenue, until April 25.

A Fun Group

There are not a few things to recommend in In Black and White, a varied, lively and self-explanatory group exhibition at Lori Bookstein Fine Art. Among them are the sculptures: Five scabrous table-top crucifixions in plaster by Bruce Gagnier, a pair of muscular ceramic biomorphs by Garth Evans and Louisa Matthiasdottir’s bust of a woman, a work whose harsh authority has me wondering whether this painter shouldn’t have traded oils for plaster. Stuart Davis is here, as is Hans Hofmann, his favorite student Robert De Niro Sr., the terrific Tine Lundsfryd and a bumptious orchestration of abstract shapes by Michael Volonakis.

For my money, however, the best reason to visit Bookstein is a quartet of ink and gesso drawings on vellum by Eve Aschheim. Each piece is a dense and delicate interrogation of pictorial space, a tenacious accumulation of diagrammatic marks and stuttering, staccato rhythms. Ms. Aschheim has an unprepossessing knack for reconciling opposing images, gestures and inclinations without diminishing their independence or their momentum-the pictures court chaos even as they remain wedded to structure. Whenever I bump into one of Ms. Aschheim’s drawings, I want to bump into another. The folks at Bookstein tell me she’s on the docket for a solo show in winter 2006. Time to mark your calendars.

In Black and White is at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, 37 West 57th Street, until April 29.

Quaytman’s Colors

If you’re familiar with the paintings of the American artist Harvey Quaytman (1937-2002)-a serious, soulful and overly slavish purveyor of High Modernist abstraction-then Flying the Colors, an exhibition at the McKee Gallery, will hold no surprises. In fact, it hardly seems necessary. Is the show a stopgap measure in McKee’s exhibition schedule? Quaytman’s claim on history, after all, doesn’t have much to do with color. Though he employed reds, yellows and a purple that would’ve had Mondrian in conniptions, the only color Quaytman put his name on is a deep, electric blue. No, surface was his specialty, craft his love; he was, at heart, a materialist. Few painters have rendered acrylics as august or employed masking tape with as much gravity. The secret ingredient in Giotto’s Grotto (1987) is superfine grains of glass, a material that brings a ghostly shimmer to Quaytman’s austere geometry.

Harvey Quaytman: Flying the Colors is at the McKee Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, until April 16.