The Space Between Objects: Bailey’s Hypnotic Still Lifes

“Sublime” isn’t an adjective that a critic should bandy about promiscuously. Used appropriately, it can describe the paintings of Fra Angelico and Vermeer, but the word is pretty much depleted thereafter. Having said that, there it is, “sublime,” sitting atop the page of notes I took while standing in the Betty Cuningham Gallery looking at the paintings of William Bailey.

Actually, the word should only be applied to the four still-life paintings in the north gallery: Turning (2003), Overcast (2004-5), The Polish Officer (2004) and Migianella Del Sogno (2003). There are two neighboring canvases, A Small Stage (2000) and Room in Umbria (2004-5), as well as paintings and drawings in the gallery’s front spaces, but you should ignore them. Not that they aren’t accomplished pictures; a painter of consummate skill and impressive probity, Mr. Bailey couldn’t be unaccomplished if he tried.

But it does seem that Mr. Bailey requires a sizable expanse of canvas to bring off a painting-a strike against the small A Small Stage. As for the nude in Room in Umbria, the figure brings out the artist’s tedious obeisance to precedent. There are better ways to honor the painters of Renaissance Italy or a curious figure like Balthus than to iron one’s shirt, button the collar and relinquish one’s independence and curiosity. (In fairness to the artist, this pertains only to his oil paintings-Mr. Bailey’s pencil drawings of women are free of such an affliction.)

Mr. Bailey is more lively and less stuffy in the large still lifes; however, the difference isn’t readily apparent. The touch, unemphatic but there-just short of methodical, simultaneously hard and soft-remains consistent, as does an immovable sense of order. (There isn’t a square centimeter of a Bailey canvas that hasn’t been deliberated upon.) So how does a painting like Overcast, the most sublime of the bunch, distinguish itself? The answer, I think, lies in the hypnotizing rhythms-almost imperceptible-that Mr. Bailey locates in the spaces between his water jugs, salt shakers, candlesticks, teacups and eggs.

The eye is propelled through the compositions like a slow-motion pinball, around and behind and against the objects. Stick with the pictures and you’ll eventually come to the realization that space has been rendered disconcertingly concrete; it is as full, in its own way, as the items in its path. At which point, the still-life set-ups become intensely provisional, as if they were Platonic ideals (or ghosts) of the things depicted. Nothing is what it seems.

Mr. Bailey doesn’t work from observed phenomenon; the images are invented, the paintings anything but realist. With their studious cadences and inexplicable lapses in logic, they embrace paradox as fervently as they resist classification. Not a few people pooh-pooh Mr. Bailey as a “conservative”-the ultimate epithet in a scene that favors the far-out over the right-on. I suspect they do so out of fear: Mr. Bailey’s art throws into question, quietly but decisively, the fly-by-night exigencies of the contemporary scene. His beautiful and bull-headed paintings just won’t go away. Therein lies some-but by no means all-of their appeal.

William Bailey is at the Betty Cuningham Gallery, 541 West 25th Street, until May 7.

Bad Juggling

Multidisciplinarity is a curse upon the arts-it really is. Take, for instance, the work of Steve Roden on view in the project room at the Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery. There isn’t a lot of his art on display-six child-like drawings, some tinker-toy constructions, a rumbling, tinkling sound installation and seven abstract paintings-though one presumes that what’s there is intended as a representative sampling.

Even on the abbreviated evidence, it’s clear that Mr. Roden is spreading himself too thin. Nothing feels necessary; not a thing is particular. The drawings: a slacker’s oh-so-precious amalgam of Paul Klee and Hundertwasser. The constructions: creepy and cute-they wouldn’t get a pass in a sophomore sculpture class. The sound installation: a sitcom version of avant-garde art. As for the paintings, here Mr. Roden displays a modicum of get-up-and-go.

Granted, we’ve seen this kind of painting before: Each canvas is a densely layered and vaguely futuristic accumulation of diagrams, patterns and marks. Mr. Roden has yet to work out of his system the jones he has for the paintings of Terry Winters, Thomas Nozkowski and Jonathan Lasker. You’ll stop and look all the same; Mr. Roden has an appealingly brusque touch. Of course, at some point you’ll wish the ham-handedness wasn’t a statement of principle. The inability to adequately stretch a canvas, for instance, is a distraction.

Then again, perhaps Mr. Roden is too busy “weav[ing] together his intricate conceptualization”( sic) through various media to be bothered with the niceties of craft or, for that matter, the discipline inherent in realizing a coherent and individual vision. Practicing multi-disciplinarity promises freedom; what it does in actuality is dissipate energy and purpose. There’s a decent painter in Mr. Roden waiting to emerge. If only the other Rodens would get out of his way.

Steve Roden: Sea Marks is at the Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, 526 West 26th Street, until May 7.

Look at Me!

We’re all familiar with the serial murderer’s lament: Stop me before I kill again! Here’s the art critic’s variant of same: Stop Frank Stella before he creates more!

The recent efforts by Mr. Stella, on display at Paul Kasmin Gallery, confirm that his baroque tendencies increase in direct proportion to the pointlessness of his art. The only thing fueling the monstrous curlicues of steel pipe and torquing panels of carbon-fiber fill is the egotist’s unrelenting need for attention. The operatic flourishes, grandiose scale and extravagant muscularity-they’re the Famous Artist’s equivalent of a temper tantrum.

Good luck to him. If Mr. Stella thinks bombast can disguise a deficit of sculptural know-how, or that a frantic scramble for aesthetic rationale will generate the real thing, well, he’s wrong. He fares better working on a small scale only because less material, less effort and less precious space have been squandered in the process. As for the big stuff: It’s overweening, irredeemable and ugly as sin. History knows Mr. Stella as the progenitor of Minimalism. Let history keep him; the here-and-now has enough problems as it is.

Frank Stella is at the Paul Kasmin Gallery, 293 10th Avenue, until May 14.