With Earthy Style and Droll Wit, Kohn’s Sculptures Steal the Show

Gabriel Kohn occupies a quizzical, almost willfully marginal patch of artistic terrain. The artist died three decades ago, but I’d never heard his name prior to coming across four of his pieces in An Intuitive View, a somewhat perfunctory array of sculpture culled from the storage lockers at the McKee Gallery. Yet Kohn fairly steals the show from such notable competition as Martin Puryear and John Duff, among others.

Certainly, the novelty of the work makes an impression. The sculpture incorporates equal parts Constructivism and folk art, with less obvious references to Surrealism’s dreamlike confabulations. If Mark di Suvero, H.C. Westermann and Meret Oppenheim—or, at least, her furry teacup—could have had a love child, it would have been Kohn. This contradictory pedigree all but ensures that any underlying heroic impulse left over from High Modernist aspiration is undercut by a streak of absurdist humor and a stubborn individuality.

Carved and carpentered from wood, the pieces evince a hearty, roughhewn sense of craft. “Finish” was anathema to Kohn’s earthy aesthetic; the woodshop, not the showroom, determined the sculptural approach. So while due diligence is paid to the shaping and assembly of materials, an unkempt, conversational style prevails. Are you familiar with the archetypal image of the old bluesman on the porch of a shotgun shack, musing and strumming his guitar? Kohn’s work evokes a similar feel.

The sculptures are never truly abstract. Each of them retains forceful but by no means constraining allusions, whether they be to classical sculpture, furniture or the animal kingdom. Ventura VIII (1969), a beautifully fashioned object that is part puzzle and part devotional object, is Kohn at his most hermetic. He’s at his most engaging in Owl (1954), a droll effigy shaped from the trunk of a tree and propped up on three precisely set pegs. In it, Kohn simultaneously distills and magnifies everything that is enigmatic and ungainly about the bird. I wonder if there’s anything else as good to be found in the oeuvre. More importantly, will McKee take the hint?

An Intuitive View is at McKee Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, until Oct. 27.

Renoir Redeemed

In his first solo New York exhibition, Ken Kewley does the impossible: He redeems Renoir, the man who painted the world—and, most famously, the buxom young women residing in it—as if everything were spun from cotton candy. On the north wall of Lori Bookstein Fine Art, you’ll find six small collages by Mr. Kewley in which he elaborates on paintings by the French artist.

Through the cutting and pasting of paper, Mr. Kewley confers solidity and definition upon Renoir’s fleshy sfumato. Hard-edged geometric elements coalesce into recognizable images, intimating physical form without making it concrete. Remember the plaint that compared Cubism to “an explosion in a shingle factory”? Picture it on a miniaturist scale and you’ll have some idea of what Mr. Kewley is up to.

The manner of the collages is meticulously self-effacing, allowing shifts in value and color to overshadow materials and process. Indeed, color is his true gift. Sophisticated modulations of closely valued tones make for rich and spacious pictures. In Young Girl with Daisies (after Renoir) (2005), Mr. Kewley offsets and enlivens a virtually monochromatic image with a range of purples, greens and blues. It is, in its own quiet way, a bravura performance.

Notwithstanding the pithy, graphic character of his style (he’s clearly a fan of Stuart Davis and Patrick Henry Bruce), there’s a fulsome and organic sensuality brought to bear on the pictures. I would argue, in fact, that Mr. Kewley beats Renoir at his own game, largely because the pictures embrace rather than glance upon desire. That it is art and not flesh prompting Mr. Kewley’s yearnings only makes his achievement all the more witty and appealing.

Ken Kewley: Collages is at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, 37 West 57th Street, until Oct. 28.

Dirty Wallpaper

There’s a moral to be gleaned from the exhibition of paintings by Sue Williams at the 303 Gallery: It is that capitalism can engender love. I’m assuming that the folks at 303 encourage Ms. Williams and her artistic endeavors only because the resulting pictures sell like hotcakes. There can’t be another reason, can there? It’s not like the paintings are any good. Blanketing the surface are accumulations of morphing twats, dicks and assholes that serve no discernible purpose. As wallpaper, the work is silly; as transgression, it’s pro forma; as painting, it’s inert. Miró, in heaven, weeps at the bloodless character of Ms. Williams’ scatological cartoons.

Having made the journey from angry feminist to naughty calligrapher, the artist seems keen on nothing so much as reestablishing her bona fides as an art-scene “bad girl.” The paintings, in turn, follow on the heels of a zeitgeist that has long since passed them by. Egregious riffs on bodily orifices can only take you so far. In Ms. Williams’ case, they’re taking her nowhere at all.

Sue Williams is at the 303 Gallery, 525 West 22nd Street, until Oct. 29.