Petlin’s Ambiguous Agitprop Pushes Dialogue, Not Dogma

The centerpiece of Irving Petlin’s exhibition of paintings and drawings at Kent Gallery is The Entry of Christ into Washington (2005), a tripartite canvas of about five by 12 feet. It’s an homage, of sorts, to Belgian painter James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, one of the more quizzical masterpieces of early modernist painting. But precedent here is a jumping-off point less for artistic purposes than for political vitriol. Mr. Petlin is pissed off.

The Entry of Christ into Washington is a panoramic view of hell as imagined by a foe of the Bush administration. As such, it trucks in those received grievances that drive the left to indignation and, sometimes, self-sabotage. Mr. Petlin’s apocalyptic picture directs its ire at predictable targets: Arab potentates, Exxon oil fields, the American flag, the Capitol building and banners that read “Irak Redux,” “Abu Ghraib,” “Yale,” “Texas” and “Dystopia USA.” All are delineated in the artist’s telltale style—a sketchy composite of drawing and painting that veers assuredly between grubby and ethereal.

The key to understanding Mr. Petlin’s worth as an artist can only partly be gleaned from the intensity of his diatribe. It helps to go beyond the immediate purview of the Kent exhibition, with its pictures of bombings and destruction along the banks of the Tigris and the outskirts of New York City.

Tucked away by the reception desk, there’s a pastel drawing by Mr. Petlin from 1986 titled Songs for Sarah. It’s not much really. The page has hardly been touched; the imagery and intent are ambiguous. There’s a desert vista, a stone wall, seven figures (one may be a bird) dotting the landscape, a stippled whale surfacing from the sand, a building, an acidic orange haze and an unexpectedly bucolic field of blue topping it all off. Throughout, Mr. Petlin displays a casual virtuosity. His approach to drawing is to the point, yet gentle in its stylistic wanderings. Songs for Sarah threatens to disappear even as it comes into focus. It has the fleeting absurdity of a half-remembered dream.

The ambiguity filters through to his distinctive brand of agitprop and complicates it. Unlike his friend and fellow artist, Leon Golub, in whose memory the painting Infantry (2004-5) is dedicated, Mr. Petlin doesn’t talk down to the audience. He trusts viewers to bring their own emotional and political intelligence to the table. Dialogue, not dogma, is the goal. Mr. Petlin can admit to different points of view, even if he finds them wrongheaded or despicable. There’s a generosity of spirit lurking in his scabrousness.

As a result, the paintings and drawings gain in authority. At the very least, they encourage the long look. A Petlin retrospective is set to open at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the spring of 2008, providing a welcome opportunity to gauge his contribution to the culture. In the meantime, the Kent show provides a tantalizingly imperfect glimpse of one man’s singular vision.

Irving Petlin is at Kent Gallery, 541 West 25th Street, until May 26.

In Good Shape

Salvatore Federico’s recent paintings and drawings, on display in the middle room at the George Billis Gallery, continue to create a bold, balletic tension out of carefully devised, hard-edged forms.

A small drawing, done with pencil on graph paper, reveals the painstaking extent to which Mr. Federico’s angular heraldic shapes are proportioned and configured. But knowing the math informing the compositions doesn’t illuminate what truly makes them dance: distillation and color.

The more anonymous the surfaces of the paintings are (Mr. Federico doesn’t hide his touch; he doesn’t have one), the more his jutting shapes gain in personality, muscle and grace. The palette, too, is sharp and emphatic. Unafraid of juxtaposing warms, cools and near-complementary colors, Mr. Federico makes the most of minimal means. The actual colors occupying a single canvas are few, yet the presence they establish is remarkably vibrant—especially when yoked theatrically to the spacious and cleansing white of High Modernism.

The white grounds of Praxedes (2005) and T.O.T.C. (2005) both animate and clear the way for exuberant arrangements of form. Who says art can’t be happy?

Salvatore Federico is at the George Billis Gallery, 511 West 25th Street, until June 10.

Too-Cool Katz

If Alex Katz weren’t such a cagey talent, he’d be an embarrassment. How is it that any painter with a major reputation can get away with nonexistent drawing skills, cursory paint handling and a style so vacuous that any claim made for it sticks? Mr. Katz, whose paintings from the 1960’s are on display at the 22nd Street branch of Pace Wildenstein, demonstrates how far a person can get by adroitly deploying a spare and arrogant gift. Rarely has an artist made so much of his intelligence while investing so little in his craft.

Not that every inch of a canvas demands obsessive labor. But Mr. Katz’s pictures of family, friends, Luna Park, a swamp maple tree and “superb lilies” are so rushed and programmatic, and so stilted in their depiction of the human form, that you can only conclude that hasty means indicate contempt for the art of painting itself. Mr. Katz’s broad-brush technique makes for striking images, but as painting, the work is bland and numbing. Only with the aforementioned lilies do we see Mr. Katz pick up and engage with the possibilities—indeed, the musicality—of pictorial form. Otherwise, he’s too cool to care.

Boosters argue that his sleek style and billboard-size canvases are world-historical: that by marrying the expansiveness of Abstract Expressionism with the punch of Pop Art, he nudged representational painting back into the mainstream. Maybe so, but what does it mean when culture starts inflating sound bites into epic statements? It’s Mr. Katz’s prerogative not to worry about that and simply rush to order. It’s our prerogative to grant his art as much time and pleasure as he does.

Alex Katz: The Sixties is at Pace Wildenstein, 545 West 22nd Street, until June 17.