Waving to the 20th Century En Route to the 19th

The painter Katy Schneider, who’s having her New York debut at Tatistcheff & Company Inc., is the kind of artist whose work will inevitably be affixed with scary adjectives like “academic,” “traditional” and “conservative.” Just how scary these adjectives are depends on whether one considers, say, a grounding in figure drawing essential or irrelevant to the pursuit of art. Ms. Schneider thinks it essential-rightly so, one might add-and is sharp enough to know that academies come in all shapes, sizes and flavors. Nor is she scared of tradition-she embraces it, in fact. Yet one suspects that all of these exemplary attributes make her feel a bit self-conscious, especially given a scene that’s fueled by everything her art is not. I mean, how else to explain those frames? Clunky, bulky and overbearing, they’re a distraction, an extra-aesthetic compensation for paintings that don’t jump out at us. Ms. Schneider should know better: not jumping out at us is what she’s all about.

Ms. Schneider is a 21st-century artist whose stylings don’t disregard the 20th century so much as wave at it politely on the way back to the 19th. Her work makes the case, modestly but firmly, that precedent is never a done deal and that inspiration is where you find it. The Corot-like delicacies of Ms. Schneider’s brush settle on matters close at hand: family and the studio.

The best painting, 1995’s Self-Portrait; Profile, combines the two-almost, anyway. Wearing nothing but painting gloves and an intent expression, Ms. Schneider depicts herself in the kitchen, working at her canvas in a state that can only be called alarmingly pregnant. This is an audacious image, at once provocative and no big deal. The painting’s power owes much to the hyperconsciousness engendered by impending motherhood, but also to the two-in-the-morning necessity of a painter who needs to get to her easel now. Someone’s bound to come along and claim it as a transgression of the patriarchal dictates governing the art of self-portraiture. All I know is that it’s a damned good painting. Katy Schneider is at Tatistcheff & Company Inc., 529 West 20th Street, sixth floor, until May 26.

Enough Paint on One Canvas for a Lifetime

“Nothing succeeds like excess,” one is tempted to quip when faced with the paintings of David Stern-and one would be, if not mostly wrong, then partly wrong. Mr. Stern, whose work is the subject of an exhibition at Rosenberg + Kaufman Fine Art, continues to use more oil paint in a single picture than most artists do in a lifetime, and to wield a brush so rough and broad that it could double as a broom. Yet notwithstanding their extreme physicality, Mr. Stern’s recent portraits, streetscapes and subway scenes display a newfound freshness. His touch can’t be called light-not with the poundage of pigment Mr. Stern is packing-but it has gained an alla prima–like spontaneity. This is a surprising and welcome development.

One associates the turbulent brushwork of Mr. Stern’s art with Expressionist painting, and his work recalls that of Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach and, in its gnarled portrayals of the human form, Francis Bacon. “Expressionist,” however, isn’t a label that sits comfortably on Mr. Stern’s shoulders. His canvases are less about catharsis than bravado. A good part of the satisfaction we take in these dauntingly concrete pictures is seeing Mr. Stern pull them off. And he does-a feat the artist takes no small satisfaction in himself.

Something of a showman, Mr. Stern also has a mission: to harness the compacted, over-the-top stresses of the city and its inhabitants. If his Manhattan is too archetypal for my taste, it is spiced with parcels of specificity that any New Yorker will recognize as fact. Particularly fine are the man who looks to us with a pained self-awareness in Square Times (2001) and the woman at the right of All Entries Final (2001), an elegant figure who, with those distinctive cheekbones and equally distinctive attitude, is a dead ringer for an old boss of mine. David Stern: Common Ground is at Rosenberg + Kaufman Fine Art, 115 Wooster Street, until May 26.

Stephen Westfall, Still Kicking Ass

Prior to the opening of Stephen Westfall’s current exhibition of paintings, I was informed by an acquaintance-an acquaintance, I should add, familiar with the artist’s as-yet-unexhibited pictures-that not only had Mr. Westfall reached a “Zen” plateau in his art, but that his recent geometric abstractions were “kick-ass.” Having visited Lennon, Weinberg Inc., where the paintings are on display, I’m inclined to concur with this assessment-only if it’s understood that each term cuts into, rather than complements, the other.

Mr. Westfall is, as an artist, too studied to set off major sparks, yet he sets off enough sparks to stop us in our tracks. There’s no doubting that he has, in recent years, come into his own as a painter. His 1999 show at this same venue was nothing short of a breakthrough-one that saw him complicating and concentrating his signature grids to impressive effect. With their fidgety juxtapositions of line and space, the pictures simultaneously popped the eye and declared themselves with a clean composure. Kick-ass Zen was, at that point, already in effect.

The new paintings are gratifyingly restless. Testing the self-imposed limits of his art, Mr. Westfall is seen poking around in post-breakthrough mode-overlapping monumental grids on skeletal ones, breaking up the pictorial field, pursuing avenues unknown and peculiar. The work generates interest more for what it intimates than for what it fulfills. We ask our artists for fulfillment, of course, but as good as Summer (2000) is-of the nine canvases on view it’s the only one that’s complete-it’s more a coda than a continuation. The pictures in the entry gallery, Germantown and Bye Bye Blackbird (both 2000), are the ones that really excite. These at-odds-with-themselves experiments hint at a wily and off-kilter abstraction we have yet to imagine. Whether the artist can imagine it is the real question.

Notwithstanding Mr. Westfall’s gaffes with color-someone tell him to go easy on the green-and a touch so unprepossessing it skirts the drab, he remains a painter up to the task. Stephen Westfall: New Paintings is at Lennon, Weinberg Inc., at 560 Broadway, Suite 308, until June 2. Waving to the 20th Century En Route to the 19th