Otherworldy Pictures With a Sober Potency

The same thing that draws us to the still-life paintings of Richard Baker makes us worry about their staying power:

The same thing that draws us to the still-life paintings of Richard Baker makes us worry about their staying power: facility. Mr. Baker, whose canvases are on display at the Joan T. Washburn Gallery, handles oil paint in a way that will tug at anyone who loves the properties peculiar to the medium-its flexibility and body, even its smell. His depictions of donuts and martinis, French fries, flowers and rubber toys are nudged into shape with a measured yet emphatic sensuality. These objects are placed close at hand, yet the resulting pictures, while small in size, encapsulate vast expanses of space. The landscapes that serve as the backdrops for the paintings are spare and vaguely discomfiting, and recall the cloistered panoramas of Giorgio de Chirico and Salvador Dalí.

While Mr. Baker’s work hints at the surreal, his is too sober a temperament to surrender to that school’s squishier tendencies.A homely propriety defines his imagery, even if there’s nothing homely about its making-and this is where facility irks. Mr. Baker’s pictorial tics-fractured horizons, interruptions of space through slow eruptions of impasto and a finical attention to how forms abut the edge of the canvas-appear so regularly that they threaten to drain the work of its potency. They don’t though. Spend some time with the paintings and Mr. Baker’s mannerisms perturb less, partly because they’re so quietly set out, but mostly because a mood-a dreamy and distant severity-comes to the fore and stays there. His pictures are harsh and droll, awkward yet expert. They’re problematic. They’re also recommended. Richard Baker: Recent Still Life Paintings is at the Joan T. Washburn Gallery, 20 West 57th Street, until Jan. 26.

Video Art … At the Met?

The Quintet of Remembrance (2000), a video by Bill Viola, is the first example of the genre to enter the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it is currently on view in the museum’s Lila Acheson Wallace Wing. One can understand why the Met considered this piece worthy of the distinction. The Quintet of Remembrance is a conscious attempt at investing video with the authority of painting-in specific, Renaissance painting. Taking inspiration from Bosch, Mantegna and Bouts, Mr. Viola’s piece features three women and two men, all dressed in contemporary garb and grouped closely together ,registering strong emotions. Ecstasy, horror, anger and hope pass over the faces of the actors, and they gesture accordingly.

The real time elapsed during the filming of the video was about 60 seconds, but the final piece lasts 16 minutes. By slowing down and isolating each figure’s movements, Mr. Viola slows down our eye as well. Watching The Quintet of Remembrance , we keep a vigilant lookout for fluctuations in dramatic pressure. It isn’t before too long, however, that we begin to fidget, having come to the realization that Mr. Viola’s video has less to do with grace and gravity than with theatricality and contrivance. Of course, one could note that Lamentation (ca. 1450), an oil on panel by the 15th-century Netherlandish painter Petrus Christus and an unheralded gem of the Met’s holdings, isn’t lacking in theatricality either. The difference is that the latter’s contrivances add up to a crystalline evocation of the divine while Mr. Viola’s contrivances remain what they are. Take my advice: skip the movie and seek out the Christus. Art beats arty any day of the week. The Quintet of Remembrance is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, until May 5.

Winkfield Indulging

The more surface area the painter Trevor Winkfield allows his kaleidoscopic cosmos the more it goes off on unexpected tangents. The more tangents his cosmos goes off on the more the pictures gain in wit. The more the pictures gain in wit the truer they are to themselves.

I’ve applauded Mr. Winkfield’s larger canvases in the past and kept my fingers crossed that he continue to give his absurdist ruminations on history and culture ample wiggle room. Which is why I almost hate to admit that the most successful pieces in Mr. Winkfield’s current show at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery are a quartet of diminutive paintings, “fragments” that have been discreetly shuffled off to the side of the gallery.

What a small canvas size does for Mr. Winkfield’s gewgaws and doodads is interesting. The compression of surface area focuses his brightly keyed palette, giving it a presence and a force often lacking in the larger canvases. What the compression of surface area does not do is tighten his compositions. The “fragments” take on an atypical, free-floating intimacy. They’re like microscopic glimpses of a world as it readies itself for presentation. These pieces are perfect in their own way, but not definitive. Perfection isn’t Mr. Winkfield’s thing.

It’s not often that we ask a painter to indulge himself at the risk of pictorial incoherence. Yet in Mr. Winkfield’s case indulgence leads to abundance and abundance is his gift. He’s one of those figures whose quirks-we won’t call them shortcomings-are part and parcel of his charm. So let him buy acres of canvas on which to give body to the splendid minutiae of his dotty realm. Mr. Winkfield will be more than happy to do so. Chances are we’ll be happy he did. Trevor Winkfield: Vocations is at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, until Feb. 9. Otherworldy Pictures With a Sober Potency