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Blasé Juan Uslé Might Surprise

Juan Uslé, whose abstract paintings are currently on display at Cheim & Read, would be one of our best artists if he weren’t one of our most capricious. If you guessed that this makes him a frustrating figure, you’d be right: Mr. Uslé has yet to paint a picture that doesn’t flout its virtues. His overlapping patterns and all-over fields of silky brushstrokes are characterized by a playful and notably aloof élan-Mr. Uslé likes to improvise. He likes to complicate as well, trying this, trying that, and seeing where his decisions lead him. When it’s time for resolution, however, Mr. Uslé gets lost: His paintings don’t culminate so much as come to a halt.

Not that he’s losing any sleep over it-Mr. Uslé is too blasé to fret about anything as mundane as pictorial harmony. No point in suggesting that he roll up his sleeves and charge into the paintings all hell-bent and hard-nosed. Insouciance is Mr. Uslé’s liability, sure, but it also turns out to be his strength.

Which leaves us where? With a painter who does a lot of things right. Mr. Uslé knows how to fit his brushwork to the size of a canvas; whether working small or large, he’s spot-on in terms of scale. He’s good at giving his surfaces variety and interest, and his knack for tweaking broad areas of incident with quirky particulars is diverting. Still, these stylish and steely paintings could use some flex.

Perhaps a change of medium would do the trick: Oils might allow for a more elastic approach than vinyl. But maybe the oeuvre is already more elastic than this sampling indicates. If there are any curators out there still interested in the art of painting, they could do worse than mount an overview. The result could be awful; it could also be surprising. Mr. Uslé’s work may have more to tell us about the vitality of contemporary painting than we-or he-can imagine. Juan Uslé is at Cheim & Read, 547 West 25th Street, until June 15.

An Excess of Refinement

I want to like the paintings of Brice Marden; I really do. After visiting both branches of the Matthew Marks Gallery, where Mr. Marden’s paintings and drawings are on display, I all but kicked myself for failing to swoon. Aren’t they everything we want from art? His linear abstractions are sensuous and somber, considered and consummate. Their beauty resides in an august palette, a fullness of space and draftsmanship canny enough to thwart its own expertise. Taking off from Pollock, de Kooning and Diebenkorn-daunting precedents all-Mr. Marden has crafted an art that is breathtaking and individual. What’s not to like?

Nothing, in fact. Mr. Marden’s art is too bland to merit either adoration or ire. Standing in Matthew Marks’ 22nd Street location, I found that the gallery’s natural lighting picked up on Mr. Marden’s telltale infirmity: an excess of refinement. The surfaces of the paintings are so exquisitely conscious that one realizes this artist’s true gift is for the elegant effect. These are pictures unsullied by anything so vulgar and variable as life. While grateful for our attention, they don’t go out of their way to deserve it.

Art should aspire to something more than background noise, and Mr. Marden’s pictures are indeed more than visual Muzak. But to even suggest the comparison is to point out the innocuousness of his achievement. Brice Marden is at the Matthew Marks Gallery, 523 West 24th Street and 522 West 22nd Street, until June 22.

Affable Painter of Affable Pictures

The paintings of Tom Burckhardt, currently the subject of an exhibition at Caren Golden Fine Art, remind me of a place I haven’t thought of in ages: a neighborhood curio shop I frequented as a child. Like that establishment, Mr. Burckhardt’s paintings are packed with trinkets, junk and treasure, all of it secondhand and tinged with memory. These amalgams of abstract devices and representational doodads achieve a sweetly unassuming compromise between information overload and goofy incongruity. A single canvas will include pointillist waves, a recycling bin, a swatch of patterning, a blurred depiction of an album cover and sundry other items too diverse or fantastic to enumerate.

The abundance of imagery in Mr. Burckhardt’s work is evidence of a generous temperament, just as its low-key affect divulges an artist for whom pretension is anathema. Mr. Burckhardt is an affable painter of affable pictures. I only wish his imagination weren’t so pedestrian.

This might seem an odd comment to make, particularly about paintings that abound in flights of fancy. Yet Mr. Burckhardt’s juxtapositions never kaleidoscope the way they want to; they’re as stolid as they are adept. The work is so even-tempered, in fact, that one painting is indistinguishable from the next.

For an artist trading in idiosyncrasy, such homogeneity is a problem. I think that Mr. Burckhardt’s prolificacy prevents him from achieving focus. Once each canvas is as singular as its maker, his paintings will be more than something to see-they will be something to celebrate. Tom Burckhardt is at Caren Golden Fine Art, 526 West 26th Street, until June 8.

Currently Hanging