A Closet Expressionist Concentrates Experience, Memory

Dumbo (2002), a small oil on panel by Debra Bermingham, made me happier than any painting I’ve seen in recent weeks. It’s a deceptively simple image: At the bottom of a mostly empty canvas is a tabletop, and on it sits a wooden elephant on wheels-a pull toy. The light emanating from the picture is bluish-gray, cool and filtered. The mood is wistful, yet also severe. The space depicted has been nudged into focus with a quiet determination; we see it from a distinct remove. A meditation, perhaps, on the folly of nostalgia, Dumbo is too elusive to pinpoint with any certainty-to make the attempt would be to deny Ms. Bermingham’s gift for concentrating experience and memory.

None of the other paintings in her current exhibition at DC Moore Gallery achieve the psychological and pictorial intensity of Dumbo , but all of them have the same stoic fortitude. Ms. Bermingham’s pictures of empty farm houses, vintage toys, mysterious clowns and grimacing masks recall those of Vilhelm Hammershoi. Like the 19th-century Danish painter, she’s given to a dour sensuality, solitary interiors and otherworldly reveries. Ms. Bermingham is more of a show-woman-a quality that doesn’t always serve her well. When she plays up the expressiveness of light, as she does when she goes high and sharp or dark and soupy, the result is pure spook-house theatrics. She’s at her best when keeping things dusky, simple and small. When Ms. Bermingham hits her mark, the forbidding emotions she tamps down gain in range and power. She’s more of an expressionist than one might think.

Debra Bermingham is at the DC Moore Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, until Oct. 5.

An Inspired Coupling

Everyone knows the cliché about two heads being better than one, but who knew it could apply to sculptors? That’s the case with the current pairing of Win Knowlton and John Duff at the Joseph Helman Gallery. Both men are prodigious talents whose sculpture can trace its lineage to Constantin Brancusi, the Modernist master of distilled form. While notice of exhibitions featuring either sculptor are likely to pique the curiosity of devotees of the medium, their recent work has been unfailingly resistible. Mr. Knowlton’s art suffers from aloofness; Mr. Duff’s is too often studied and proud. That teaming these two would set off sparks wasn’t guaranteed.

Visitors to Helman are advised to bypass the front gallery, where weaker efforts by Mr. Duff and Mr. Knowlton are floored, literally and figuratively, by the anteroom ambiance. In the main gallery, two pieces by Mr. Duff and one by Mr. Knowlton bounce off each other with enough éclat to convince me that this is the most inspired coupling since Laurel and Hardy. I don’t mean to suggest that their art is a form of slapstick, although Mr. Duff does evince a stringent wit and Mr. Knowlton a weakness for puns. The comparison holds in that each man plays-at once contentiously and sympathetically-to the other’s foibles. Watch the mischievous Mr. Knowlton puncture Mr. Duff’s august exterior. See Mr. Duff save face while flipping Mr. Knowlton the bird. See each benefit from the other’s company-hope they learn from it-and thank Joe Helman for a job well done. Then ask him for a sequel.

John Duff and Win Knowlton is at the Joseph Helman Gallery, 601 West 26th Street, 14th floor, until Sept. 27.

Good Vibes

After visiting the exhibition of abstract paintings by Miki Lee, currently on display at lyonsweirgallery, I decided I didn’t much care for them. Stripe painting has become all but synonymous with the last legs of Modernism, a historical force teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. That these particular stripes are wiggly and wavy doesn’t redeem the artist’s paucity of invention-merely tweaking a pictorial trope won’t bring it back to life. In this respect, Ms. Lee’s historical references-to Op Art, Pop Art, Barnett Newman and Philip Taaffe-are professionally strategic rather than aesthetically necessary. Why would anyone want to spend so much time turning circles down a dead end?

Yet I find I can’t get Ms. Lee’s paintings out of my head. Their staying power comes from the good vibes they generate. Ms. Lee may trade in received motifs, but she knocks them into shape with an infectious mix of gravity, optimism and possibility. I went back to the pictures and opened my eyes to them. Why hadn’t I noticed their scrupulous crafting, punchy rhythms and various color? How could I have casually dismissed a painter so unapologetic in her pursuit of visual delight? Not that her delights are the shape of things to come. Ms. Lee’s pictorial terrain is happy, but it’s also narrow. Whether she’ll be able to paint her way out of it is uncertain. Still, these are pictures worth caring for.

Miki Lee is at lyonsweirgallery, 511 West 25th Street, No. 205, until Oct. 5.

A Closet Expressionist Concentrates Experience, Memory