An Artist’s Formidable Gaze, Withering and a Touch Arrogant

What an eye Avigdor Arikha has! In his recent paintings and drawings, currently on view at the Marlborough Gallery, we see the 73-year-old realist latch onto his subjects with acuity and tenaciousness. Whether rendering a red sofa, a bunch of roses, a garish pair of socks or his own naked self, Mr. Arikha lets nothing get in the way of perception- pure perception, one is tempted to say. That’s why he favors working alla prima , finishing each canvas in one session: Immediacy brings spontaneity, and spontaneity, one hopes, means freedom from preconceived attitudes. Mr. Arikha’s restless, cottony brushwork-his Bonnardesque blur-is the consequence of painterly necessity.

Yet the paintings and drawings are less objective than one might think, or than their arid focus makes them seem. Mr. Arikha’s work is defined by a proprietary impulse and shot through, albeit subtly, with arrogance. He doesn’t observe a phenomenon so much as interrogate it. (One imagines the artist’s gaze is formidable, a suspicion confirmed by a pastel self-portrait from 1999.) Stay with the paintings, if for only a short time, and you begin to wonder how anything or anyone can withstand such withering attention. It’s surely easier to look at these pictures than to be looked at by this artist-but even so, Mr. Arikha’s relentlessness can be draining.

In one unforgettable painting, Sir John Shaw and Sir Bob Reid (2002), the two subjects are pinned down by Mr. Arikha’s eye like a pair of entomological specimens. In another, a sturdy hulk of an old typewriter cringes under the force of his gaze. The drawings are less oppressive, hence easier to approach; they yield to a sensuality that Mr. Arikha resists in the oil paintings. The exception is Studio Cupboard (2001), wherein the artist-too busy relishing the nooks, crannies and congestion of his workplace-engages in some fascinated give-and-take. As a painter, Mr. Arikha benefits from getting out of his own way.

Avigdor Arikha: Recent Works is at the Marlborough Gallery, 40 West 57th Street, until Oct. 5.

The Odd Couple

If the John Duff–Win Knowlton show at the Joseph Helman Gallery, reviewed in this column last week, is a tribute to artistic affinity, then the current exhibition at the Mitchell Algus Gallery, which pairs painters Ross Neher and Jeff Way, underscores artistic disparity. Mr. Neher is a romantic given to classical structures; Mr. Way a hedonist reliant on Pop impetus-their paintings keep a polite distance from each other. The show itself is too informal to amount to anything concise or didactic. The key is the parenthetical addendum to its title: (and some others) . While Mr. Neher and Mr. Way are represented predominantly by recent paintings, there are also earlier works, and as an introduction, a couple of oddities are included. The overall mood is less historical than congenial. Mr. Algus is pleased as punch to exhibit a couple of painters he really likes; he brings to the hyper-driven Chelsea scene the same off-center gemütlichheit typical of his old Soho space. That’s a welcome contribution.

Mr. Way’s oozing, skinned-over paintings of near-abstract heads, done in a weirdly glamorous palette of yellow, purple and Pepto Bismol pink, subject painting-as-process to painting-as-image-making. The results are volcanic, stunted, chilly. Less peculiar are Mr. Neher’s pictures: Achieving maximum outcome through minimal means, he imbues his architectural compositions with an enveloping, Turneresque light. Blue Agave (2001), the best of his efforts here, is anchored by a stark arrangement of dusky green, a color that’s neither yellow nor green and a black that isn’t black. What gives the painting its sweep is a commanding expanse of blue-a blue so deep, dense and subtly inflected that one can’t help but be mesmerized by it. Visitors to Algus get up close to Mr. Neher’s canvas, as if they’d never seen blue before-impressive testimony to his abilities as a colorist.

Ross Neher & Jeff Way: Recent Paintings (and some others) is at the Mitchell Algus Gallery, 511 West 25th Street, second floor, until Sept. 28.

Dramatic Flair

The subject of an adumbrated overview at Art Resources Transfer, sculptor Steve Keister’s work isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. Mr. Keister combines industrial ready-mades-most notably, wire-frame chairs-with spiky, stretched-to-the-limit biomorphic forms. The influence of Constructivism, Dadaism and, in particular, Surrealism and Expressionism is plain to see in these accomplishedandall-but-redundant sculptures. A confirmation of artistic verities isn’t the same thing as their revitalization. Failing to kick-start the traditions he’s inspired by, Mr. Keister coasts on them instead.

Still, though he evinces a weakness for exquisite effects-his corroded surfaces are too proud to convince-Mr. Keister does have a dramatic flair for gesture, an affable sense of humor and a gift for reconciling extremes. The found materials he employs, by virtue of their machine-tooled regularity, serve as comic foils for the mannered, nightmarish shapes with which they’re combined. Mr. Keister’s ceiling constructions, whether pirouetting in the main gallery or defying logic in the bookstore, are appealingly contrarian. The drawings, while automatic, are piercing in their pictorial zing. Prepare to admire Mr. Keister’s achievement (though it won’t bowl you over). Then ask yourself if the smallest dent in a great tradition doesn’t count for something real.

Steve Keister: 1978-1994 is at Art Resources Transfer Inc., 210 11th Avenue, No. 403, until Oct. 5.

An Artist’s Formidable Gaze, Withering and a Touch Arrogant