Quiltmaking Star of the Biennial Seduces with Vibrant N.Y. Debut

Nowadays I’m loath to give the Whitney Museum of American Art credit for anything; few museums have done as much

Nowadays I’m loath to give the Whitney Museum of American Art credit for anything; few museums have done as much to debase the cause of art. But the place does deserve credit for bringing to New York City Rosie Lee Tompkins, a quiltmaker who lives and works in California. Presumably because she was included in the 2002 Biennial, Ms. Tompkins now has an exhibition of quilts at the Peter Blum Gallery. Of course, this is conjecture on my part; I’m not privy to the backroom wheelings-and-dealings of art-world power-brokers. Ms. Tompkins’ quilts did make an impression at the Biennial-their exuberance proved irresistible to a variety of observers. It may not seem like much of a commendation to say that she was the star of that dismal event, but Ms. Tompkins doesn’t need context to shine. As the Blum show demonstrates, she shines on her own.

Ms. Tompkins’ quilts are so winning in their irregularity, rigorous in their form and playful in their means that they elide the distinctions between art and craft; the appeal of the work is such that one forgets all about categories, however significant they may be. Besides, there’s a lot to look at: vibrant colors, wobbly geometries and go-with-the-flow élan, all grounded by the artist’s unobtrusive dignity, the sense of pride taken in a job well done. Always the sensualist-Ms. Tompkins’ love for materials is as plain as the nose on your face-she can also be sexy: When she doubles up on plush fabrics, she’s downright lascivious. Ms. Tompkins is better at dispersing rhythms than focusing on particulars, so don’t be put off by the first two or three more stilted quilts. The rest of the show delights: The work gains in assurance, expansiveness and good tidings. It’s easy to be pessimistic after a day spent gallery-going. Here’s a reason to be happy.

Rosie Lee Tompkins: African-American Quiltmaker is at the Peter Blum Gallery, 99 Wooster Street, until Nov. 23.

Facile Appropriation

Standing in the Matthew Marks Gallery watching the videos of Sam Taylor-Wood, I couldn’t get over the fact that I was standing in the Matthew Marks Gallery watching the videos of Sam Taylor-Wood. How does one look at these things? While some galleries offer benches (a courtesy not extended at Marks), there have been few videos worth sitting for. Many videos are, in fact, unsittable: Doug Aitken’s current video installation at the 303 Gallery, for instance, purposefully denies the viewer a firm vantage point. Most videos don’t aspire to the status of film, anyway. They want to be art-you know, like a painting. Unlike a painting-whose entirety is forever fixed, front and center-a video reveals itself on a schedule, not at the viewer’s leisure, which entails clock-watching and foot-shuffling and promotes the inescapable sense that video art is something we tolerate in the name of progress.

Along with Bill Viola, Shirin NeshatandTony Oursler, Ms. Taylor-Woodisa prominent practitioner of video art. But she’s not the best of the bunch. Whatever we may ultimately think of the art of Mr. Viola, Ms. Neshat or Mr. Oursler, they bring to their ventures a cinematic rationale; why video is their chosen art form isn’t in doubt. All Ms. Taylor-Wood brings to her videos is a camera, a budget and a truckload of pretense. The centerpiece at Marks is an updated version of Michelangelo’s Pietà , wherein Ms. Taylor-Wood casts herself as the Virgin and Robert Downey Jr. as Jesus. The piece is shameless; not only does it trivialize a sacred image, it confuses facile appropriation of a great work of art with the great work of art itself.

Lest you think Ms. Taylor-Wood only exploits monuments of the Western world, there are also “homages” to Japanese erotic prints-basically an excuse to take some dirty pictures of, as the press release reassures us, “a man and a woman in a long-term relationship.” Elsewhere, she’s “inspired” by Hans Holbein, encourages the growth of mold and takes photographs of cows. Age 35, Ms. Taylor-Wood is the toast of the international art scene; Rosie Lee Tompkins, who is more than 30 years her senior, has barely had her first New York show. If that doesn’t count as a cultural inequity, I don’t know what does.

Sam Taylor-Wood: The Passion is at the Matthew Marks Gallery, 523 West 24th Street, until Nov. 2.

Tense Harmony

John Mullen, whose recent canvases are the subject of an exhibition at the Howard Scott Gallery, pursues a diagrammatic brand of abstraction in which disparate pictorial systems collide against each other. Anyone who keeps an eye on contemporary painting will recognize this all-but-ubiquitous genre. It takes as its cue, at times perhaps unconsciously, the cut-and-paste verities of our computer age. Painters like Terry Winters, Lydia Dona and Jeff Elrod (among many others) either employ a P.C. in the crafting of their art or allude to the disembodied visual nature of its screen. It could be said that the goal of cyber-painters is to make virtual reality a little less virtual. A less benign soul might claim that they’re poaching on the technological Zeitgeist in order to prove themselves relevant. Only time will tell whether these painters are staking new aesthetic ground or kissing an era’s behind. As it is, the results have been mixed. Sometimes they’re better than that-which is where Mr. Mullen comes in.

I don’t know how much Mr. Mullen buys into the cyber-schtick, but his art is certainly inspired by today’s technology. His pictorial motifs-brightly colored rows of squares, linear patterns, wandering scaffolds and built-up buttons of acrylic paint-propose a structural regularity, then call it into question. Put another way, Mr. Mullen is interested in order only to the extent that he can reconfigure it under radically different circumstances. (One picture, from 2002, is titled Beyond Specific Planning. ) Coercing his fractured patterns into sharing the same logistical space, Mr. Mullen creates a tense compositional harmony from a miscellany of incongruities. His method involves layering, glazing, stamping, scraping and calculated gestures-check out his stenciled AbEx blot. Though he’s a slicker painter than one might like, with a pat routine, Mr. Mullen has a way of confounding his own proficiency. At their best, his paintings pull us into their intricacies. And when Mr. Mullen is on the mark, we’re happy to let him off the hook.

John Mullen: Out of Site is at the Howard Scott Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, seventh floor, until Oct. 26. Quiltmaking Star of the Biennial Seduces with Vibrant N.Y. Debut