Channeling Cozy Nostalgia, Neatly Skipping Sentimentality

Two of the words I like least in the lexicon of contemporary art are “appropriation” and “irony.” The former connotes a facile borrowing of style and/or imagery; the latter a smug indifference to purpose. Neither term is bandied about as promiscuously as it once was, but that doesn’t mean they’ve lost their currency-on the contrary, they’re endemic to the scene. So how come I’m enamored of the paintings of Duncan Hannah? Mr. Hannah, whose work is on view at James Graham & Sons and its Chelsea offshoot, JG Contemporary, appropriates imagery found in vintage newspapers and magazines and does so with irony. The irony, however, is so parched and fleeting that it transforms not only itself but also the nature of Mr. Hannah’s appropriation (he favors old postcards, nudie pin-ups and what look to be storybook illustrations). Mr. Hannah doesn’t commandeer images so much as channel-and subsequently refine-the emotions they engender. The paintings, with their affectless touch and unruffled palette, partake of nostalgia but not of sentimentality-a tricky balancing act that Mr. Hannah pulls off with dexterity.

Not every time, of course. The paintings based on girlie pictures, seen at JG Contemporary, don’t transform their source material so much as comment on it, and Mr. Hannah’s commentary doesn’t delve very deeply-he’s amused by kitsch eroticism, and that’s about it. Uptown, he fares better, with reveries on adolescence, magic, European culture and the not-altogether-explicable behavior of steam-ships. This last motif figures in Mr. Hannah’s most intriguing pictures. There’s not much to them, really-with few exceptions, they’re straightforward transcriptions of holiday postcards. (The invitation for Mr. Hannah’s show is, in fact, designed like a postcard.) But the boat pictures, so plainly set forth and so tightly withdrawn, end up entrancing us-meaning, while obscured, is nevertheless present and persistent. There’s something hollow in these evasions, and something comforting, too. Mr. Hannah’s strength as an artist lies in his ability to pull us in even as he keeps us at a firm remove.

Duncan Hannah: New Work is at James Graham & Sons, 1014 Madison Avenue, and Hannah’s Nudes at JG Contemporary, 505 West 28th Street, until Dec. 21.

Serious Fun

In the past few years, there’s been a tendency for painters to exhibit, alongside their recent efforts on canvas, a temporary wall painting created specifically for its venue. This trend is anif-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em phenomenon, indicative of nothing so much as the painter’s insecurity in the face of an art scene dominated by the site-specific, the object-oriented and the sensational. It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I attended Wall , an exhibition at Metaphor Contemporary Art: Sculptor Jim Osman and painter Nancy Olivier had been invited to transform the gallery’s environs by painting on one wall apiece. My trepidation was unwarranted. Mr. Osman and Ms. Olivier have acquitted themselves honorably. Mr. Osman, whose fascination with cut-rate architecture is tongue-in-cheek but devoid of condescension, has created a geometric fresco reminiscent of the Williamsburg Housing Murals on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Ms. Olivier, who’s done wall paintings before, overlaps looping calligraphy, satiny grids and vertical drips to impressive decorative effect.

Still, both artists lose something when straying from, in Mr. Osman’s case, the three-dimensional and, in Ms. Olivier’s, the physical parameters of the painting support. Indeed, Wall underscores how pivotal the right format is to an artist’s vision, how it can energize and focus style. Mr. Osman’s mural is sturdy and fine, his paintings of faux brickwork droll but no more-whereas Here and There Wall (2002), the lone sculpture on view, is dead-on, activating space in a deceivingly simple and curious manner. As for Ms. Olivier, her coupling of chance incident and the utterly methodical gains in rigor, wit and authority the more it’s contained : Compression does wonders for her. The recent paintings on panel, aligned on the vertical and measuring 24 by 18 inches, are her strongest work to date. Two of them-the abrupt classicism that is House Arrest (2002), and First Among Equals (also 2002), with its wan light and wandering drips-are among the most beautiful abstractions I’ve seen by a contemporary painter. Hard-headed yet flexible, smart and funky, Ms. Olivier is a formalist who likes to have fun-and her fun is serious business.

Wall: Jim Osman and Nancy Olivier is at Metaphor Contemporary Art, 70 Washington Street, Suite 1113, in Brooklyn until Dec. 15.

Channeling Cozy Nostalgia, Neatly Skipping Sentimentality