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A Happy Guy Tours Chelsea, Sees Plenty in a Bleak Season Jerry Saltz, the art critic for The Village Voice

A Happy Guy Tours Chelsea,

Sees Plenty in a Bleak Season

Jerry Saltz, the art critic for The Village Voice , must be the most optimistic guy in town. That, or the most delusional-it’s hard to tell. Either way, he’s happy.

Witness his recent column titled “Rays of Light,” a hit-and-run synopsis of 85 current shows, most of them in Chelsea. This kind of article isn’t new for Mr. Saltz: In the past, he’s written encyclopedic surveys of the gallery season for, if I recall correctly, Art in America . I’ve always admired Mr. Saltz’s diligence, his unwillingness to leave any artistic stone unturned. His account of a recent jaunt through Chelsea left me breathless; its thoroughness was daunting and its enthusiasm unmistakable. As a resource for future sociologists, Mr. Saltz’s survey of every conceivable facet of a multifaceted subculture will prove invaluable.

Whether he’s made an invaluable contribution to art criticism, I’m not so sure. When he likens the art world circa January 2003 to a “harmonic convergence,” Mr. Saltz isn’t just pointing out that there are more and more galleries. He’s also rejoicing in a “revving engine,” in a “frisson of anticipation, emotional sharpness, euphoria or confusion”; he’s celebrating a scene on the “cusp of change.” He does toss in a few caveats, but basically he’s giddy about the way things are and the way they might be. I can almost picture him skipping through the galleries, elated at being part of the never-ending spectacle. Why, even the giant butt-plug Mr. Saltz encountered in a doorway on West 20th Street is testimony to the approaching renaissance!

Having made the trek through the same streets as Mr. Saltz, I frankly don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. What the galleries had to offer in January was as bleak as the recent cold front. Tastes differ, of course. Yet in extolling the virtues of the “bigger, more accessible, and less predictable,” Mr. Saltz mistakes size for possibility, miscellany for good tidings and desperation for inventiveness. Never before has there been so much stuff on display and so little to see. Our status quo-the Duchampian paradigm-is stretched to its limits; still (and alas), it’s not exhibiting signs of collapse. In the meantime, New Yorkers unwilling to celebrate the trivialization of art have to live with the fact that novelty, though it has a short shelf life, takes an eternity to dissipate.

Swept Away

Certainly David Salle, art star of the 1980’s and pomo poster child, hasn’t faded from view. After flirting with Hollywood and Larry Gagosian, he’s back at the Mary Boone Gallery with a new batch of paintings. They’re typical: disassociated juxtapositions of flora, fashion plates, patterning, and women in various states of undress, on their backs and bending over. Mr. Salle was the subject of much controversy when I was a student in art school some 20 years ago, raising, as he did, the ire of feminists, traditionalists and those who expect more from art than obfuscation. Looking at his recent efforts, I was taken aback by how tame it all seemed. Was it Auden who once wrote about history’s way of “tidying” works of art, of tempering originality and outrage? This has undoubtedly happened to Mr. Salle, but it doesn’t have to happen to everyone.

There’s nothing tidy about Bernini’s Modello for the Fountain of the Moor , recently seen at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries-it thumbs its nose at history, making a mockery of time’s march. I would argue, in fact, that art is tidied by history in inverse proportion to its aesthetic worth. Mr. Salle has got almost 400 years on the Italian master, but his paintings can’t claim Bernini’s startling contemporaneousness. Mr. Salle’s oeuvre , not 30 years old, is too decorous to startle. It’s been thoroughly tidied, swept under the rug. Now if it would just stay there.

David Salle: New Paintings is at the Mary Boone Gallery, 541 West 24th Street, until March 1.

Connect With the Dots

The lone bright spot in Chelsea is at the Cristinerose/Josee Bienvenu Gallery, which is featuring the paintings of Mark Ferguson-except that Mr. Ferguson’s paintings aren’t very good. They’re not bad , mind you, just run-of-the-mill. Imagine that a monochromatic painting by Brice Marden, keyed to a charcoal gray, were a snow globe filled with brightly colored dots, and that the dots had been allowed to settle-that’s what Mr. Ferguson’s pictures look like. He has a knack for gently abraded surfaces, and his disembodied pointillist dots are appealingly pasty. Overriding these characteristics is a reliance on formula and (if the press release is any indication) theoretical blather. Are the pictures really about “the inflation of anticipation scenarios” and experiencing “reality with a constant delay”? Maybe, but why would anyone want to stick around and find out?

Mr. Ferguson’s drawings are a different matter altogether. They’re displayed behind the reception desk, and one could easily miss them-which would be a shame, because Mr. Ferguson is a natural with a pencil in a way that he isn’t with oil paint. Done with graphite on paper and small in size, the drawings are after-the-fact depictions of the paintings-or, anyway, details of them. Delineating each dot of paint and misty smudge of gray, Mr. Ferguson is a meticulous draftsman. His proficiency at discerning the tiniest subtleties is stunning, prompting our concentrated attention and then rewarding it. Unlike the paintings, the drawings are particular, purposeful and infinitely fathomable. Clearly, this is an artist who thrives on observation; he would be wise to think of his paintings as props or rethink them altogether. As for anyone wanting to mount a serious overview of contemporary drawing, ignore Mr. Ferguson at your peril: His drawings are among the most nuanced being produced today.

Mark Ferguson: Paintings is at the Cristinerose/Josee Bienvenu Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, until March 1.

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