Mystery, Majesty-Not Magic-Illuminate Portentous Realism

The phrase “magic realism” kept flitting through my head as I was looking at the landscape paintings of Meg Shields at the Fischbach Gallery, and I wanted nothing more than to take a swat at it. “Magic realism,” after all, doesn’t quite jibe with what Ms. Shields does-there’s nothing particularly bizarre depicted in her paintings, just clouds in the sky, water tanks on Route 95, trees here and there, laundry left on the line to dry.

Pretty ordinary stuff, but that doesn’t mean Ms. Shields can be pegged as a by-the-book realist, either. Her landscapes, which are about 10 inches square, are intensely self-sufficient and yet thoroughly indebted to observed phenomenon; the attention she bestows upon the world is pure and unrelenting, and the result is that her pictures can’t help but take on an otherworldly character. These are vistas that could have been painted by an extraterrestrial-an inquisitive Martian, clinical and thoroughly fascinated with detail.

I don’t want to overplay the sci-fi analogies, even if the clouds in Early Morning (2002) hang in the sky like alien spacecraft awaiting direction from a distant galaxy. Ms. Shields’ art never slides into hokum-she’s too grounded (and too stringent) for flights of fantasy. Besides, for Ms. Shields, the fantastic is right outside her door. In fact, one imagines her being overwhelmed by the prospect of walking out of it: These are the paintings of someone mesmerized by the strange and beautiful things most of us take for granted.

The meticulous craftsmanship, crystalline light and self-effacing touch are reminiscent in no small way of Helen Miranda Wilson, another painter transfixed by the heavens. But whereas Ms. Wilson celebrates the world, Ms. Shields finds it full of portent. There’s a strain of mysticism filtering through Ms. Shields’ visions, a quality her deceptively conservative approach can’t disguise. Another difference is that Ms. Wilson is a better painter. Ms. Shields can get fussy, especially when she’s working on solid objects-particularly foliage. Still, if Ms. Wilson is one of our best painters, then Ms. Shields at least comes close.

That’s no small accomplishment. Credit the magic her clouds generate: Whether unfurling like a Chinese dragon or fleeing the evening sun, they offer up a mystery and a majesty that is undeniable.

Meg Shields: Landmarks is at the Fischbach Gallery, 210 11th Avenue at 25th Street, until March 15.

Skimpy Fantasies

One doesn’t have to know what’s going on in Kevin Kinkead’s paintings, currently on display at Maurice Arlos Fine Art, to find them appealing. Indeed, what charm they possess depends on how adroitly they evade logic. In Mr. Kinkead’s universe, house-painters fall to earth with a languid ease, caged birds are a target for admonishment, a topless woman has a contentious relationship with an empty box, and Harvard University fades into the ether. A wan surrealist impulse crossed with a Balthusian rectitude defines the imagery, and Mr. Kinkead makes us feel its enigmatic power, more through mood than through paint. Though he possesses an agreeably inelegant knack for stylizing form, his touch is too sketchy to give these fantasies poetic heft-we never consider them as concretely as Mr. Kinkead does. Sometimes skimpiness gets the job done: Herod’s Feast (2002) wouldn’t be so creepy if it were any more there . But one leaves this exhibition wanting more meat on the bone.

Kevin Kinkead is at Maurice Arlos Fine Art, 85 Franklin Street, until March 8.

Down Memory Lane

Like most Americans born after 1950, I grew up listening to rock ‘n’ roll music. At one point, I even envisioned stardom-I bought a guitar, taught myself the rudiments and hooked up with some like-minded friends. Our practice sessions took place at whichever household had parents and/or landlords willing to tolerate our music. We eventually played for audiences-if you can call a collection of drunk buddies an audience. I remember those days fondly: improvising songs, posting fliers, wanting to make each “gig” an event rather than a concert. Once in a great while, I pull out the various cassettes we recorded-the quality of the sound is abysmal-and marvel at the audible camaraderie. Of course, I also groan (and laugh) at the lumbering rhythms, out-of-tune strings and florid invective, but that’s beside the point: It’s the memory that matters.

I mention all this only to point out how mundane it is: The number of people with similar memories is, one could safely wager, sizable. So why does the Royal Art Lodge, a Winnipeg-based collective that’s the subject of an exhibition at the Drawing Center, think their efforts are any less mundane? A stint in art school, I imagine, but that doesn’t make what they do art. Their homemade cassettes, Xeroxed fliers, grungy puppets and cartoonish drawings are souvenirs of a scene fueled by punk, pop and tongue-in-cheek nihilism.

The ephemera generated by the Royal Art Lodge is all very clever, pithy and sardonic, yet never as memorable as, say, a good rock ‘n’ roll song-which figures, since personal memorabilia is, by its very nature, inaccessible to those not in on the memories. The Drawing Center’s white-glove treatment strips the group of its enthusiasm. I mean, they aren’t ancient Sumerians; they’re kids (or, for all I know, adults poaching on adolescence)-smart enough to know that snubbing the establishment will get them attention, but not smart enough to realize how mainstream that approach has become. Michael Dumontier’s tributes to the abject suggest that he’s a painter with talent, but who knows whether he’ll have the gumption to follow up on it.

The Royal Art Lodge: Ask The Dust is at the Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, until March 8.

Mystery, Majesty-Not Magic-Illuminate Portentous Realism