Imagine if the Whitney Museum of American Art, instead of devoting its resources and space to John Currin, had mounted a retrospective of Trevor Winkfield, a veteran New York painter by way of the U.K. It’s a stretch, I’ll admit: Mr. Winkfield’s work is devoid of the easy nihilism deemed by many to be the essential ingredient of significant contemporary art. You might think the Pop foundation upon which Mr. Winkfield constructs his art would endear him to the powers that be. It doesn’t: Like Stuart Davis and Richard Lindner before him, he sees the mundane as an inspiration and a means, not as an end unto itself. He’s constitutionally incapable of acquiescing to mass culture.
Mr. Winkfield borrows Pop’s stylistic tics-bright, uninflected colors; flat planes; simplified concrete forms-and puts them to use according to his own funny and flighty vision. He creates a realm that is equal parts geometric carnival, medieval comedy of manners, psychedelic Punch-and-Judy show and paint-by-numbers meditation on culture. The final straw that prevents Mr. Winkfield from entering the ranks of the art-star elite is his sense of purpose: Delight is his goal and, more often than not, the outcome. Delight is an alien concept to scenesters who prize Robert Gober, Matthew Barney, the Chapman brothers, Kiki Smith (the list goes on … ) as exemplars of culture; in fact, pleasure doesn’t rate high on the list of priorities of many of our critics, collectors and institutions. I don’t expect, say, the curators of the Guggenheim or the Brooklyn Museum to rush over to Tibor de Nagy Gallery, where Mr. Winkfield’s latest efforts are on display.
Mr. Winkfield packs more imagery into a single canvas than most artists do over the course of an entire oeuvre . Having said that, the new pictures are less abundant in juxtaposition, more settled and heraldic, though still careening with oddball conglomerations of this, that and the other thing. With the exception of The Garden II (2002), explicit references to the human form are absent. The figurative is implied: Totemic personages, cobbled together from (just to name a few items) fish, ropes, roses and tongue depressors, gamely attempt to keep their constituent parts in order.
There’s a strong sense of theater in the new work, and a metaphysical bent that is-if the otherworldly The Garden VII (2003) is any indication-Mr. Winkfield’s most recent preoccupation. These expansive allegories on memory, art and the courting rituals of oranges revel in a cheeky and improbable invention.
People trudge through the Whitney these days, wearily trying to convince themselves that contemporary art isn’t a dead end and that Mr. Currin lives up to the hype. Mr. Winkfield doesn’t need hoopla: His pictures are proof of his headlong independence. For many in the art scene, that may be the hardest thing of all to imagine.
Trevor Winkfield: Gardens and Bouquets is at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, until Feb. 7.
Squirreled away in the mezzanine galleries of the Whitney is In Conversation , a beautiful, if frustrating, exhibition of photographs by Aaron Siskind (1903-1991), mounted to coincide with the centennial of his birth. Viewers meet Siskind fully formed as an artist in 1943, after which follows a breathless, rat-a-tat-tat parade of the signature motif: peeling paint, deteriorating wallpaper and similar phenomena distilled and transmuted into stately, meticulous abstractions. Siskind redeemed urban detritus (particularly graffiti) as decisively as did Dubuffet, primarily by putting his nose-or rather, the camera lens-right up to it. Siskind gets so close at times that we lose a point of reference, as in Ajo, Arizona (1949), which could be an array of microscopic life forms but is basically unidentifiable. The rich textures and startling interruptions of pictorial space, most memorably seen in photos of tattered posters, absorb the eye. The work entrances.
For a bit, anyway-after that, the work is merely expert. By the early 1970’s, when Siskind begins to locate paintings by Franz Kline on vandalized city walls, it’s clear that formula has taken over. Whether the unfortunate artistic trajectory-from uncanny revelation to elegant routine-is the Whitney’s doing or the true arc of Siskind’s oeuvre , only a more comprehensive exhibition will make clear. As it is, viewers will leave In Conversation wanting more of Siskind-and having had enough.
In Conversation: A Centennial Exhibition of Photographs by Aaron Siskind is at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, until Feb. 1.
Benjamin Butler is having a second one-person show of smallish paintings at Team Gallery, but he’s not really ready for his first. Trees are Mr. Butler’s subject, or rather, his device: They bisect the canvas, creating compositional fields in which blocky strokes of oil paint accumulate. The pictures underscore the dynamic between figure and ground by obscuring the distinction between the two. Mr. Butler’s trees aren’t surrounded by space so much as engulfed by it.
The simplicity of composition recalls Milton Avery; the pictorial brevity, Lois Dodd and Alex Katz. A thin Symbolist bent can be traced to the mystical landscapes of Piet Mondrian, and a thinner Expressionism to van Gogh, Gustav Klimt and Jan Muller; the Orphism of Robert Delaunay may be in the mix as well. This is an odd and intriguing stew of raw precedent that has yet to come to a simmer.
Mr. Butler’s paintings catch the eye when seen from a distance: The chunky mosaic-like brushwork stopped me in my tracks when I was still on the sidewalk, looking through Team’s front door. Once inside, I saw that Mr. Butler can’t be bothered with working a picture-the brushwork is rushed, the surfaces tatty. Sometimes, as with Trees and Leaves and Blue Trees (both 2003), the paintings are hardly there at all. This is student-grade stuff-high on energy and lacking in focus.
Not everyone agrees: The show is almost sold out. Somebody must admire Mr. Butler’s forays into the ” faux space of ironic possibility.” Too bad: Though he has evidently absorbed the unhealthy influence of postmodernism, Mr. Butler has real know-how. Let’s hope he follows through and builds on the potential of the paintings; and let’s hope he ignores the callow enthusiasm of his collectors, whose encouragement will only lead him astray.
Benjamin Butler: Trees is at Team Gallery, 527 West 26th Street, until Feb. 14.