Canvases Are Small but Potent, At Once Tender and Cerebral

“Critics-they always get their digs in.” That’s a comment I overheard from the director of a gallery the day one of its artists received a rave review-albeit with the mildest of criticisms-from The New York Times . Following in the noble tradition, allow me to briefly air my grievances about the terrific show of paintings by HesterSimpsonattheRicco/Maresca Gallery. Ms. Simpson makes small abstract paintings, most of which measure 10 inches square. She’s clearly had a prolific time in the studio recently, providing plenty of pictures (with no apparent diminution in quality) to fill up the gallery’s sizable main space. My quibble is with the installation: By dimming the lights and surrounding each picture with a single spot-a halo, in effect-the folks at Ricco/Maresca set an ecclesiastical mood, creating an atmosphere more conducive to reverence than aesthetic engagement. Not to mention that the show can be hard to look at. Step back, take in the entire gallery and note how the procession of bright spots makes the eye “jump” in an uncomfortable manner.

Then get up close to Ms. Simpson’s paintings and try not to go weak in the knees: They are her most assured and beautiful pictures to date. The painterly methodology remains unchanged: Applying countless layers of thinned acrylic to canvas, Ms. Simpson creates lustrous fields of luminous color-bottomless, velvety blues and hot pinkish-reds being her specialty. The grid has preoccupied Ms. Simpson for years, but here the circle is the agent of structure and image. It takes on a new role with each canvas: In one picture, a cluster of circles coalesces into a microscopic form; in another, they drift dreamily within a space as yielding as air and as obdurate as amber. Tiptoeing adroitly between painting as illusion and painting as object, Ms. Simpson is constantly questioning the properties and possibilities of her craft. Meticulous, tender, cerebral and bordering on libidinous, the pictures evince an artist operating at an intensity that will be the envy of her peers and a pleasure for the rest of us.

Hester Simpson: New Paintings is at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, third floor, until May 1.

Searching for What Matters

The American painter Angelo Ippolito (1922-2001) considered light and atmosphere the “two elements that really matter” in his art. After taking in the odd assortment of pictures at David Findlay Jr. Fine Art, I’d say that structure is Ippolito’s defining motif: Each composition, whether depicting a domestic interior or a landscape, is compacted within the canvas, endowed with architectural bulk and stability. Then again, it’s hard to say what “really matters” in Ippolito’s art. Even if the Findlay show hewed to chronology and opted for comprehensiveness, the oeuvre would be all over the place. Ippolito’s attempts at reconciling a heroic brand of gestural abstraction with the specifics of observed phenomenon never got off the ground: There’s no synthesis of divergent styles, just an awkward marriage of Franz Kline and Edouard Vuillard. Each painting includes an inventory of self-conscious marks (splotches, smears, hard edges and flat expanses)-additional proof of a temperament prone to miscellany and irresolution. All the same, you tend to cut Ippolito some slack: His unevenness as a painter is linked to the hugeness of his ambitions. That Ippolito lacked the visionary wherewithal to realize them doesn’t mean he didn’t come close- Lover’s Landscape (1980), a painting redolent of amorous pursuits, achieves an amiable, if uneasy, balance between contradictory elements.

Angelo Ippolito (1922-2001) is at David Findlay Jr. Fine Art, 41 East 57th Street, until April 24.

Infantilist Inspiration

From the look of the paintings, sculptures and installation at Brent Sikkema Gallery, the artist David Humphrey is undergoing a midlife crisis-and a rather frantic one at that. Mr. Humphrey has long pursued a slick amalgam of Surrealist whimsy and Dadaist juxtaposition, an art that infuses fractured images of middle-class America with a sour and soulless eroticism. All the while, he’s kept his eye trained on passing trends: Whether parroting David Salle, Gerhard Richter or, nowadays, Jeff Koons and Japanese anime, Mr. Humphrey has been one step behind his peers. The kitschy array of stuff at Sikkema-towering poodles, cute kitty cats, “horsey love” and cartoonish snow drifts, all defined by a candied palette-is unredeemably unctuous, even by the irony-sodden standards of contemporary taste. Pictorial smarts are in evidence- Performing Monkey (2002) is a solidly constructed painting-but they can’t disguise an artist frustrated by the inability to locate his one true voice. Instead, we get a desperate embrace of infantilism, an approach as embarrassing and as painful as watching Grandma attempt to break-dance. According to the artist’s bio, he’ll turn 50 next year. You’d think Mr. Humphrey would start acting his age already.

David Humphrey is at the Brent Sikkema Gallery, 530 West 22nd Street, until May 1. Canvases Are Small but Potent, At Once Tender and Cerebral