Inside a Painter’s Life: Her Dog, Her Cats, Herself

There are plenty of nits to pick in the art of Sarah McEneaney, the subject of an exhibition at Gallery Schlesinger. Ms. McEneaney, a figurative painter based in Philadelphia, employs egg tempera on panel as a form of autobiography.

Look at the paintings and you’ll get to know her home, her dog, her two cats, her neighborhood (Callowhill/Chinatown), her political inclinations (anti-Bush) and the artist herself. Is there any aspect of Ms. McEneaney’s day-to-day existence that isn’t depicted? We see her napping, bathing at the Boulder Hot Springs, hanging out with friends, trespassing on private property and happily ensconced in the studio. The unapologetic, diaristic tone brings a prickly strain of intimacy to the fore.

What are the nits to pick? Ms. McEneaney’s art isn’t particularly fluent. You can’t call her a folk painter-Ms. McEneaney’s sophistication with composition, color and surface gives the lie to the label-yet the pictures are prone to the genre’s limitations, in particular an uneasiness with navigating pictorial space.

Planes and angles are tilted, stilted and awry; objects don’t always “sit” within the composition. Textures bedevil the work. In Ms. McEneaney’s depiction of the studio, paint splatters on the floor sit on the surface of the painting, rather than in the image itself. Her handling of the human form is pinched and awkward.

Having rattled all that off, let me add that Ms. McEneaney is nonetheless an engaging and, at times, irresistible painter. You don’t need to buy into the myth that intensity of vision redeems shortcomings of form in order to acknowledge that sometimes myths are predicated in fact. Besides, Ms. McEneaney has enough control of her medium to invest it with psychological and, yes, pictorial necessity. When meticulously delineating each and every brick in a wall, she proves her artistic mettle, stubbornly hewing to fact rather than capitulating to obsession.

Ms. McEneaney’s art is steadfastly personal, yet not merely personal. It gets beyond the boundaries of self by embodying sensations we can all understand, or at the very least recognize. Ms. McEneaney may use painting as a forum for autobiography, but it is also, in an odd way, her means of escaping from it. This is tough work, fragile too, and, in the end, singularly compelling.

Sarah McEneaney: Recent Developments is at Gallery Schlesinger Ltd., 24 East 73rd Street, until Dec. 11.

The Next Generation

The ” Zeitgeist” paintings of Alfred Leslie-the term is borrowed from the title of an exhibition at the Allan Stone Gallery-mark a divide in the New York School, not only in generation but in emphasis. Born in 1927 (15 years after Pollock, 17 years after Franz Kline, 23 years after de Kooning), Mr. Leslie qualifies as a second-generation Abstract Expressionist. Taking inspiration from Pollock’s heady attitude, Kline’s architectonic calligraphy and de Kooning’s charging gestures, he crafted big and blocky compositions that don’t budge an inch. Anyone in love with the verities of the style will find the paintings thrilling.

Those who have their doubts won’t be converted. The paintings and collages underscore what is lost once a movement is codified-forward momentum. Mr. Leslie’s brushwork may zoom, roil and splash, but the overall effect is fairly refined. The paintings are handsome but seldom more than that, and their fervor is over the top. The best of the bunch, Cough Control (1961-62), sandwiches splotchy brushwork between a jaunty pile-up of geometry. Little wonder, then, that it’s been tucked away upstairs, away from the tumult on display in the rest of the gallery.

Alfred Leslie, 1951-1962: Expressing the Zeitgeist is at the Allan Stone Gallery, 113 East 90th Street, until Dec. 22.

What’s Blue-Chip?

Walk uptown on the west side of Madison Avenue, just past 76th Street, and you’ll notice a reproduction of what looks to be a superb painting by Paul Cézanne in the ground-level display cases of the uptown branch of the Gagosian Gallery. Look to the opposite side of the entrance of 980 Madison, and you’ll see a poster of a work by Jeff Koons. Both pieces are included in the exhibition What’s Modern? and are offered, presumably, as responses to the title’s casually stated, multifaceted question.

Enter the gallery and you will, indeed, be treated to a superlative Cézanne, a stunning Matisse, a diverting Calder, two lovely drawings by Seurat and, elsewhere in the mix, a minor sculpture by Picasso-after which follows a predictable array of contemporary reputations: Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Julian Schnabel and David Salle, all blue-chip and deadly dull.

Mounted to coincide with the reopening of MoMA, What’s Modern? is less concerned with clarifying history than with moving inventory. The only thing the Cézanne and the Koons have in common, after all, is a hefty price tag. Galleries want to make a buck, of course, but capitalism doesn’t have to be this crass. Besides, do we really trust the folks at Gagosian with a question that MoMA itself can’t quite bring itself to answer? Avoid What’s Modern?, then pray the worthy stuff ends up in the hands of people capable of differentiating between a good thing and an investment.

What’s Modern? is at the Gagosian Gallery, 980 Madison Avenue, until Dec. 18. Inside a Painter’s Life: Her Dog, Her Cats, Herself