Eco-Politics Rendered in Paint: John Mullen’s Naturalist Eulogies

How surprising is it to learn that John Mullen’s recent paintings, on display at the Howard Scott Gallery, are a

How surprising is it to learn that John Mullen’s recent paintings, on display at the Howard Scott Gallery, are a meditation on the natural world? Very surprising. Oh, you can ascertain images, some more specific than others, in Mr. Mullen’s abstractions-the forest path in Forcing, the cluster of clouds in 96% Carbon and a tumble of geological forms in Yield Up (all 2005). Other pictures feature forms that allude to streams or pebbles or sunsets.

The titles, too, surrender references and intent: Ganges R. refers to the river, Miniature Ice Age to prehistory and Warmest on Record to global warming. Going out on a limb, you could say that Mr. Mullen’s reliance on black and white connotes an environmentalist message: It’s gritty, harsh and, indeed, smoggy character is emblematic of a planet in dire condition.

Mr. Mullen is entitled to his eco-politics, but what makes the work interesting is how unnatural it is. The chosen medium (acrylics, i.e., plastic paint), the process (a systematic placement of controlled incident), the touch (anonymous and secondhand) and the sparse palette (anything but green)-each attribute points to an aesthetic powered by cold calculation. At his best, Mr. Mullen transcends premeditation by thoroughly embracing it. He doesn’t flow like a river; he hums like a well-oiled machine.

The recent work prompts its share of quibbles. How well the paintings are served by the artist’s insistence on a 26-by-20 format is a good question-oftentimes, the images feel ill at ease within the confines of the canvas-and more color would be welcome. But Ganges R. and the lone big picture, Henge Avenue, are smart and tight and snappy in the right measures. They’re enough to make you grant, and then take pleasure in, Mr. Mullen’s naturalist eulogies.

John Mullen: Incursions is at the Howard Scott Gallery, 529 20th Street, until June 11.

Academic Oils

Alex Kanevsky, whose recent works on canvas are at the J. Cacciola Gallery, is the kind of painter I spent my entire stint in art school hating. There’s nothing this guy can’t do with oil paint. Dabbing, dotting, jabbing and smearing-each flick of Mr. Kanevsky’s brush hits its mark, and on the first go, too. Oil paint, that contrary substance, succumbs-willingly! gratefully!-to his silky seductions. Mr. Kanevsky’s investment in the figure is deep-seated: His pictures of models in the studio, a nude woman at the opera and an orgy in the living room betoken a painter whose knowledge of the human form is beyond reproach.

That doesn’t make him an artist above reproach. A friend opines that any painter with the talent to show off should know well enough not to. It’s good advice not heeded by Mr. Kanevsky. He doesn’t stretch his talent; he coddles it. Mr. Kanevsky routinely mistakes facility for inspiration, flash for gutsiness and artsiness for intellect. The resulting paintings are abrasively middle-of-the-road.

“Academic” is an adjective that need not instantly apply to straightforward figurative paintings-thank you, Philip Pearlstein and Graham Nickson-but Mr. Kanevsky is more of an academic than he might want to admit. Good at hewing to anatomical particulars-navels are his specialty-Mr. Kanevsky is better at evoking discomfiting erotic intrigue. K.B. in Green Bathroom (2005), with its anonymous woman and claustrophobic air, is the least agreeable of the paintings and, not coincidentally, the best thing here.

Alex Kanevsky: New Paintings is at the J. Cacciola Gallery, 531 West 25th Street, until June 4.

Cave Dweller

Taking into account the not entirely cohesive juxtaposition of approaches typical of the paintings of Margot Spindelman, it’s little wonder that she rarely embodies the “primeval past that still casts a shadow forward.” Ms. Spindelman, whose landscape-based abstractions are on display at the Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery, is too busy stitching together loping, calligraphic gestures and taped-off passages of sky to make for a convincing 21st-century cavewoman. Her connection to the land-and, for that matter, to the art of painting-is defined by distance and will, not empathy and intuition.

Would that Ms. Spindelman’s Cubist-inflected pastiches of Franz Kline, Llyfford Still and Jacob Ruisdael meandered less and locked into place more. A greater emphasis on color, tonality and consistency of touch might do the job. As it is, the pictures rely on drawing to hold them together; notwithstanding the variety of incident, the pictures, as painting, feel skimpy.

The canvases do pull at the eye and glint with promise. This is Ms. Spindelman’s solo New York debut. With hard work and a little luck, her next one should be better. If that turns out to be the case, her third show will be the one to see.

Margot Spindelman is at the Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, until June 1.

What MoMA Wants

The last time I checked the byline on this column, it wasn’t credited to Chicken Little. Yet after reading the May 13 edition of The New York Times, I’m convinced the sky is falling.

Carol Vogel, writing in the Weekend section, reported that the Museum of Modern Art-you remember, that elephantine structure straddling 53rd and 54th streets between Fifth and Sixth avenues-had acquired the untitled installation by Robert Gober recently seen at Matthew Marks Gallery.

Why? Mr. Gober’s sizable array of stuff isn’t art by any stretch of the imagination. (I know, I know: That hasn’t stopped MoMA before.) What it is, basically, is anti-Catholic, anti-Republican, anti-rationalist, anti-sex, anti-human-but pro-diaper!-propaganda.

Mr. Marks must be a whale of a salesman to convince anyone that Mr. Gober’s masturbatory reliquary is worthy of posterity. Then again, commerce is king in today’s art scene. Good for Mr. Marks, bad for the rest of us, but rest assured: The sky will ascend again. Time, that merciless arbiter of quality, will ultimately right the follies of contemporary culture. At some point-say, 2055-the curators at MoMA will ask just what is that damned Gober doing in the collection. Then the door to the storage locker will be shut without a second thought.

Eco-Politics Rendered in Paint: John Mullen’s Naturalist Eulogies