A Painter Walks the Plank: Art With a Long Shelf Life

Michael Tompkins was born to paint plywood—to be precise, the edges of plywood panels. In each of the five paintings

Michael Tompkins was born to paint plywood—to be precise, the edges of plywood panels. In each of the five paintings in his New York debut at the Paul Thiebaud Gallery, Mr. Tompkins brings an astonishing gift for trompe l’oeil mimicry to depictions of the sad sack of lumber. Aligned along the bottom edge of each canvas, exquisitely limned plywood planks hold a variety of objects. To name just a few: fruit, a flashlight, a billiard ball, a roll of twine, books about Arthur Dove and by Monica Ali, power tools, marbles and a bottle of A-1 steak sauce, albeit without the telltale logo.

Mr. Tompkins packs and stacks these items into immaculately composed arrangements. (Their emphatic juxtapositions of vertical and horizontal motifs lead me to believe that he’s a fan of Mondrian.) If you look closely at a marble in one of the paintings, you’ll see a tiny, barely discernible self-portrait of the artist in his studio or, at least, in an interior. This miniaturist tidbit is a miracle of painterly verisimilitude. Is it a bit too much to say that Mr. Tompkins’ skill is awesome? Maybe not.

The paintings are sneakily elastic. What appear to be straightforward depictions of actual stuff are rife with baffling fluctuations in space. Mr. Tompkins’ shelves seem rather shallow, but the objects gathered on them suggest a deeper, not always logical berth—there’s no way all these things could plausibly fit into their allotted spaces. The ensuing dialogue between fidelity to the world of appearances and shifty, theatrical artificiality is quietly engaging, if not completely satisfying. All the attention to nuance and craft comes without an overriding sense of aesthetic mission. The paintings are more tricky than profound, less magical than flashy.

The paintings of William Bailey and Giorgio Morandi are antecedents for Mr. Tompkins’ work, and it suffers, if not fatally, from the comparison. We never feel the otherworldly weight of tradition that permeates Mr. Bailey’s still lifes, nor the plainspoken yearning for archetypal structures found in Morandi’s canvases. Mr. Tompkins is his own man, of course. He deserves each pat on the back he gives himself. Those who expect more from art than sparkling expertise might be less congratulatory, but that’s not to say congratulations aren’t in order. This is an impressive introduction and, perhaps, an augur of greater things to come.

Michael Tompkins: Recent Paintings is at the Paul Thiebaud Gallery, 42 East 76th Street, until Oct. 29.

Ambiguous Landscapes

How much of the natural world can be conjured up by a few all-but-arbitrary dabs of oil paint? When is almost nothing enough? The paintings of Robert Bordo, on display at Alexander and Bonin in Chelsea, can’t help but prompt such questions. After visiting the show a couple of times, I can’t say that he’s answered those questions in a clear or decisive manner.

That’s probably the point: Pictorial ambiguity—testing the often tenuous relationship between abstraction and representation—is Mr. Bordo’s abiding pursuit. The paintings are simple and frontal, made with little apparent forethought. Rushed and brushy stretches of oil paint are overlaid with specks and scribbles. A minty field of green is peppered with dark green dots and punctuated by hasty slurs of pinkish-orange. Elsewhere, Mr. Bordo scrawls wet blue into a lighter haze of the same color, depositing slow and rolling dashes on top of the lot. He’s a landscape painter, of a sort.

This is Milton Avery territory: the distillation of light, space, place and atmosphere into a minimum of pictorial incident. Like Avery, Mr. Bordo places the burden of his art on color and surface. The difference comes in Mr. Bordo’s jettisoning of composition and his odd negligence when it comes to scale. Avery’s ungainly and evocative paintings derive much of their authority through their size; his poetic sweep, as it were, is directly related to the sweep of his brush. Mr. Bordo’s brush, in contrast, is ill at ease and fidgety within the smallish formats of his paintings, as if it doesn’t quite know where it is or what it needs to do.

In fact, you get the feeling that Mr. Bordo might be putting one over on us. (A couple of the paintings could be the result of the artist cleaning his brush.) There’s a decent chance that he isn’t. The casual-bordering-on-sloppy hedonism typical of the work carries just enough heft to make you feel that Mr. Bordo is onto something real. Maybe next time the elusive goal will be realized, and we won’t need to fret over the nature of the artist’s intentions.

Robert Bordo: Another Day is at Alexander and Bonin, 132 Tenth Avenue, until Oct. 22.

More Mr. Nice Guy

Tom Burckhardt has to be the nicest guy in the world. That’s the impression I get from his current exhibition at Caren Golden Fine Art, and from every other time I’ve seen his work. Mr. Burckhardt is a painter, but for this show he’s included an installation titled Full Stop: a life-sized recreation of an artist’s studio constructed out of corrugated cardboard and black paint.

It’s a grand and amusing lark. The tin roof, the postcards of inspirational paintings pinned on the wall, the easel, the storage racks, the view out the window—each has been rendered with a cartoonish, off-the-cuff veracity. The details (the Velvet Underground LP on the book shelf; the commode dirtied by the dumping of used turpentine) lead me to believe that this is, in fact, Mr. Burckhardt’s studio. Red Grooms is the precedent for this kind of shambling, walk-in endeavor; Mr. Burckhardt is of a similarly amiable mien.

For the sake of his art, though, Mr. Burckhardt should try being a schmuck. Everything this talented and generous artist puts his hand to is underscored by good cheer, yet none of it is powered by necessity. The enamel-on-panel paintings in the back room reiterate the point. In each, Mr. Burckhardt portrays construction workers fabricating abstract paintings, hoisting and assembling swatches of patterning, color and calligraphy. It’s a cute, proletarian conceit, downplaying something as highfalutin as abstract art into a species of manual labor. Yet Mr. Burckhardt is fooling himself if he believes that glib commentary, however happy in execution or tone, is enough to carry the day. Only when he learns that an obliging personality is a tool and not an end in itself will he cut more than a divertingly cavalier figure.

Tom Burckhardt: Full Stop is at Caren Golden Fine Art, 539 West 23rd Street, until Oct. 15.

A Painter Walks the Plank: Art With a Long Shelf Life