Philip Pearlstein: A Drab Hand Flaunts a Keen Eccentric Streak

The more Philip Pearlstein keeps on doing what he does—painting dispassionate, starkly cropped studio set-ups pairing folk art with naked, usually female models—the more the usual complaints apply. It’s equally true, though, that the more he keeps on keeping on, the more unguarded and eccentric he becomes.

His recent efforts at the Betty Cuningham Gallery confirm the quibbles. Mr. Pearlstein is as drab a hand as ever. “Perfunctory” is too strong a word for the way he lays on paint. The palette similarly lacks invention; flesh, in particular, is rendered dull and unfeeling. Though a stickler for appearances and proportions, Mr. Pearlstein’s depictions of the human form can be ungainly and disjointed. A foot is too big here, an eye doesn’t sit well there, an arm juts forward into space unconvincingly: These are anatomical and pictorial gaffes that no figurative painter should allow himself.

But who would have guessed, some 40 years ago, that his signature dialogue between representation and abstraction would evolve into such a remarkable comedy of manners? Mr. Pearlstein’s collection of vintage bric-a-brac doesn’t just cohabitate with the nude women portrayed in the paintings. An inflatable chair, a duck kiddy car, a pink flamingo and a kilim rug each receive equal billing to the figures they accompany, and they engage in whimsical and, at times, surprisingly multivalent narratives.

Model on Cast Iron Bed with Weathervane Airplane, #1 (2005) is a droll joke on the limits of male desire. (To paraphrase Freud: Sometimes a weathervane is more than a weathervane.) In its own phlegmatic way, though, it might also be a meditation on 9/11. Of course, I may be reading too much into it, but terrorism has forever altered the implications of air travel. All the same, it’s refreshing that the picture can accommodate such a range of interpretations, from salacious to somber. It reveals an artist who has barely tapped into the considerable metaphorical possibilities of his work. His pictorial gaffes, then, are less liabilities than subtle yet integral components of his peculiar vision. As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Pearlstein has only begun painting. May he keep at it for another 40 years.

Philip Pearlstein is at the Betty Cuningham Gallery, 541 West 25th Street, until Oct. 22.

White-Bread Noir

The aspirations and disappointments of suburban America continue to haunt the paintings of Martin Mull, on display at the Spike Gallery. Mr. Mull’s collage-like juxtapositions of middle-class trappings and noirish, dissociated figures are suffused with a dry, absurdist melancholy. A pasticheur through and through, Mr. Mull cobbles together his wry and dreamy narratives by painting from preexisting images—photos that look like they’re cut out of mass-circulation magazines circa 1957. He renders them in a soft monochrome, usually black and white, at times with a greenish cast, or in a palette that takes its cues from overexposed and faded Kodachrome snapshots.

Mr. Mull can’t quite relinquish a certain smugness of tone; he has a tendency to flaunt his distance and smarts. Those leanings are nevertheless offset by an acknowledgment and acceptance of mixed feelings. No readymade cynicism here: A cool disdain for Leave It to Beaver doesn’t obscure a simultaneous hankering for its white-bread fictions. Mr. Mull has more to tell us about the promise and limitations of “the American psyche” (as Steve Martin puts it in a blurb) than Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg—if not Stuart Davis and Edward Hopper. He’s a painter capable of holding a viewer’s attention and, almost against one’s better inclinations, tugging at the heart.

Martin Mull: The Contemplation of Assets is at the Spike Gallery, 547 West 20th Street, until Nov. 12.

Hidden Treasures

Some of the best paintings by a contemporary artist I’ve seen in recent months are at the Chelsea branch of the Mary Boone Gallery, but they aren’t officially on display. Strictly speaking, Ms. Boone’s West 24th Street cavern is currently showing Eric Freeman’s Frigidaire-cool iterations of Op Art (or of Ross Bleckner’s postmod riffs on same), and if you can tolerate those blurred, robotic abstractions, then you’ll want to make a beeline for the gallery’s back office. Once there, ask the gentleman at the desk if you can take a look at the pictures hanging on the wall. Ms. Boone’s longtime aide may be aloof, but he’s accommodating. After he bids you welcome, take pleasure in some recent paintings by Bill Jensen.

The canvases are modest in size—25 by 18 inches or something like that—and vertically oriented. It’s an odd format, given that Mr. Jensen has always been not so much a landscape painter as a painter who embodies the land. An emphatic up-and-down orientation denies the imagery (inasmuch as there is imagery) of easy allusions: no horizon line here.

Instead, Mr. Jensen’s sprawling slurs of oil paint cohere into wildly impromptu structures, moving with a subtle and explosive ferocity. When Mr. Jensen hits the mark, the paintings shift like tectonic plates or burn like the desert sun. Jackson Pollock famously claimed to “be” nature. Mr. Jensen, a painter of greater nuance and a better artist, doesn’t take on airs; he’s merely the medium for forces beyond his control. If that sounds like an overly romantic notion, grant Mr. Jensen this much: He pulls it off like it’s nobody’s business.

The Mary Boone Gallery is at 541 West 24th Street.

Philip Pearlstein: A Drab Hand Flaunts a Keen Eccentric Streak