Unabashedly Under the Influence: Powerful Tributes to Precedent

The exhibition of paintings by Kyle Staver, on display at the Lohin Geduld Gallery, is the most heartening thing I’ve seen in weeks—and not because she spelled my name correctly. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that The New York Observer, and this column, are featured in Ms. Staver’s Wednesday’s Paper (2004).

In the painting, a blond woman wearing a negligee reads the paper while sipping a cup of tea; in the next room, a male companion lies in bed sleeping. The powers that be here at The Observer will be happy to note that Ms. Staver has accurately captured the newspaper’s distinctive coloration. I’m happier to note that Wednesday’s Paper is the least interesting piece on display. The canvases that postdate it are markedly—indeed, impressively—better. I gave Ms. Staver’s last show a rave; I should have saved the huzzahs for this one.

Not everyone agrees. A friend notes that Ms. Staver has yet to fully absorb her influences, that her sources of inspiration are too obviously present. He has a point. Ms. Staver’s domestic tableaus—they typically feature a couple, often in a state of undress, engaged in mundane but intimate situations—can feel like mix-and-match combinations of precedent.

Bonnard’s tender, unkempt surfaces, Matisse’s elaborately adorned interiors, Milton Avery’s sweeping generalizations of form, Elmer Bischoff’s terse anatomies—Ms. Staver loves all of them, and perhaps not as apologetically as she should. Do we take pleasure in James’ Red Sail (2005) for its tottering rush of space? Or is it that the monumental sailor in pinstripes is a dead ringer for similar figures found in David Park’s paintings? That the answer to both questions is “yes” isn’t necessarily to Ms. Staver’s credit as a stylist, but I couldn’t care less—at least for the time being.

The jump in quality evinced in the glowing palette, broadly modulated surfaces and increased psychological (and erotic) complexity attest to Ms. Staver’s steady growth as a painter. If she would accentuate the goofier side of her personality, she could bring greater conviction to her rubbery elisions of composition and form. You can see it starting to happen in Pelican (2005), an audacious and funny painting in the back office. It’s enough to make a critic squirrel away the superlatives for Ms. Staver’s next time out.

Kyle Staver: Recent Work is at the Lohin Geduld Gallery, 531 West 25th Street, until Feb. 4.

Piece of Cake?

Do you remember Sno Balls? Those mass-produced snack cakes dyed an alarming shade of pink and covered with coconut shavings? I don’t know if Tracy Miller, whose paintings are on exhibit at Feature Inc., has dined on one recently, but her art is unimaginable without them.

Not that you can literally point to a Sno Ball among the foodstuffs floating through her extravagantly congested still-life pictures. Among the many items that you can find are Charleston Chews, doughnuts, sushi, lobsters, a six-pack of Budweiser, a brown topper and—perhaps as a gesture to our health-conscious age—a slice of grapefruit or two.

The Sno Ball association is a matter of sensation rather than subject: Each canvas looks like a Sno Ball tastes. The paintings are sugary, gooey and garish, patently artificial yet, in their own way, kind of ingenious. Ms. Miller exploits the buttery malleability of oils, slathering the stuff with cheerful abandon. She doesn’t paint so much as decorate the canvases. There are moments when she actually applies paint with a pastry tube, like when she’s portraying—wouldn’t you know it?—frosting on a cake.

A cute flourish, but its blatant predictability is indicative of Ms. Miller’s lack of pictorial imagination. Remove the junk food—and, with it, the campy tenor and vulgar palette—and what’s left? Layered accumulations of bluntly applied marks, fields of wavering painterly incident—that is to say, run-of-the-mill replicas of Abstract Expressionism. Kitsch is the garnish used to mask the taste of yesterday’s leftovers. To her credit, Ms. Miller gets away with it more than she ought to. But like the Sno Ball of yore, a little of her art goes a long way.

Tracy Miller: Recent Paintings is at Feature Inc., 530 West 25th Street, until Feb. 11.

No Respect

There’s not much to say about the art of David Kramer, the subject of an exhibition at the Feigen Gallery in Chelsea, that he hasn’t said himself. As with any artist damaged by the strident literalism that is the legacy of Conceptual Art, Mr. Kramer depends on words to get the point of the work across. The images seen in the paintings and drawings are cribbed from mass-media sources—renderings based on advertisements or snippets of collage—yet they serve only as addenda to the artist’s sad-sack shtick.

Combining the comic desperation of Rodney Dangerfield with the Pop ennui of Richard Prince, Mr. Kramer trades in irony-laden maxims and sardonic, typewritten rambles. His subjects are alcohol, sex, success and the artist’s life. “I prefer not to drink alone … even when I am by myself.” “I don’t want to hear any of that ‘plenty of fish in the sea’ bullshit . . . unless I’m the one doing the fishing.” “I still have an incredibly romantic view of being an artist … but I still wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.” That last mot offers, as its rim shot, a slack pencil drawing after a Van Gogh self-portrait.

There are few things as insufferable as an artist’s griping about his lot in life. Every artist is an underappreciated genius struggling to get by. Many have second thoughts about dedicating their life to art and, not coincidentally, drink more than they should. So what else is new? Mr. Kramer thinks that by redeeming his cynicism with a frank and funny self-awareness, he can one-up the competition.

But the one-liners are barely amusing—forget profound, they’re chiefly self-important. Mr. Kramer’s disappointment only feeds his narcissism. He knows that art is a sham and beauty is suspect. He knows there’s nothing worth believing in, so why bother? Anyone who thinks otherwise is flagged as a putz and summarily dismissed. Despite his grumbled protestations, Mr. Kramer is pleased to be smarter than the rest of us. If your idea of a good time is getting played for a sucker, then this is your can of beer.

David Kramer: Recent Paintings and Drawings is at Feigen Contemporary, 535 West 20th Street, until Feb. 4. Unabashedly Under the Influence:  Powerful Tributes to Precedent