An Artist Scales the Heights, Blending Vertigo With Calm

Landlines (2005), the first thing you see upon entering the exhibition of paintings by Langdon Quin on display at Kraushaar Galleries Inc., is so strange and good—so aloof yet oddly gripping—that it’s too bad the gallery felt it necessary to display other examples of the artist’s recent work.

Not that there’s anything terribly wrong with the rest of Mr. Quin’s pictures. There are additional landscapes depicting Umbria, the subject of Landlines, as well as a handful of still-life and figurative pictures. A traditionalist through and through, Mr. Quin brings a sober sense of measure to everything he touches. There’s not a spot on the canvases that hasn’t been given his full and steady attention.

This is particularly true in the studies for, and final composition of, An Allegory of Faith (2005), a symbolic tableau featuring an artist, a model and a pug. The inescapable weight of tradition—a deep-seated respect for proportion, skill and pictorial gravitas—can be felt in its every contour and scumble, in each exquisitely modulated patch of color. But Mr. Quin’s touch isn’t too exquisite: Though remarkably true to the artist’s classicizing bent, it’s nonetheless scruffy, not quite ham-handed but coarse enough. A rough gauge of canvas is partner to Mr. Quin’s brush.

But Landlines is the masterpiece. The rest of the paintings, however handsomely nudged into shape, are stodgy in comparison. Why? The logistics behind Landlines are impossible to pin down; the work resolves itself as if by magic. Certainly much of its power derives from its careening spatial invention. No other painting in the current exhibition takes as many risks with composition.

The image moves like a roller coaster. The eye starts as if looking down from a peak in the forest and then plummets abruptly, ultimately settling in the valley below. What’s more, our vantage point has been situated so that the summit is implied at the base of the canvas and the slope and valley unfold toward the top. As the view represented progresses downward, the eye travels up, contributing to the pleasurable sense of vertigo. All the while, a muffled calm is somehow sustained and deepened. Add to all that a succinct range of glowing tonalities and Mr. Quin’s brush at its best and broadest, and you have an artist at the top of his game and a painting for the ages.

Langdon Quin: Recent Paintings is at Kraushaar Galleries Inc., 724 Fifth Avenue, until Feb. 11.

What’s in a Name?

Susanne Oellinger’s gouache-on-paper paintings, all from 2005, on view in the back room at Kraushaar, increase in vibrancy the more they give precedence to mood and the less they allot to representation. The success of each work can, in fact, be determined by considering its title.

Hither Hills, Lake George and Wild Wood refer to (and depict) specific locales, the characteristics of which aren’t well served by Ms. Oellinger’s methods. Subjecting them to flatly painted, discrete areas of color results in a crinkled, pattern-like form of illustration not too far removed from kitsch. In contrast, with pieces like Energy, Refracted, Fragmentation and Loop (note the sense of action implied in each), Ms. Oellinger places her painterly means in the service of sensation, evoking the experience of nature through the deft interplay of cool, brittle tones and an impressive array of ruddy browns and reds. At their best, these small, unprepossessing pictures roll, unfurl and blossom with graceful surety.

Susanne Oellinger: Paintings is at Kraushaar Galleries Inc. until Feb. 11.

Lost in Space

Having written off P.S.1 as a romper room for the terminally hip, I vowed never to enter its doors again—save for the café, which serves the only decent cup of coffee in Long Island City. (The baked goods are top-notch, too.)

When notice came of The Painted World, an “intergenerational” overview of abstract painting, my curiosity got the better of me. P.S.1 has never shown much sympathy for the art of painting—why should it get religion now? All the same, a trip to MoMA’s minor-league outpost seemed necessary. That, and the fact that the exhibition included canvases by Myron Stout (1908-1987), one of my favorite 20th-century American artists, and Chuck Webster, who could turn out to be one of my favorite 21st-century American artists.

The paintings by Stout and Mr. Webster are not unrelated in impulse and realization. The work of both painters is inspired by natural phenomenon, which Stout distilled through exacting attention paid to nuance and craft, and which Mr. Webster anthropomorphizes with similar care. As you might guess, Stout’s abstractions veer toward the hieratic, while Mr. Webster’s embrace the cartoonish. Each of them is represented by typical, if not definitive, paintings.

Yet Stout and Mr. Webster, both of whom grant us small moments of wonder, are marooned in the cavernous spaces of P.S.1. And they can’t redeem the whole of The Painted World, a superficial hodgepodge of sleek, flashy and pretentious product. Really, just once, I’d like to go to an exhibition at P.S.1 and feel that the curator isn’t doing a favor for a friend—or, in this case, friends. As it is, The Painted World feels like a holding action, as if it had been mounted at the last second because some wild and woolly installation artist couldn’t get his act (or funding) together and had to cancel.

Coffee and brownies are where it’s at in Long Island City. For a convincing overview of contemporary abstract painting, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

The Painted World is at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, until March 13.

An Artist Scales the Heights,  Blending Vertigo With Calm