Though Uncertainty Continues, Ellis Lets Paint Do the Talking

Sept. 11 has occasioned a lot of art, and most of it is lousy. No surprise, really: It’s rare to

Sept. 11 has occasioned a lot of art, and most of it is lousy. No surprise, really: It’s rare to find a painter, novelist, playwright or filmmaker who can tease out the nuances of actual, often devastating events or bring order to them. The typical artist robs history of gravitas by burdening it with sentiment or cheapening it with invective. Time will tell how deeply culture responded to 9/11 and whether or not there were artists able to render that terrible day with any clarifying sense of feeling or import.

Certainly, 9/11 rattled Stephen Ellis, a painter best known for sleek, process-oriented abstractions, stunningly contrived arrangements of stripes and grids. Mr. Ellis reacted by superimposing on these familiar arrays of architectural scaffolding handwritten fragments of poems by Yeats, Philip Levine, Randall Jarrell and others. The unmistakable suggestion was that paint alone was incapable of addressing history. Mr. Ellis’ faith in the visual had been shaken to the point of despondency. His aesthetic and moral confusion was genuine, yet it couldn’t save the paintings from pretentious contradictions.

Mr. Ellis’ new paintings, on display at Von Lintel Gallery, are confused as well, but their confusion has less to do with addressing history than with trying to regain equilibrium. Words are nowhere in evidence. Instead, expansive fields of sunny tones predominate, at times applied with broad slurs of washy paint. Immaculately taped grids establish a foundation but do not dictate the ultimate structure of the paintings. Mr. Ellis’ chilly embrace of illusionism—he manipulates oils to achieve cinematic effects—is offset by a newfound sense of composition. Space has become less codified and is, at times, rambunctiously open. Mr. Ellis is traveling through unknown terrain—he’s testing his own limits. In that way, the pictures are brave.

But they’re also wobbly. Mr. Ellis is far too controlling a painter to out-and-out play. The renewed awareness of pictorial investigation is stymied by a niggling uncertainty. Each of the canvases is transitional in nature. They’re at odds with themselves, but the conflicting impulses dissipate rather than elicit tension. The paintings hanker for cohesion; they never achieve it. A smallish canvas in the back gallery, a taut arrangement of fiery trails of paint, hints that color may be the key to focusing Mr. Ellis’ energies. I’ll await Mr. Ellis’ next show with keen interest, as should anyone with an abiding regard for painting and a concern for history’s impact on it.

Stephen Ellis is at Von Lintel Gallery, 555 West 25th Street, until April 29.

Collected Unconscious

Who’s responsible for inventorying the output of the American painter Hans Hofmann (1880-1966)? Talk about job security: The backlog of pictures must be endless. Hofmann was unapologetically prolific. Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art could probably mount shows dedicated to this or that aspect of his art from now to kingdom come and not repeat itself. Hofmann’s aesthetic, after all, devoured everything in its path.

“The unabashed unconscious” (the title of the current show) is as good a peg as any: The exhibition has less to do with Freudian theory or creaky dreams than with the irrepressible generosity of a hugely fallible painter. Hofmann didn’t have the constitution or the inclination to muck about in the deepest recesses of t­­he psyche. Life was too short—and too good!—for wasting time on such things. Cheerful recklessness, he reckoned, is preferable to brooding introspection. That’s a rule that may not be universally applicable. Hofmann’s gift is that in the short time we stand in front of the canvases, he makes the truth of that precept shine for all of us.

Hans Hofmann: The Unabashed Unconscious is at Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art, 20 West 57th Street, until April 29.

King of Comedy

William King welcomes you to Alexandre Gallery, which is exhibiting his recent terracotta sculptures, with a Bronx cheer. It’s an inauspicious greeting, but you won’t mind. Étude (2003) is a blackened, nubbly portrait bust that is equal parts Easter Island totem, Dubuffet grotesque and Zippy the Pinhead. The figure exudes an Eastern calm in its acceptance of things as they are—the heavy eyelids betoken satori like few things I’ve seen. The raspberry offered by the gargoyle-like personage is aimed less at the viewer than at the cosmos at large. We should all meet fate with such impish equanimity.

The modest sampling of Mr. King’s sculptures seen in the foyer and front gallery at Alexandre is somewhat diminished by its second-banana status. The main event is an array of works-on-paper by Loren MacIver, pieces whose charm struggles to match Mr. King’s penetrating comedy of manners. And penetrate he surely does. Even when throwing away studies of mood and type, as in a series of small wall reliefs, Mr. King probes the intricacies of the human character with wit, ease and a gentle impropriety. Alexandre promises an overview of his early sculptures this December. In the meantime, Mr. King’s homages to dental hygiene, getting old and “my bitch” will do just fine.

William King: New Terracottas is at Alexandre Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, until May 6.

Though Uncertainty Continues,  Ellis Lets Paint Do the Talking