Wild Watercolors Rescue Sunrise From Happy Little Land of Cliché

Graham Nickson asks for trouble. Sunsets and sunrises, the subjects of his watercolors on display at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, usually

Graham Nickson asks for trouble. Sunsets and sunrises, the subjects of his watercolors on display at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, usually bring about cornball associations: hotel-room prints, the picture over Grandma’s sofa, postcards, amateur photographs and (shudder) happy little Bob Ross. Mr. Nickson puts it mildly when he says that he’s “drawn to things that are potentially no-go areas.”

But art can redeem clichés—or, rather, reclaim the truths residing within their core. Mr. Nickson is up for the challenge. With deceptive ease and consistency, he elevates his subjects beyond kitsch using a relatively simple approach: He paints what he sees. Whether an easel has been set up in Italy, Australia, Florida, Tahiti or Long Island, he’s true to the fleeting and sometimes fickle nature of light, atmosphere and, governing over them all, time.

Mr. Nickson’s fluency with a brush is crisp and fluid, yet it is color that gives the watercolors their exclamatory élan. His palette has always been wild, whether in the watercolors or in his classically inspired paintings of bathers. Electric blues, purples and oranges clarify the images with a clean, unsparing light. The palette in the figure paintings, elaborately orchestrated fictions devised in the studio, revels in artifice. Color in the works-on-paper is more organic, if no less deep and broad, and unfolds with startling directness—appropriate given that they’re painted onsite.

The critic and essayist John Berger wrote that the problem with painting mountains is that the subject inevitably dwarfs technique: Nature reveals art to be a tiny thing. Mr. Nickson doesn’t pretend to overcome nature, but he does tap into its impersonal sweep and majesty. The watercolors zoom and stutter, expand and disperse. Their clear-eyed, relentless fidelity to fact is unnerving; you can’t make this stuff up. The pictures would never do for the Motel 6: They’re too vibrant and over-the-top for mere wall decorations. For the rest of us, Mr. Nickson’s watercolors provide revelatory surprise and unfettered delight.

Graham Nickson: Watercolors is at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, 22 East 71st Street, until March 3.

Heady Game of Hide-and-Seek

The contrast between unkempt intimacy and unyielding rigor accounts for the tension in Eve Aschheim’s abstract works-on-paper, on display at Lori Bookstein Fine Art. Using graphite, black and white gesso and ink, Ms. Aschheim maps out jittering and often spare diagrammatic networks. Mylar, however, is her ace in the hole: Used as a support, its ghostly translucency imbues the drawings with an enticing sense of ambiguity. Placing marks on both sides, Ms. Aschheim plays a heady game of hide-and-seek. Mylar obscures, reveals and undermines—selectively, precisely—her fractured architectural structures.

Back-to-front,over-and-under—we’re never quite sure where Ms. Aschheim’s staccato marks sit or, for that matter, where we stand. That’s the point: The work posits connections that are forever interrupted, but it retains a tenuous logic all the same. Strokes of white obliterate and accentuate the evolutionary process: Erasure, in Ms. Aschheim’s hands, isn’t so much a tool for removal as a way to reconcile stasis and rhythm, stability and chaos. Hinting at order even as it slips from her hands, Ms. Aschheim brings tenderness and tenaciousness to a cool and fetching resolution.

Eve Aschheim: New Drawings 2005-2006 is at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, 37 West 57th Street, until March 9.

Books, Used and Rare, Torn to Pieces

It’s tempting to want to pin down a connection between the writing and art of Maureen Mullarkey, whose collages are the subject of an exhibition at the George Billis Gallery. An art critic for The New York Sun, Ms. Mullarkey brings a rare and probing delicacy to her craft; few of her peers (including this one) are capable of sussing out artistic particulars with as much clarity, consideration and patience. Ms. Mullarkey’s collages are pieced together from scraps of antiquarian books: covers, pages, bindings and endpapers.

A literary bond between the respective disciplines is patent, but the comparison only goes so far. For Ms. Mullarkey, old books are repositories dense with memory; only a deeply cultured person could tear one up so tenderly. Not for nothing is the show titled Gutenberg Elegies. Ms. Mullarkey also loves books because they’re rectangular; the grid serves as an organizing principle. Her materials are allowed to assert their origins somewhat—we can pick out Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, the mischievous faces of Max and Moritz, and a found letter written by Rose and sent to Dorothy. These worn and tattered bits and pieces are orchestrated into contrapuntal rhythms and relationships.

Ms. Mullarkey revitalizes her books by transforming and renewing their function in the world. In the collages, deliberation and spontaneity work in tandem. Textures and patterns are exquisitely juxtaposed: Fragments of a map, a page from a German tome and a pattern of snaking vegetation achieve a subtle correspondence. Through touch, the past makes itself felt in the present. Ms. Mullarkey relates the story of a librarian stroking his collection, murmuring to it with love and gratitude. These same feelings course through her own quietly joyous art.

Maureen Mullarkey: Gutenberg Elegies is at the George Billis Gallery, 511 West 25th Street, until March 3.

Wild Watercolors Rescue Sunrise  From Happy Little Land of Cliché