Avoiding the Subject: ‘Scruffy’ at KS Art and ‘Walking Forward-Running Past’ at Art in General

At the small, surprisingly harmonious group show currently hanging at KS Art on Leonard Street, the elephant in the room

"Collapse" (2007) by Will Rogan. (Courtesy the artist and Art in General)

At the small, surprisingly harmonious group show currently hanging at KS Art on Leonard Street, the elephant in the room is the figurative image. But actually, it’s a mammoth—not only because the show is called “Scruffy,” or because the image began as a cave painting, but because it functions here like an exhumed fossil, reconceived in a world it never imagined.

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For Jocko Weyland, what once flickered and lived has become landscape. After years of writing and taking photographs, Mr. Weyland has begun teaching himself to paint, using as his subjects color advertisements in old issues of the skiing magazine Powder. (The ads come from his own recently published book of reproductions, The Powder.) The five letter-size gouaches on display, most of them featuring heavy shapes firmly balanced in the middle, flirt with recognition. If you know that they’re based on photos, you can guess what the photos were of; if you don’t know, you won’t wonder.

For Chip Hughes, this imaginary landscape is a quarry, something to be shattered and reassembled—not into a new image, but into a vibrating field that channels the image’s power to its own strange ends. Most of his six small oils on display use obsessive, mazelike lines and dots to make patterns resembling chemical cross sections. In one—his paintings, like Mr. Weyland’s, are all untitled—a pink-on-yellow grid is laid over a background of purplish-bluish mess, the inchoate color of multiple corrections. The squares of the grid are also filled in with pink, and over the grid, like muscle tissue, is a lattice of four diamonds and two ovals. Meticulously executed by a clearly scruffy intelligence, they borrow forms from graffiti, outsider art and various iterations of primitivism, but their content is their own.

And for Sadie Laska, the image has been trod on for so long that it’s almost invisible; it’s ubiquitous, and therefore hardly worth mentioning. In six ostensibly aggressive, self-enclosed, inward-looking paintings—she uses canvas, linen, oil and acrylic, as well as paper, tape and the occasional cup or staple to build a surface—Ms. Laska lets broad groupings of stormy colors coexist without confrontation. Relationships among them are neither implicit nor explicit, but merely possible, because they aren’t set out in reaction to anything. The figure is in the room, but only to say hello to; textile design said it might try to stop in. In Shakey, the depth of field has a seductively gelatinous wobble; Circle O casually places a sharp-edged oval over a bonfire of colors so that it leans out grinning from the wall. Bad Cat With Klee, a small blue acrylic, includes a scrap of a printed reproduction of a Paul Klee painting stapled to the canvas. The gesture is as unfraught as possible: there’s no more anxiety of influence than a landscape painter feels about trees.

At Art in General, “Walking Forward-Running Past,” a group show taking both its title and its inspiration from John Baldessari’s 1971 video, circles around something else. The video shows a toothy white surface onto which the artist affixes and then slides out of view again a series of black-and-white photos. (The video itself is in black and white, but it’s hard not to think of the photos as being somehow autonomously black and white too.) In the first series, we see Mr. Baldessari himself gradually walking toward the camera, into the light; in the second, he is running past. Each series is run through three times, his forearms reaching in and out of frame—notice the ticking watch on his wrist—and sometimes he places a photo askew so that his own head is cut off. Then he says, “That’s it,” and the screen goes dark until we begin again.

Watching a video of the mechanism of video has, as it turns out, no effect on the mechanism at all. The fragmentary snapshots of broken moments still look as if they were really moving in and out of the television screen. So the piece amounts to a kind of luminous metaphor for nothing, a construction on but not about an idea, in this case the experience of time.

Avoiding the Subject: ‘Scruffy’ at KS Art and ‘Walking Forward-Running Past’ at Art in General