Gallery Going, by DAVID COHEN          
      A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, March 31, 2005

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Joe Fyfe: Paintings from Vietnam at JG Contemporary
Mary Heilmann: Heaven & Hell at 303 Gallery
Werner Schmidt: Berlin Blues at Howard Scott Gallery
Scott Richter at Elizabeth Harris Gallery


Joe Fyfe Scattered Stones I 2004
acrylic on burlap; 13-3/4 x 17-3/4 inches
Courtesy JG Contemporary

Joe Fyfe seems to bask in a black sun of contradiction.  At once a brutalist and an esthete, he is an iconoclast with a profound sense of tradition. His paintings, typically made from unruly scraps of burlap or jute, the lumpenproletarians of canvases, sport marks so embedded within their rough support as to hover between foundness and intentionality.  These works manage to exude nonchalence and finesse in equal measure.

His latest solo exhibition with Jay Grimm (the first since Mr. Grimm’s gallery became a satellite of James Graham & Sons) consists of works made during a period in Vietnam, where he has been writing extensively about the contemporary artscene.  The Brooklyn-based painter is a veteran internationalist: as a curator, he is known for bringing New York attention to the new French abstraction that like his own work grows out of the historic avantgarde Support-Surface group from Nice.  Indeed, he vies for the honor with James Hyde as that movement’s honory consul in America.  His latest works are also strongly reminiscent of Alberto Burri, the Italian painter known for his sewn-together, distressed shards of sacking.

But unlike Burri, with his postwar existential angst, Mr. Fyfe seems constitutionally incapable of theatricality.  However rough they are at the edges, his images are always inflected with a double sense (contradicting it and each other) of the sensual and the ethereal.  As usual, with this artist, an initial impression of almost insolent sameness quickly gives way to its opposite, of voluptuous variety.  In some pieces forms seem pregnant with consideration: a small, almost votive untitled canvas of last year, for instance, hanging in the back office, positions two leaf green hollow squares and a minute dot in the same hue below with almost tantric significance. In another, “Scattered Stones I,” (2004) there’s the feeling of Chinese painting, of form achieved through an enlightened sense of indifference.

Mary Heilmann Baby Snake 2004
oil on canvas, 40 x 32 inches
Courtesy 303 Gallery

At first, Mary Heilmann seems to occupy similar territory to Mr. Fyfe: she’s an abstract painter with anti-formalist attitude. There’s an “in yer face” quality about her nursery colors, cackhanded grids, and doodly delivery that gives a positive first impression: cocksure and zestful. The left panel of her diptych “Hokusai,” (2004) incidentally, is strikingly like her junior, Mr. Fyfe’s paintings of a couple of shows back.  There might also be some shared influence with Mr. Hyde, for whom painting has also naturally segued into fun (to look at, if not sit on) furniture: they share a sense of painting as a grand jest.  And another reinventor of abstraction she recalls is her near-contemporary, Thomas Nozkowski: like him, her language looks to be built out of shapes and ideas that have meaning for their author without the painting coming to depend on those meanings for its own content.

But somehow, Ms. Heilmann lacks the magic of these artists.  The problem has to do with the giant quote marks her paintings carry around with them, like an albatross. In the others there is always a lively dualism between irony and earnestness, whereas the scale, literalness of reference (Hokusai’s Wave, for instance), and gimmicky effects in Ms. Heilmann always tip the balance in favor of overtness.  When she drips a little paint, as in “Blood on the Tracks,” (2005) or “Jack of Hearts” of the same year, we can hear her chuckling to herself.  The painterliness of “Heaven,” (2004), placed in gruesome chromatic juxtaposition with the aptly named “Rude Boy,” (1998)  in the rear gallery, is shamelessly fake set against the endearingly handmade quality of her geometric abstraction that is her more familiar mode.  There are, for sure, individual passages and effects of wry pictorial humor, like the fuzzy black lattice lines in “Rude Boy” that join up to sharp blue ones within the black square at the center of the picture.  But overall, this show has the false cheer and dreary inconsequence of Muzak.


Californian-born Ms. Heilmann enjoys a considerable reputation in Europe: she was the subject, a couple of years ago, of a solo exhibition at the Secession in Vienna, for instance.  If her phoney “Heaven” leaves you hungry for a more earnest evocation of the skies (if not paradise) then check out the Bavarian Werner Schmidt’s third solo show with Howard Scott.  His attitudinally uncomplicated if somewhat conservative abstraction is on its own terms luscious and satisfying. 

His favored format puts together four equal canvases each filled to near bursting with big, generously loaded but smoothly dispatched brushstrokes.  There is painterly action within the strokes and at their edges, while the strong sense of the edge of each self-contained composition animates its neighbors within the grid.  

In a rather polite German intellectual way these works seem to aspire, like Goethe, to be at once classic and romantic: emotion is contained within form by such somewhat earnest stragegies as the grid, for instance, and the big, scrawly sgraffito dates.   These latter are both a conceptual and compositional device, giving the works a time-based, process oriented, investigative quality fitting to their cloudscape, atmospheric content. 

Scott Richter Red Boat 2003
oil paint, medium, on paper & steel palette table, 36-1/2 x 61-1/2 x 31-1/2 inches
Courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

When it comes to painterly jest I doubt anyone will outdo Scott Richter.  His latest show continues a trademark idiom of sculptures constructed out of paint.  Each piece is centered on a piece of mid-century utilitarian furniture: an office desk, for instance, or a wooden palette table.  The meticulously carved objects range from a red boat, the sea around it, in the same color, almost dripping over the edge of the green steel table, or a Tatlinesque Tower of Babel cum wedding cake in harlequin colors. 

Impecunious painters must seethe at the sight of these piles of pigment.  In “Building Empires” red and white paint is artfully arranged into slabs of meat, as if a pun about art putting meat on the table.  These really are works of genius, a delicious joke about literalism and depiction  As surely as they are crass, gimmicky, and knowing they are equally smart and cute.

Fyfe until April 23, 505 W 28 Street, between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 564 7662

Heilmann until April 9, 525 W 22 Street, between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 255 1121

Schmidt until April 9, 529 W 20 Street, 7th Floor, between 10 and 11 Avenues, 646 486 7004

Richter until April 16, 529 W 20 Street, between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 463 9666



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