Thursday, May 29th, 2003

Harry Roseman at Davis & Langdale, Stephen Balkenhol at Barbara Gladstone, Tony Oursler at Metro Pictures, Bruce Gagnier at Lori Bookstein Fine Art

“Harry Roseman: Cloth” at Davis & Langdale until June 6 (231 E. 60th Street, between TK, 212-838-0333. Prices: $900-$8,000.

Stephan Balkenhol at Barbara Gladstone Gallery until May 31 (515 W. 24th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-206-9300). Prices: The gallery declined to disclose its prices

“Tony Oursler: Recent Works” at Metro Pictures until June 6 (519 W. 24th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-206-7100). Prices: $45,000

“Bruce Gagnier: Sculpture, 1989-2003” at Lori Bookstein Fine Art until June 13 (50 E. 78th Street, Ste. 2A, between TK, 212-439-9605). Prices: $6,000-$12,000

Harry Roseman Tobacco Farm, CT 1999 type C print, 16 x 20 inches, courtesy Davis & Langdale Company, Inc.
Harry Roseman Tobacco Farm, CT 1999 type C print, 16 x 20 inches, courtesy Davis & Langdale Company, Inc.

Anyone who takes an interest in sculpture can’t fail to notice the yawning gulf between “public” artists and their art-world peers. You can be fêted by museums, collectors, and the press and yet never get a bite of the commission cherry. Yet those who *do* often crave the recognition of gallery shows and reviews. Harry Roseman is rare in this split profession: Respected within the art world, he just completed a 600-foot-long frieze at JFK’s International Air Terminal. Millions will breeze past “Curtain Wall,” like it or no.

I haven’t seen the piece, but on the evidence of his current show of related materials at Davis & Langdale, I’m tempted to book Kennedy next flight – Newark man though I am. Mr. Roseman invests his curtain motif with formal and psychological depth. From photographs, the Kennedy commission, characteristically circumspect for this artist, looks to be rich in metaphors of arrival and expectation, theater and homeliness: a Statue of Liberty for the postmodern age.

Mr. Roseman’s curtains reference old masters – Schongauer’s engravings and Piero’s paintings – as much as the drapery of medieval carving. But he also “draws” – with a camera – from life. Exhibited alongside his sculptural reliefs are perceptive but unpatronizing observations of drapery surreally at play in the world: Louche, bordello-red window dressings in a French café thêatre; incongruously high-chroma tarpualins amid old-world rickety farm equipment. The netting around a crop of tobacco in Connecticut becomes a canvas, making what’s behind seem painterly.

Unfortunately, too much is crammed into this show for its own good. Davis & Langdale is an ambitious gallery in pokey premises. The photographs and a harassed-looking wall drawing over-determine how the sculptures are to be interpreted. Their true marvel, especially in the non-colored reliefs in clay or gypsum, is a subtly harnessed anthropomorphism that needs space to flutter.

Stephan Balkenhol’s latest show of free-standing sculptures and carved reliefs closes this weekend at Barbara Gladstone. The German sculptor, who lives and works in rural France, is internationally and deservedly renowned. Marshalling incredible technique with understated force, he can be thought of as a young sculptural counterpart of Alex Katz. There is an aloof poignancy common to them that is at once tough and vulnerable. They similarly reconcile opposites: Awkwardness and fluency, bruteness and sensitivity, economy and detail.

Rough and smooth cohabit effortlessly in a Balkenhol. Sometimes he seems, literally, to draw with an axe, and even where he obviously is using a more delicate implement, he manages to balance tender specifics – especially in hand and face gestures – with an all-over robustness. A couple of large architectural reliefs that depict Chartres cathedral and a castle balance intricacy and consistency in a way that’s worthy of Canaletto. Mr. Balkenhol likes soft, blond woods like ply and wawa, which he keeps fresh-looking with bright paint, rough finish, and pentimenti.

Another relief, this time of a “man in space” from 2003, places the figure in a deeper register than the “ground” – outer space – creating an energizing optical ambiguity. Often his carving technique leaves behind burr, making the chippy surfaces at once vulnerable and animated, like the mortals he depicts. Mr. Balkenhol is alive to the meaning of his means to a degree unprecedented in the current scene.

Tony Oursler is showing a couple of doors down from Gladstone, at Metro Pictures. Like Stephan Balkenhol, he has a trademark style, but comparison of the two artists is an object lesson in the distinction between originality and novelty. It’s the American, with his gimmick worn thin, who comes across the loser.

Mr. Oursler’s contribution to the world of forms is the “video effigy,” a projection of faces onto abstract sculptural objects. In this new body of work, in contrast to the looser, more ghostly puppets familiar from earlier in his career, the knee to waist-high supports are solid structures. These include a donut and various balls and biomorphs. “Coo” (2003) arranges two smaller egg shapes on a bigger one beneath to read like a Mickey Mouse head (an apter metaphor for his artistic project than was perhaps intended). Three separate videos project – in disconcerting misregistration of a mouth and eyes – a person in green makeup squeaking away in plaintive baby talk. The pinkness of a salivating orifice and the whiteness of teeth and eyeballs aid and abet the surreal nastiness of the piece. Technically clever, moderately amusing, and easily forgettable, Mr. Oursler’s is the mannerism of an art-world moment.

Bruce Gagnier Otom II 2002 Hydrocal, 42 x 16 x 12 inches
Bruce Gagnier, Otom II 2002 Hydrocal, 42 x 16 x 12 inches

Speaking of mannerism, what on earth is to be made of the sculpture of Bruce Gagnier, showing in a packed installation at Lori Bookstein? Mannerist in an art historical sense, this work brings to mind the bodily contortions of the later 16th century. There is also something of the grotesqueness of the modern American painter Ivan Albright: Mottled surfaces read literally as gruesome skin disorders.

If Mr. Gagnier were exhibiting in Chelsea or Williamsburg, might the veteran sculptor be mistaken for a young protégé of hot button appropriationist John Currin and master of the abject Paul McCarthy?

It is a subversive thought, but also a misreading that falls away with calm appreciation – which, for all their weirdness, these pieces compel. Underneath the existential angst of Mr. Gagnier’s disconcerting surfaces and deeply awkward anatomies, a genuine classicism yearns to break free. The real fusion here is of late Roman bronzes and Giacometti.

This article first appeared in The Sun, May 29, 2003