Friday, November 28th, 2003

Will Barnet at Alexandre Gallery, Mari Lyons at First Street Gallery, Elizabeth O’Reilly at George Billis Gallery

“Will Barnet: Figuration and Abstraction” at Alexandre Gallery until November 29 (Fuller Building, 41 E. 57th Street at Madison Avenue, 212 755 2828)

“Mari Lyons: Mostly Broadway at 80th Street” at First Street Gallery until November 29 (526 W. 26th Street Suite 915, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 646 336 8053)

“Elizabeth O’Reilly” at George Billis Gallery until November 29 (511 W.25th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212 645 2621)

Will Barnet Mother and Child 1961 oil on canvas, 46 x 39 inches Courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York
Will Barnet, Mother and Child 1961 oil on canvas, 46 x 39 inches Courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York

The Will Barnet exhibition closing this holiday weekend at Alexandre observes the spirit of Thanksgiving. Consisting of four paintings of the 1960s and a cache of supporting drawings, this gem of a show, at once elegant and scholarly, has abstraction and representation share a feast of equals.

Nowadays the once virulent opposition, abstraction versus representation, really is as an old chestnut. The very act of painting has been isolated in such a fashion as to thrust rival camps into comradeship, rather like Tsarists and Mensheviks sharing a common exile. Furthermore, enough contemporaries bridge the divide between the two idioms, like Gerhard Richter with his hyperrealism and his painterly abstraction, to make the dichotomy redundant.

But Mr. Barnet, who is ninety two and going strong, is of a different vintage: like Richard Diebenkorn or Philip Guston, his shifting back and forth between paradigms is almost a defining aspect of his career.

The pattern for these artists was to start realist, then discover abstraction, and thence to and from between syntheses of the two. Mr. Barnet is now, in fact, revisiting his (for him) purist abstraction of the post-war period in reworkings of old compositions. Like Guston, his second volte face (the readmission of depictive content during the heyday of formal abstraction) was met with incredulity and vitriol.

Which seems bizarre, looking at Mr. Barnet’s works of that decade, so well behaved are representation and non-objectivity in each other’s company. All four paintings here are tightly composed, coolly executed, gentle on the senses, and lyrical in the interplay of shapes. The non-representational pair are themselves politely poised between constructivism and organic abstraction. The figural works, highly stylized mother-child groupings, find their tenderness equally in humane content (they feature the artist’s wife and daughter) and unabrasive shape coordination.

These portraits acknowledge Matisse, but without any hint of that master’s angst. They also look rather like de-sexualized Balthus’s, sharing his sweetened orientalism, and there is more than a hint of Milton Avery, though without the latter’s energetic primitivism. The overriding qualities in Mr. Barnet are always softness and charm- hardly characteristics to guarantee a modernist his place in the pantheon. But these paintings that so unabashed about what they are and represent they seem likely somehow to survive on their own terms.

Interestingly, from the point of view of current credibility, form consciousness is more acute and sophisticated in the figural works than the abstract ones. It is as if human content proved a decoy rather than a distraction. When left to dominate, the abstract objects became obsessed with their own identity. Precisely because the portraits are so upfront in their decorative stylization and shameless in their sentiment, they are less like period pieces than the abstract paintings.

Mari Lyons Broadway with Zabar's in Early Spring 2002 oil on Canvas, 72 x 72 inches
Mari Lyons, Broadway with Zabar's in Early Spring 2002 oil on Canvas, 72 x 72 inches

If Mr. Barnet puts you in the mood for soft modernism then two other shows closing this weekend will warrant attention. Mari Lyons is having her ninth show at the First Street Gallery, the most consistently energetic of the several veteran artist cooperatives that have migrated to Chelsea. Her Upper Westside street scenes betray her tutelage under Max Beckmann in their vertiginous exuberance and their vibrant plasticity. They can also put you in mind of Red Grooms in their Breughelesque social density. Her expressive naivity (outsized automobiles, expressive street lettering) genuinely seems unforced. Dashing colors and deft little figures ensure that these paintings are real charmers.

Elizabeth O'Reilly Ballydehob, County Cork 2003  oil on panel, 20 x 12 inches Courtesy George Billis Gallery
Elizabeth O'Reilly, Ballydehob, County Cork 2003 oil on panel, 20 x 12 inches Courtesy George Billis Gallery

Elizabeth O’Reilly brings a similar sunny disposition to bear on decidedly less metropolitan townscapes. Her topography stretches from country lanes in her native Ireland to wastelands along American rivers. Ms. O’Reilly wears her mentors on her sleeve, and luckily they are good ones: Lois Dodd when it comes to smart but unflashy composition and George Nick (or it could be Mr. Nick’s own mentor, Albert Marquet) for lyrical color and fluent application. Ms. O’Reilly’s quiet, fresh unpretentious paintings have more going on in them than might seem obvious to the quickly satisfied gaze, particularly in shadow-play. The collective shadow of anthropomorphized houses along the sinous street in “Ballydehob, County Cork,” 2003, for instance, is a ready-made abstract shape as quirky and autonomous as the pulsating jigsaw pieces found in Will Barnet.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, November 28, 2003