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Go Figure

For a modest gallery, dishing out a "major painting survey of current international trends in the media" is no picnic. Without the proper ingredients, fettuccine Alfredo hyped as a melt-in-the-mouth experience can risk playing out like a soggy plate of ramen noodles smothered in Wishbone Creamy Italian dressing. After digesting...
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For a modest gallery, dishing out a "major painting survey of current international trends in the media" is no picnic.

Without the proper ingredients, fettuccine Alfredo hyped as a melt-in-the-mouth experience can risk playing out like a soggy plate of ramen noodles smothered in Wishbone Creamy Italian dressing. After digesting "Paint Matters: Part II/New Figuration" at Chelsea Galleria, visitors may not walk away full of four-star endorsements, but overall the homespun group show hits the spot even when falling short of its lofty aims. The exhibit includes works by Tavare Hill, Kate Kretz, Amy Laskin, Barbara Rivera, Toscanelli, and Purvis Young, and features Miguel Angel Giovanetti at the top of the menu. This show is the follow-up course to the space's ambitiously titled previous offering, "Paint Matters: Part I/New Abstraction," and it relies heavily on depictions of the human figure.

The gallery's vestibule displays a series of Rivera's small, savory oil-on-canvas works rendering contemporary young women in the style of Renaissance portraiture. An untitled piece, the size of a paperback book cover, depicts a haughty young trollop leaning on a window sill against a sumptuous red backdrop. She sports a gray blouse and a Bride of Frankenstein do. Wearing blue lipstick, she appears to be flossing her teeth with a gummy worm as she cuts her eyes at the spectator in a disarming fashion.

In Belle, another small helping, a fetching young woman whose face is shown in profile wears a transparent salmon-tone top with lavishly detailed lace and folds. Bra straps peek out over her milky shoulders, which reflect an unnatural light that seeps in from a source outside the canvas, shimmering off the coppery henna of her hair and ornate cut glass and gold filigree of her earring. A tattoo and piercing on her body seem oddly out of whack in the old-school composition. Rivera's subjects are seductive and powerful. They condense an immediate tension onto small slivers of surface, but the gallery fudges them up a bit by placing these little gems where they barely register notice.

Kretz's oil-on-canvas paintings likewise ooze psychological tension and are among the more compelling in the show. Her pieces are remarkable for their hyperdetailed execution and an acidic palette that reeks with a bizarre Beetlejuice vibe. How to Act, Not React When He Makes You Crazy depicts an emotionally ravaged woman lying on a bed in a child's room. She is bleary-eyed and donning a nightgown as she stares zombielike into space while clawing a pillow. Next to the bed stands a night table holding a lamp and bobby pins, as well as a pair of scissors pointing toward the almost catatonic figure. A hole has been slashed in the lamp's shade, adding to the air of menace. A cat haunches on the bed near a window, its tawny fur mimicking the grain of the wall's wooden paneling. The garishly luminescent fun-house hues Kretz favors are jarring and hardly hold the woman's misery in check. Obscene pinks, iceberg blues, lurid oranges, bruised purples, and nicotine yellows bleed together, evoking Oscar Wilde's notion that people mostly hurt the ones they love.

Another striking work is an untitled oil-on-canvas by Eleomar Puente, who is not listed on the exhibit's invitation or gallery handouts. The Cuban artist takes a crack at Fidel Castro in the form of a pubic hair-bearded aardvark sitting on a scarlet throne. The woolly creature sports on its snoot a trio of pince-nez glasses while it controls a pair of pigs that dangle on puppet strings. The porkers are screwing doggy-style and wearing toucanlike beaks made of newspaper in what might be a commentary on totalitarianism or censorship, or maybe just a sign the artist thinks the decrepit dictator gets his jollies from repulsive barnyard antics.

Despite its entertainment value, one is left wondering where the piece — and others, such as Purvis Young's mixed-media-on-wood works from the Eighties and Nineties that depict barely modeled animals, people, and cars zipping across urban street scenes — fits in. Some works seem to be strung up on a wall as a nod to the wallets. Young's pieces look out of place within the context of the show and, surprisingly, are overshadowed by the paintings of a young local African-American painter, Tavare Hill, who mines a similar subject matter.

Erase, one of Hill's medium-size acrylic-on-canvas works, captures what might be a street scene from the artist's childhood and depicts the solitary figure of a striped T-shirt-wearing young boy waving at a passerby. The artist uses a minimal palette (lime, brown, and rust), which along with scratches, blots, grooves, and dents on the surfaces creates an aged, almost bedraggled texture. In the foreground of this piece a whiff of a dust devil swirls, suggested by a vortex of pencil smoke.

Hula Hoop, another piece alive with energy, features a black child wearing a tank top and shorts. The youngster is shimmying his hips in midswing and smiling exuberantly at the spectator. The monochromatic painting is rife with the artist's carefree defacement, which gives it the quality of a dog-eared, sepia-tone snapshot fished from a scrapbook.

Hill's West Perrine portrays a playground kickball game in which four children's figures are barely suggested, their faces appearing as if stains daubed with a rag. This painting has the feel of an African textile print and is rich in hibiscus reds, mango oranges, and sudsy carnation pinks. Hill's works are among the freshest in the show.

A gallery worth its weight wouldn't lob what it touts as a "major painting survey" at the public without at least a token stab at scale. "Proving that size matters," Chelsea boasts Toscanelli's garage-door-size painting, by far the largest work on display. The German's Luncheon on the Grass cribs Manet's famous picnic scene and adds some international flair to Chelsea's buffet. The inch-flexing piece depicts a dandy donning a striped tangerine-tone suit, snazzy blue bow tie, and a straw boater in an edgy neo-impressionistic style. The duded-up mope sits between a lad with his legs spread akimbo and a girl draped in lavender chiffon, crowned by a bonnet, and sporting ice skates. Behind them a purple-and-white collie pants in the heat. In the background, a grove of trees leans off to one side, infusing the composition with a disorienting sense of vertigo. At a glance, the figures' graphically hinted faces and other elements suggesting collage turn out to be layers of paint and cut canvas, deftly tricking the eye.

Arguably the most complex paintings in the show are Miguel Angel Giovanetti's pieces from his series Friends, Patterns and Buildings. These kitchen-towel-size acrylic-on-canvas works incorporate anonymous portraits, architectural elements, and decorative patterns juxtaposed in grids that suggest the drag of memory or the inexorable passage of time. The pieces are opulently underpainted and convey a sense of a crumbling wall, a batik finish, or the mottled skin of a leper. Although his images of women and building façades executed in tarry blacks appear silk-screened, they are exactingly painted by hand and contrast starkly with the brushwork of the richly hued antique fabric patterns he slips into the pictures.

In one painting, split into three panels like the Italian flag, the exterior of an old building with tiered balconies and zig-zagging fire escapes fills the left field of the composition. In the middle, a vertical swatch of orange fabric covered in blue ivy or acanthus leaves draws the eye. To the far right, a photographic shot of two women carrying their coats and bags down a boulevard evokes the feeling of driving into a strange town for the first time. It's as if the artist were cramming as many sensations as possible into a fleeting moment, trapping the viewer in the vaguely familiar yet somehow unknown. Strangely enough, Giovanetti's paintings, with their condensed repositories of random references, tidily sum up the uneven nature of this show.

While individually making their own statements, many of the artists lose something in translation when they're stewed in the same pot. Though the gallery deserves credit for organizing back-to-back shows concentrating exclusively on painting, swell intentions aside, claims that this exhibit is a major survey of international trends is a tough load to swallow. However, if you're hankering for some solid painting without the fancy drippings, Chelsea provides the meal. But take it with the proverbial grain of salt.

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