The National Academy Museum's Grab-Bag Anthology
June 5, 2008

With the work of 130 artists on display, "The 183rd Annual: An Invitational Exhibition of Contemporary American Art" at the National Academy Museum is a bit of a grab bag. As compared with previous Annuals, this one proves a strong anthology, a pleasantly scented bouquet. But its relative vigor does nothing to mitigate the strangeness of walking among its multitudinous offerings.

For, like cats at a dog show, the best work here preens awkwardly among the uninspired, the hokey, the retrograde, and the second-rate. I won't dwell on the less successful pieces except to say that many are abstract and utterly decorative, by which I mean they marshal effects - kitsch color schemes, cute techniques such as curtains of Pollock-esque drips or, my pet peeve, faux aging - to no other end than prettiness (not beauty; prettiness of the kind to which you match fabric swathes).

A curatorial committee of seven artists chose the work from more than 400 recommended artists. The range of generations and approaches is to be commended. And the greater portion of those who submitted the strongest work will be familiar to gallery-goers; they include a far-out, semi-gestural David Reed, Pat Lipsky's austere abstraction, Dannielle Tegeder's sci-fi futurism, a meaty and oil-heavy Stanley Lewis painting of a small-town parking lot, and a classic vase by the ceramic artist Betty Woodman.

One's attention can bounce happily between the solid geometries of a veteran such as Sean Scully and the new-world conceptions of Maria Elena Gonzolez's grids and grills. A characteristic mix of the thoughtful and the sensual, Mr. Scully's "Slab" (2006), an oil on linen, constructs his edifice with stripes and shingles of color - rich yellows, browns, and grays - and he has inserted a smaller rectangular canvas within the larger one. In "Grill Cross Box" (2005), Ms. Gonzolez, Cuban-born, residing in Brooklyn, and one of the most exciting artists working today, "paints" her grids in hot glue on the Plexiglas top of a box. A fluorescent light within causes the whole to glow a tropical magenta. Leonardo Drew, another well-known Brooklynite sculptor, turns his hand to printing with "Number 100" (2005), a grid of 25 framed rust prints - prints made from rust that look almost like sepia washes - depicting old buildings and the like. "Self Portrait with Men in Hats" (2007) barely describes Julie Heffernan's magnificent cornucopia, which is worth the price of admission alone. A traditional oil rendered with impeccable technique, it depicts the artist standing half-nude, apple-breasted like a Northern Renaissance Eve, wearing a skirt of pink and red roses as well as peacock feathers, a coral-like network atop her head in imitation of an 18th-century hairstyle. At her feet are heaped dead game: rabbit, birds, and deer, while behind her, among the rearing horses, spears, and long-haired warriors, hang - or float - disks on which the images of men in hats of various styles appear. What's it all supposed to add up to? To my mind, such a fecund imagination provides its own answer.

Still, in addition to those pieces by known names, there were also a number of impressive and exciting finds, works by artists with whom I was unfamiliar. Despite its diminutive size - 12 inches by 16 inches - Russian-born Darina Karpov's "Sifter" (2007), a gouache and acrylic on panel, packs in explosive power. A landscape that seems to burst into a dream sequence, it resembles, according to the artist, "a fragment of a narrative, a sentence or musical phrase."

Eric Holzman's "Tree #3 (Autumn)" (2005-07), a large work for an acrylic on paper, tracks the way murky brown autumn light turns trees into virtually abstract forms. A photograph made into a painting, in fact a unique oil print, "Street Watch #2" (2007) employs nothing more than grainy monochrome to turn a man on the street into one of those "suspicious" persons we're constantly told to be on the watch for.

And if you're not vigilantly watchful, you might easily miss the two fine installations on view. Lisha Bai's "Vortex" (2008) consists of black-and-white floor tiles in an Op Art pattern - but you have to look down to find them. Soo Sunny Park's wonderful "Fractal Immersion" (2008) is tucked into an alcove. A sort of architectural intervention, it consists of a wall cut out in a fractal pattern through which one sees another wall, or screen, in a honeycomb pattern. These continue in recession to an indeterminate depth.

Of the sculptures, I'll mention only Steve Novick's three small, ebullient, semi-surreal offerings. When one considers the solidity of these sculptures and the two installations, one wonders why the Academy didn't clear out some of the second- and third-rate paintings to make room for more sculpture and installation. And how can a broad exhibition of Contemporary art exclude video installation, certainly one of the most vibrant types of art being produced today?

But if you can accept the narrowly construed version of Contemporary art the Academy presents, if only for a few hours, you will find plenty of pearls among its oyster shells.