Youth is a Prize (Price?) in Chelsea's Art Galleries

Continuing the bow to the 'tepid orthodoxy of youth'

So, in my previous life as an art dealer, I learned a few things. First, always pretend that you live on the sunny side of the street (even if it's raining tax audits and razor blades). Second, it's always possible to raise the price of an object, but not lower it. And third—but by no means last—in the art world, it's correct to curve age down. It drives collectors nuts, among other things, to know that their artists are old enough to be lawyers and gastroenterologists.

In the art world, youth is a prize (price?) commodity. No surprise here. After all, why should the art world be different from the music and the film businesses? As things spiral upward in a bullish economy, collectors, curators, artists, and dealers think they've earned the right to create their own Britneys and Justin Timberlakes. But the bulls have morphed into bears, you say? Well, then, it may be time for a reality check.

A recent stroll through Chelsea revealed a tepid orthodoxy of youth: dealers of all stripes exhibiting the works (predictably, mostly paintings) of artists just a few years out of art school. A craze merely a year ago, the trend—complete with subcultural winks and slacker nods—is now so derivative it's positively viral. Yet more proof that deviancy, in the words of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is defined downward, and that—surprise—not all youth cultures are created equal.

Starting on 20th Street, the resolutely decorative character of much youngish painting becomes apparent. Bellwether, for one, features the work of comparative veteran Dana Frankfort (b. 1971). Paintings where the artist repeatedly brushes text onto store-bought canvases, Frankfort's clashing colors and attitudinal snippets—among them the words "Crack, "Lines," and "Stuff," which pull double duty as titles—reference the figurative realism of Jasper Johns's flags. So what? The significance of channeling Johns today remains a total mystery—at least to me. As a message about current art or the medium of painting, Frankfort's works read as if they were written with a popsicle.

Further up, at Anna Kustera on 21st Street, an exhibition of Jessica Stockholder–meets–Joseph Stella paintings by Eric Hibit (b. 1976) demonstrates the maxim, once again, that everything is bound to come back around if only you wait long enough. Gluing, stitching, and bolting materials like stuffed animals and denim onto wood and metal armatures, Hibit makes undeniably energetic works that, like Frankfort's paintings, carry with them their own critique: the narcissism, however youthful, of believing you've invented the method for segmenting Wonder Bread.

Three blocks north, an interesting duel is taking place on a stretch of 24th Street. A mano a mano between "It" artist Jules de Balincourt (b. 1972) at Zack Feuer and newcomer Quentin Curry (b. 1972) at Stellan Holm, this confrontation between painters sparks observations about the pros and cons of some of the better canvases on offer in Chelsea.

Creators of dynamic landscapes whose intensities disappear when scrutinized, both artists—especially de Balincourt, whose gem-likeUntitled painting of a lakeside presents a special case—display commitments to complex picture-making that crumble as they stray from subjects at the nub of painting as a practice. To wit, consider this analogy: It's as if Brian Wilson and John Lennon were happy enough reprising "I Get Around" and "Please Please Me" to forget all aboutPet Sounds and Revolver.

Natalie Frank's (b. 1980) second solo exhibition, on the other hand, makes no bones about what she's after: everything, all the time, now. Ambitious if indelicate paintings of drawing-room dramas, Frank's canvases at Mitchell-Innes & Nash look like Eric Fischl narratives torn from the pages of a Victoria's Secret catalog. One allegorical work—heavingly titledThe Danger and the Punishments Grew Greater—is a pantomime of the sort of historical sources Frank mines (think Lucian Freud and Delacroix). All flash and no fury, Frank's canvases— despite their evident skill—crash and burn in exact proportion to their manifest self-importance.

Compare Frank to another twentysomething, the artist Eva Struble (b. 1981), currently debuting at Lombard-Freid Projects on 26th Street. A painter of substance embarked on a pictorial recovery of urban wastelands, Struble embraces lush color and shifting perspectives in her canvases of decayed factories and dirty canals—the better to point up a youthful instance when figurative chops meet equally vigorous subject matter. Another windfall is the work of Michael Cline (b. 1973) at Daniel Reich's 23rd Street emporium. The best of all the shows covered here, Cline, along with Struble, is the exception that confirms the rule. A painter of five-and-dime streetscapes of hobos and skateboarders that jar the eye with medieval-looking distortions, Cline makes pictures that are more than just accomplished; their relationship to the figure and its narrative, the vehicle and its payload, is grown-up, assured. Finding echoes all along painting's waterfront—from Cimabue to Philip Guston to Margaret Kilgallen—Cline's works deliver the undervalued, the unlikely, and, most importantly, the long-awaited unexpected. That's not just good. It's ageless.

 
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