New York show is a smorgasbord of art

July 28, 1996|By Holland Cotter | Holland Cotter,NEW YORK TIMES

The National Academy of Design's annual juried exhibitions have an uninterrupted track record dating back to 1826, and have showcased some major talent in their time.

Several of the paintings in the much-praised Winslow Homer retrospective now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, made their public debut under the academy's auspices more than a century ago.

This year's installment, the 171st, doesn't offer Homeric fare. But it's worth a visit for its generous smorgasbord of accomplished, occasionally distinguished work of a kind that actually qualifies for underdog status in the fast-track, mixed-media world of contemporary art.

The original annuals were, in concept at least, like the present-day Whitney Biennials: sprawling, mixed-bag group shows meant to give a taste of new developments in American art. Times change.

The academy, always a bastion of well-tutored tradition, has long since become a refuge for conservative styles and genres that now rarely get an airing in New York's mainstream galleries and museums.

Organized by genre

Genre, in fact, is the organizing category in this year's show of 250 works. The first gallery, for example, is devoted entirely to still lifes, ranging from a pretty little oil-on-canvas plate of strawberries by Rob Fish to Patricia Tobacco Forrester's flushed, crowded watercolor of tropical flowers and Don Nice's Marsden Hartleyesque pileup of emblematic Americana.

Portraits fill the adjoining room. Richard Maury's "Large Self-Portrait," the artist's face registering a tense, concentrated anxiety, is one of the exhibition's best entries.

Also good is David Ruiz's small, meticulous self-likeness depicted with a companionable skeleton, and a goofy double portrait of Warhol look-alikes by the irrepressible James Lechay.

The scale of painting expands in a lofty, high-ceilinged gallery dominated by landscapes. In Jack Stewart's homage to Manet's "Dejeuner sur l'Herbe," picnickers are dwarfed by stratospheric topiary hedges that would have thrilled Fragonard, while Richard Raiselis offers a sweeping, autumnal panorama of Boston in mouse brown and chill metallic blue.

This gallery also holds one of the show's surprises: two paintings by different artists of a street corner, precisely the same street corner, in the town of Conshohocken, Pa.

Conshohocken? It may not be (at least not yet) Argenteuil or Nice, but it is the motif of choice for Babette and Nina F. Martino, painters who are also sisters. They share a no-frills linear style and an affecting eye for dusky but seasonally indeterminate gray light.

Like many artists in the show, they are not academy members. (Even-number-year exhibitions, like this one, invite open submission; odd-numbered years are members-only affairs.)

And the sisters' refreshing presence is supplemented by that of their mother, Eva Martino, whose painting of two women plucking chickens in a pristine Italian-style kitchen can be found in the gallery of figurative works on the third floor.

Close by this picture hangs another, slightly more elevated domestic scene: a charming Renaissance-style "Annunciation" by Maria Pia Marella, its cakey surface rich with terra cotta reds and golds.

And as if to confirm that narrative painting remains a viable aesthetic enterprise, there are JohnBradford's depiction of the biblical heroine Jael nailing her adversary, and Audrey Ushenko's Botticellian backyard bacchanal of middle-aged suburbanites.

Few abstracts

The harvest of abstract painting next door is small. Much of it is warmed-over abstract expressionism or color field, although James Bohary's all-over gestural "Maricao" is lively, and Alice Zinnes' "Magic Dream," with its flare of yellow set against a forest-green ground, earns its pride of place over the room's marble fireplace.

In the watercolors and graphic works elsewhere on the third floor, the emphasis is on realism, exacting in the case of Martin Levine's detailed drawing of an elevated subway, looser and softer in Chuck Levitan's monumental portrait of the artist Buffie Johnson.

One also detects a subdued, unsensational dip into the surreal in Michael Kareken's moody charcoal drawing of a ceiling with a bare light bulb -- very Alfred Hitchcock -- and in Marilyn Murphy's row of observers watching the moon passing through clouds, incongruously, below them.

In general, the sculpture is of a kind that gives the term "academic" a stodgy, regressive ring. (Nick Edmonds' polychrome wood piece is an exception.) What's surprising, though, is how spirited this academy show is overall.

Whether coming from veterans like John Heliker, Philip Pearlstein, Paul Resika and Leatrice Rose (academy members all) or from a host of unaffiliated artists (Lucy Barber, Leo Garel and Marlene Baron Summers, among them), the best work on view is beautifully wrought and -- by default, really -- heedless of fashion and on a track of its own.

"The 171st Annual Exhibition" remains at The National Academy of Design, 1083 Fifth Ave., New York, through Sept. 1.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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