January 25, 1999

Jed Perl on Art


In the past few months I have seen so many winning shows by contemporary artists that I find it difficult to know where to begin. Ford Crull's casually incisive abstractions, with their scattering of enigmatic heraldic devices, were a quietly alluring presence at the M-15 Gallery in November. I was struck by an undercurrent of restraint that Lisa Ingram brought to the fantastically heaped and wreathed plant-forms in her romantically decorative canvases at 55 Mercer in October. In a series of panoramic views of New York City, shown at Salander-O'Reilly Galleries in September, John Dubrow used the very density of his impastoed oil paint to evoke Manhattan's ethereal, gray-blue radiance. And Mari Lyons, looking down at the sidewalks of the Upper West Side in paintings down at the First Street Gallery in October, discovered a delicious cacophony of wittily mismatched figures and facades.

The massed force of Dubrow's Manhattan vistas brings to mind Alfred Stieglitz's photographs, and perhaps certain paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe and Joseph Stella. Dubrow gives us a distanced, Olympian view of New York; he suggests that the city's grandeur is related to its impersonality. That is only one aspect of New York, of course. The street life of this greatest of American cities also has its elbow-rubbing exuberance, and this is the theme of Lyon's new paintings, which give us the marvelously fractured, collage-like excitement of the Upper West Side. Looking out from the windows of a studio on Broadway between 79th and 80th Streets, Lyons has painted some of the most acute and witty impressions of these mean streets that I have ever seen. Her color, strong and even acidic, suggests the vision of a dazzlingly wise child. Lyons conveys the playful, boisterous urgency of the city, its zany magnificence. Her gently comic thumbnail renderings of the men and women who rush along the sidewalks remind me of Leon Kossoff's equally generous-hearted vision of contemporary London. Yet there is a jolly, rambunctious spirit to Lyons's new work that is hers alone. She finds beauty in the mismatched façades and the careening taxicabs.

Lyons takes a long look at the scrappy trees on the median dividing Broadway's uptown and downtown traffic, and her view of these sadly undernourished specimens is as loving as Pissarro's view of the trees along the boulevards of Paris. She watches all the changes that take place over the course of a year, as the trees go from cottony green to bare branches and back, and the result is an unexpected urban twist on that grand old theme of the four seasons. These trees seem to take on a human presence. They endure, they regenerate. They are a part of the beautiful, unholy mix of the chaotic city.