Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Drawn to the light

The January shows aren't particularly strong over at the SoWa galleries this month, but one or two exhibits do stand out. The reliable Kayafas Gallery strikingly juxtaposes two artists who would seem to have little in common beyond a certain affinity for the drawn or painted rather than the photographed. Pelle Cass ("Light Bulb and Drawing," left) produces exquisite, old-school prints of pristine environments which he's literally scribbled all over. This may sound a bit art-school silly, but his superb technique bestows on the results of these compulsive episodes the same hypnotic, faintly psychedelic charge found in the repetitive glories of Arabic traceries and script. I'd recommend, I suppose, that Cass go on Prozac, but then we wouldn't have these weirdly gorgeous testaments to his obsession.

In the front room, meanwhile, Saul Leiter holds quiet, subtle sway. If Cass is a scribe, then Leiter is a painter - so much so that an air of the picturesque can at times settle over his work. But to dismiss him as some derivative, latter-day Impressionist would be a mistake. For one thing, there's more than a hint of Rothko and Barnett Newman in Leiter's best work (left). More importantly, there's an atmosphere of intimate, yet urban, melancholy to Leiter's images that's all his own; he's a kind of poet of lonesomeness and its aesthetic compensations (who else could make a color field painting of a street of broken snow?). In Leiter's New York (which seems timeless, yet existed specifically at Tenth and Third in the mid-fifties), pedestrians are always turned inward, coming and going from nameless places but never catching each other's (or the photographer's) eye. Leiter instead catches the odd detail of their passing - the bright umbrella or gray fedora - in muted tribute to the romance of missed connections. This quiet desperation finds its garish twin in a handful of images in which Leiter painted in acid oils over some girlie photos. The show's opposition between abstracted sex and wistful romance is both obvious and a little jarring - but then, perhaps Leiter's contrasting styles offer a sad dialogue between the two faces of a familiar form of masculine isolation.

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