Peculiar People on the L.E.S. 

In PS1 and the Whitney's recent art star-vetting surveys, the opposition between slick, conceptual minimalism and a gooey, messy, hand-crafted figurative aesthetic has tended to favor the latter. Two exhibitions of work by artists in this category—none of whom, oddly, were featured in those two shows—have opened on the Lower East Side, further evidence that gloomy, scrappy expressionistic representation has become the aesthetic du jour.

This, in fact, is almost exactly the theme of Homunculi, an exhibition of L.A.- and New York-based artists at Canada (through July 11) curated by Trinie Dalton, whose title, broadly, refers to any representation of a human being, especially scaled-down models. Appropriately, Allison Schulnik's garden gnome-like ceramic figure in dark glaze, its arm raised in cheerful salute, greets visitors at the entrance. The childlike proportions and kitschy expression, like a Disney-fied fairy tale, throw the figure's oily tones and creepy, hollow eyes into sharper relief. Schulnik's other contributions, wondrously sculptural oil paintings, dominate the show, especially a suite of ghostly pastel-hued ensembles that look like James Ensor and George Condo collaborated on a cast of clown skeletons (pictured above). A drama of masks plays out in these group portraits, where colorful faces built up in clay-like globs and thick brushstrokes literally jut out of the off-white ether to exchange loaded glances or stare ominously out at the viewer. Nearby, comparatively sparse textile wall hangings by Matthew Ronay also evoke fantastic facial expressions, the melancholic nocturne "Double Cloak of Stars" (2010) being especially intriguing in its mix of ritualistic, childlike and theatrical imagery.

Ronay's white-on-black fabric collages set former street artist Ruby Neri's nearby cubist forms in fauvist hues even further ablaze. Her "Valentine" (2009), a rough painted plaster sculpture of a male and female nude lying on their backs, looking into each others' eyes, their bodies a geometric quilting of burning orange and pink, offers an overtly embodied counterpoint to Schulnik's evaporating ghosts. Matt Greene rounds out the show, finally throwing together his two preferred styles—faded, drippy, neon-tinged, found photo-inspired painting and finely detailed ink drawings. The layered patchwork of materials looks abstract from a distance, but up close innumerable crowds and clusters of tiny bodies populate each crack and gap. His mixed-media pieces and Schulnik's paintings stand out, overwhelming Neri's bold but familiar tones and Ronay's sparsely eerie fabric forms.

Maya Bloch at Tierry Goldberg Projects

The latter might have hung better at Maya Bloch's Waiting Room, a great little show of new paintings three blocks away at Thierry Goldberg Projects (through July 18). Francis Bacon is an obvious influence on the Tel Aviv-based artist, but her disfigured (detail above), de-contextualized portraits based on found photos are more melancholy than overtly violent. Unlike Schulnik's macabre parade, which coalesces out of accumulated oil paints, Bloch's acrylic figures are perpetually liquifying. Colors swirl together creating unexpected new tones; paints seep across borders, blurring lines between figure and field, interior and exterior. Sad, pleading faces are the sharpest details in the seven new canvases, expressing a mix of terror, anger and fearful anticipation as the loose bodies around them seem poised to melt away. Like the barely-there bodies in Homunculi, Bloch's portraits dissolve into their surroundings, pushing the messy neo-figurative trend to its fuzzy edges.

(images courtesy Canada, Thierry Goldberg Projects and the artists)

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