Dazzling drops of water

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One wouldn't think an exhibition consisting entirely of paintings of drops of water would be worth writing about, but Tschang Yeul Kim's show of such paintings at the Staempfli Gallery here most definitely is.

For one thing, these works are totally convincing as illusion, and were as painstakingly and as realistically executed as any traditional trompe l'oeilm painting.

For another, they are impressively large and in most instances consist of hundreds -- even thousands -- of precisely delineated drops of water arranged on unprimed brownish canvas. (A few smaller paintings, consisting of one to a dozen or so drops of water are also included.)

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And last, but certainly not least, these paintings are conceived and brought to life with such extraordinary sensitivity and formal tact that we know immediately they were not intended merely to fool our eye or to cause us to marvel at the technical virtuosity required to paint them.

In an intriguing sort of way, these paintings represent a bridge between the apparently irreconcilable contemporary pictorial modes of representational and nonrepresentational art. On one hand, these drops of water are as realistically painted as any object in a Vermeer painting. On the other, they don't exist in a "real" world but rather in a formal universe. This universe shares the obsessive overall patterning of that aspect of post-World II modernism which took its cud from Pollock, Johns, Poons, and Warhol. Repetition and serial imagery are utilized to raise basic issues of perceptual experience, and to stimulate questions about the nature of painting itself.

Not that these works go that far. They do not break new ground so much as acknowledged the contemporary artistic milieu and its most persistent issues and realities. While Kim is above all an artist, he knows he lives in 1981 and acts accordingly by bringing his personal vision of art in line with the larger artistic realities of this period.

It is his good fortune that he is artist enough to make it work without loss of either personal integrity or cultural significance. He remains totally himself while performing the high-wire juggling act of being "modern," something quite rare and well worth watching. Serge Hollerbach

Serge Hollerbach, showing at the David Findlay Galleries here, is another sort of artist entirely. Warm, compassionate, and apparently totally representational, we feel we know what he is about the minute we first set eyes on his work.

But beware! These paintings of clusters of ordinary people going about their everyday business are as much about forms, lines, and colors, as much about passages of paint conceived as abstract shapes as they are about human heads, bodies, or gestures.

Hollerbach draws as much from the formal dynamics of 20th-century modernism as from the world around him. As a result, his works exist as pictorial dialogues between the complex gestural, tactile, and coloristic realities of nonobjective art and the rich textures and detailes of human experience and activity.

The main difference between these works and those by young (and earlier) Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning is that, while theirs were rapidly evolving toward abstract expressionism, these emerge out of that movement. While Gorky and de Kooning were trying in the late 1930s to reduce the physically comples and particular into the formally simple and generic, hollerbach turns shapes, patterns, and swirling brushstrokes into the representations of particular objects and movements.

In "West Side IRT," for instance, the drama of the painting lies as much in the sweeping movement of the light-colored chest and leg of the second person on the left (and its relationship to the angle of the arm of the man on his left), as it does in the character and the physical characteristics of the four subway riders.

Being an artist, Hollerbach puts the art of painting before illustrative description. As such, his works look almost as interesting upside-down as right-side up. But to experience them most fully, we must be able to share with him the painterly excitement of seeing paint and brushstroke transformed into the representation of actual objects: the swirl of grayish brown paint into the back of a man' head, the downward sweep of a calligraphic line into a dog's hind leg, and a prancing dash of ochre paint into a human face.

This is a higly energetic and physical art -- as well as a very human one. I recommend this exhibition most especially to those who want to know what the act of painting is all about. Others

Of special interest are Mark William's colorful abstractions at the Ericson Gallery (his large "Traction" is a superb piece of painting and is itself worth a trip to this gallery), Jack Roth's paintings at M. Knoedler & Co., and William T. William's abstract evocations of natural patterns and textures at the Touchstone Gallery.

All but the Roth exhibition will remain on view through Jan 31. The Roth comes down on Jan. 22.

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