David Ray is one of the relatively few painters to have survived the gallery world's almost total indifference during the 1960s and 1970s toward any representational art that was neither photographically precise nor frigidly detached. And he is one of the even smaller number to have survived the art world's general taboo against allegorical painting of any sort.
He survived by digging in and by doing whatever he had to do to allow his values and ideals free and full expression. And by pulling back from any sort of competitive situation that might have caused him to reconsider those values and ideals.
He also had a great deal to learn, a fact compounded by his being essentially self-taught, and by the fact that his kind of art requires study and growth on many levels, not merely on the technical and formal.
That, apparently, is all behind him now, judging from his current exhibition at the Atlantic Gallery here.
This show consists of several large and small paintings and a few drawings - all of which were executed within the past six years. They range in mood from the stark and brooding ''Gethsemane'' to a delightfully warm study of his younger daughter drawing. And in complexity from the simple and wonderfully direct portrait of the family cat, to the allegorical and deeply mysterious ''Morning.'' The style throughout is precise and linear, with a technique that at times resembles egg tempera, and at others fresco.
Ray's heroes are the greats of the Italian Renaissance, most particularly Mantegna, Piero Della Francesca, Leonardo, Michelangelo - with Durer and Rembrandt thrown in for good measure. Although by no means a modernist, Ray went through an apprenticeship period during which he was as ''abstract'' as anyone could be. He is deeply responsive to the realities of our time and uses the great art of the past merely as a means toward dignifying and monumentalizing ideas and themes to which he would otherwise have difficulty giving form.
He prefers to work within the reverberations and frames of reference of a grand tradition rather than to break new ground for purely theoretic or formal reasons - but he has little patience with painters who use the art of the past merely for showmanship -- or to facilitate an easier acceptance of their work by the general public.
Ray can best be characterized as a brooding classicist, as a painter who focuses his attention on the barely submerged moods, feelings, thoughts, and intuitions that come to the fore during periods of rest, contemplation, or sleep. And who gives these qualities form and expression in images that, at their best, have something of the serenity and inner grace of Eastern stone and bronze Buddhas.
His creative stance is a bit removed and off to one side. He feels deeply, but prefers to distill his feelings into classically ''pure'' forms and rhythms rather than to vent them directly onto canvas. As a result, his images project a mood of gentle self-containment and inner stability and touch more upon the enigmatic and the mysterious than upon the obvious and the direct.
David Ray is one of the few younger American painters at work today who feels totally at home tackling subtle and complex philosophical and metaphysical themes directly through his imagery rather than obliquely through irony or wit. He has the same commitment to mood and solemnity that characterizes the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich and the figure compositions of Balthus. And his involvement with symbol and pictorial metaphor is as ingrained and as indigenous to him as it was with any Pre-Raphaelite or Surrealist.
A painting such as ''Evening,'' in which his wife, two daughters, and the family cat are portrayed asleep or at the edge of sleep, is both broodingly human -- and as carefully and precisely constructed as any successful abstraction. And in ''Ritual,'' the combination of the young girl and dog creates an image that is delightfully human -- and oddly subterranean and provocative.
At his best, as in ''Gethsemane,'' his self-portrait, and his large study of his wife on a sofa (''Mystic Company''), Ray approaches the dignity, luminosity, and sense of inevitability of major art. That he doesn't as yet quite succeed to that exalted creative plateau is largely a matter of technical inconsistency and , I suspect, the result of his desire to create monumental images out of simple, everyday objects and events. With such an objective, the urge to stylize his forms a bit too soon must be overpowering.
All that, however, can easily be worked out. What matters is that what he has already produced is exciting and outstanding, and that it definitely establishes him as someone deserving our fullest attention.
This excellent exhibition will remain on view at the Atlantic Gallery in SoHo through March 28.