Art forms in the east village

Thirty years spent in New York has taught me two things: Central Park blooms again every spring, and a fresh crop of young artists from all over the United States sets out to conquer the art world here every fall. I'm grateful for both. Without Central Park's greenery and these artists' talent, enthusiasm, and imagination, New York would be a much less pleasant place to live, and its gallery world would very shortly shrivel up and die.

Unfortunately, very few of these artists succeed in any sense of the word, and most return to their home communities by the end of the first or second year. The rest, however, dig in, adapt, and do whatever is necessary to survive and to produce art. They learn to confront the real issues of creativity, to see art in its most basic and far-reaching terms, and to bring together what they feel, see, imagine, and think about into images that gradually deserve to be called art.

Even then, there's the problem of recognition in a city that even with roughly 500 galleries cannot possibly exhibit the work of more than a fraction of those who are ready. New areas open up, however, to fulfill the demand for new galleries, and before anyone knows what has happened, a new art community and gallery complex has sprung up.

The latest and most ``in'' of these is the East Village. It achieved its current status in not much more than a year, serving not only as the home base for many of the younger artists described above, but as a place where a number of them receive their first professional exposure.

An art critic ignores the East Village at his peril, a fact underscored by a two-part, four-gallery exhibition now taking place there and a few blocks to the west of it. Three East Village galleries, Sixth Sense, Dramatis Personae, and E. M. Donahue Ltd., are jointly showing ``Illuminations,'' while New York University's Grey Art Gallery is exhibiting ``Precious.'' Combined, these shows represent the work of roughly 100 artists, ranging from the modestly talented to the brilliant, the completely unknown to the well established.

What they all have in common, however, is a free-spirited approach to the creation of art that rejects the tyranny of formalist dogma, the sanctity of tradition, the belief that certain materials are not good enough for art, and any predetermined limitations as to what art is or can do.

``Illuminations'' was curated by Joel Handorff and Susan Berko. Their selection of 100 works by 51 artists was made from about 300 sets of slides -- a clear indication of the community's interest in this project. Its objectives were articulated by Alisa Kline, who also provided the text for its catalog:

`` `Illuminations' seeks work that is genuinely motivated by a search for meaning -- art that starts with the impulse, the content, and finds a style that will contain it. . . . We have gotten so good at knowing the world and how it works, that we have lost sight of what it means. We live in a dark age, and we celebrate it as enlightenment. `Illuminations' hopes to cast just enough genuine light to make apparent how dense is the surrounding darkness.''

Reasonable words and a worthwhile objective? Perhaps, but not in the eyes of most formalists, traditional modernists, and those who believe we have just entered a Golden Age. For them, these words represent a frontal assault on much of what they hold dear, most particularly the dogma of formal purity, and the belief that the 20th century is the beginning of an age of enlightenment.

The question, of course, is how all this translates into the exhibition itself, and to what extent the works on view fulfill or illuminate Ms. Kline's written objectives and cultural interpretations.

My first impression was of great diversity. Since the shared perceptions and beliefs that animate this show discourage stylistic conformity, there are almost as many styles represented in it as there are painters, sculptors, and photographers. In addition, the level of creative commitment on the part of its artists is remarkably high. Although some of the works on view are of less substance than others, and a very small number must be described as trivial, I found none of the intentional frivolity and self-serving attitudinizing that have marred several other recent group exhibitions of younger and emerging artists.

I was particularly impressed by the seriousness of what I saw, even when the subjects were delightfully eccentric or extravagantly lighthearted, and the styles in which they were fashioned seemed more in keeping with the manufacture of toys than with the creation of works of art. Expressionism, iconoclasm, satire, narrative painting, decoration, modified surrealism, visual puns, were all there -- as well as many other modes of expression. But in almost every case, the styles chosen by the artists were put to good personal and expressive use, and the work that resulted did, at least in a general sense, reflect the show's overall intentions.

``Precious,'' curated by the Grey Art Gallery's new director, Thomas Sokolowski, consists of 100 works that comment on the meaning of the word ``precious'' as used in the mid-1980s. Although its theme is more specific than that of ``Illuminations,'' it also addresses itself to the search for meaning that underlies the other show. In fact, both overlap to a degree, with some of the artists included in one also appearing in the other.

Not only does ``Precious'' consist of intriguing and highly unusual pieces in styles and techniques that would have driven the art establishment into a rage only a decade ago, it is also assembled as shrewdly and sensitively as any of the individual works on view. I found it thoroughly enchanting -- if occasionally somewhat startling -- and recommend it as an excellent introduction to some of today's newer and more delightfully idiosyncratic trends in art.

``Precious'' will remain open to the public at the Grey Art Gallery, 33 Washington Place, through May 4.

``Illuminations'' can be seen at Dramatis Personae Gallery, 25 East Fourth Street, though April 19 and at E. M. Donahue Ltd., 28 East 10th Street, sixth floor, through April 14. Sixth Sense Gallery's portion of the show, unfortunately, closed yesterday.

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