Canyons and Cowboys

This show is a visual diary of sorts. Its pencil is the camera; its basic mark is the photograph. Sketches, pastels and paintings enter the mix as well, in sundry images pinned to or hung on the walls, singly and in groups of up to 50. Using traditional forms of portrait and still life, Sullivan depicts scenes from his life with both extreme physical precision and emotional opacity.

His work transcends his time and place, as well as the art world's passing fascination with New York's beautiful crowd. Nostalgia is built into his portraits: There are East Hampton beach scenes from the early '70s and more recent garden parties set at the height of summer. The downtown Manhattan milieu includes art cognoscenti, designers, models and anonymous celebrities all partaking of mid-'80s excess. The photographs -- part travelogue, part fashion spread -- have the immediacy and casualness of snapshots. The brush-and-ink drawings funnel pornographic grist through the mill of a loose but assured line.

Sullivan's art is generous and inviting. Never cynical, it makes insiders of outsiders. One wall blends photographs of curator Klaus Kertess, artist Stephen Mueller, model Naomi Sims and critic Gary Indiana with drawings of fashion designer Kenzo, art dealer Holly Simon, critic Peter Schjeldahl and artist Chuck Close. The lush, light-drenched photos can be unaccountably moving -- sometimes embarrassingly so -- "golden days" of our own remembering.

Among Sullivan's honest, brilliant chronicles of '80s New York nightlife are a few recent photographs, mostly of flowers, but also paintings of Sullivan's two sons; these works are remarkable for their high-keyed, sensuous color.

The '70s -- and Houston -- also put in an appearance: early '70s photos of Texas Gallery's Fredericka Hunter and Ian Glennie vacationing at Wainscott, images of Helen Winkler and Danny Clayton. Little histories of people and stuff abound: freely sketched French bulldogs caught in mid-scamper, a pastel of huge yellow sunflowers set on a hot pink platter and blue tablecloth.

Strewn from one end to the other are portraits of "Ed." Some 20 sketches have "Cowboy Ed" stripping down and beating off. Dressed in military fatigues, "Army Ed" holds a cigarette between his lips as he unbuttons his shirt and loosens his pants. Sullivan also portrays Ed, flushed in desire, as a dreamy hunk in sailor hat and dog tags, his head propped up by a leopard-print pillow. All of the images are cheesy in a cliched Village People sort of way.

But the specifics of such hedonism matter less than the buoyant spirit in which they are offered. Unlike his photos, Sullivan's drawings are pared down until they reach an almost declarative simplicity. He creates a twisting calligraphy of brushed ink. Quivering lines are set down at collision speed. His subjects smolder from the intensity. As with all of Sullivan's portraits, we are allowed to get close and stare as long as we like.

If there's a discernible shift in the works, it is more one of mood than anything else: The pleasure he takes in the vitality of his subjects seems to have both deepened and become more forthright. A life-size pastel of Ed, nude and gorgeous, has the model sitting in a red Eames chair on a purple and blue hardwood floor. Another canvas positions him in the same red Eames chair, with his legs drawn up, his penis exposed toward the viewer.

All of Sullivan's work seems witty and casual, yet much of it belies a complex classical composition. Completing the show are several flower pastels filled with jarringly sensuous slashes of color. Everything is pushed right at the viewer -- all foreground, all marvelously evocative in their freshness. In Elephant Ears, flowers and greenery mingle in a welter of deft, effusive marks that suggest the painterly realism of Nell Blaine and, through her, the wild intimacy and hot color of the French Fauves. Similarly, the pliant beauty and crackling strokes of Buddha hearken to Joan Mitchell's wiry gestures.

In many respects, Sullivan's art can be tied to the moody, achingly romantic and narcissistic narratives of Jack Pierson and Karen Kilimnik, whose works feign a cool distance at first, only to welcome the viewer with their sympathetic, if glamourous, allure. Sullivan, however, maintains a certain dogged optimism, even a kind of loopy good cheer. There's no heavyweight message beyond the simple pleasure of looking at the works. Throughout his career, Sullivan has remained untouched by trendiness. And these days, that's a rare vision.

"Charles Mary Kubricht" is on view through May 30 at at Moody Gallery, 2815 Colquitt, (713)526-5966.

"Billy Sullivan -- Life and Still Life" is on view through June 5 at Texas Gallery, 2012 Peden, (713)524-1593.

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