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Trading Passions

A painter sculpts and a sculptor paints -- and one fares better than the other

For "David Fulton: New Work" and "John Hathorn: Correspondences," both on view at New Gallery, a sculptor has made paintings and a painter has made sculpture. Conceptually oriented sculptor David Fulton has been making paintings for the past several years; he's showing his new crop along with a series of 3-D wall works. Meanwhile, John Hathorn is showing paintings as well as a sculpture about painting -- his own, in particular. Let's just say Fulton's work fares significantly better than Hathorn's.

Hathorn is having a torrid love affair with oil paint, scribbling and washing fluid veils of color onto the canvas and slathering it on with a palette knife in thick, fleshy strokes for his expressive abstract works. He appears enraptured by the dense, sensual viscosity of the medium. If minimalist painting is paint about paint, then Hathorn's paintings are paint about painting.

But sometimes love isn't enough. Hathorn makes serviceable works that waver between mediocre and somewhat interesting. The premise of "Correspondences" is the artist's supposed dialogue with painters and writers from the past. The conceit and the work it inspires are mildly successful in a small, medium and large series of paintings called "Tempest." We assume Hathorn is responding to the Delacroix work Christ Asleep During the Tempest. The gestural strokes are a riff on Delacroix's romantic, expressive work. The paintings are brushed with a thin black wash that has a kind of antiquing effect, right in line with Hathorn's historical infatuation. The work is even a little ironic, which is refreshing, intended or not. But in other works, such as Letter to Rubens (2004), any whiff of irony has been overpowered by the cheap cologne of Hathorn's posturing.

It's certainly possible to make irony-free paintings in the 21st century, but when you get a taste of Hathorn's pretentiousness, you realize irony is the only thing that could make it palatable. Letter to Rubens features facile swirls and smears of paint on most of the canvas, the colors no doubt referencing Rubens's own. A broad strip of canvas on the left is covered with daubs of paint, apparently from Hathorn's cleaning his brush. FYI: Not every mark a painter makes is automatically imbued with greatness. You can respect an artist's infatuation with materials and understand how it's possible to romanticize the process of painting. But to romanticize yourself as a painter is upchuck-provoking. This is what is going on in Hathorn's irony-bereft sculpture Raft (2004) -- and why it's so hard to stomach.

Raft looks like the kind of display you'd find in the studio-turned-museum of some long-dead, incredibly famous artist. But the work is about Hathorn and Hathorn's looking at long-dead incredibly famous artists. He starts with a square platform fabricated from aged wood that hangs from the ceiling by a rope. It hovers over the ground and can swing slightly, which is pretty much the only cool thing about it. Hathorn has stocked his raft with cliché upon cliché, old paint-encrusted palettes, quaint little vintage bottles containing powdered pigment and sealed with glass stoppers (Hathorn mixes his own paint), a mortar and pestle, an antique oilcan, a vintage typewriter, an aged metal funnel and various Ye Olde Woode objects. The only successful object seems to be a slender stand topped with a small rectangular board laden with a good two inches of thick, gloppy, muddy oil paint. That alone would be a sufficient statement.

The real gag-reflex trigger is Hathorn's array of oh-so-neatly penned journals, opened to choice entries with their pages held in place by those archival plastic bands museums use to display antique tomes. (The oldest here is from 1990.) Their entries contain notes on his work and musings on art from a visit to Padua to see Giotto and a visit to Paris to the Cluny Museum. Art postcards and other notes from Hathorn are self-consciously arranged, while sheets of paper bear a carefully transcribed and attributed quote from Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. Here Hathorn is generously offering us a stage-managed glimpse of his thought process.

In his artist statement/catalog o' influences, Hathorn throws in writers like Rainer Maria Rilke and Octavio Paz with painters Chaim Soutine, Giorgio Morandi, Rembrandt and Velázquez. He talks about what he feels is his correspondence with these artists and writers. That's all well and good, but what Hathorn is really trying to do is buttress his work with the work of others. He needs to stop spending so much time thinking about what influences him and just try to make better paintings.

David Fulton's approach to paint and painting is focused more conceptually than romantically. Fulton snakes loose, fluid lines of watery acrylic over black and gray grounds. They build up and overlap, creating dense networks. The paint is whitest and densest at the edges of Fulton's forms. The resulting works look like electron micrographs of intricate cellular structures.

Fulton's work isn't about making self-expressive marks; the lines of his paintings are based on tracings of coastlines. In his "Lake" series, Fulton overlays his lines, contributing to their unique organic meanderings. It's an interesting strategy, and not dissimilar from his previous sculptural work, which had its own map-centric conceptual conceits.

With its delicate layering, painting like this is a one-shot deal. You can't go back -- you'd just have to start over -- and consequently, some of the works come off better than others. In Lakes (Gray) 1 (2004), the chalky lines over a dull gray ground create a calm intricacy. In the diptych of Lakes (Large/White) 1 and 2 (2004), the second works better; something about the way the lines come together in the first seems a little awkward. Meanwhile, White Border 2 (2004) has lost its way and become too opaquely layered to be interesting.

Fulton has some satisfying and provocative things going on in his paintings, but their modest scale is a problem -- the works feel constrained. No, bigger doesn't necessarily equal better, but expanding these paintings to fill the viewer's field of vision could make them much more powerful. There's a sense that the lines could continue on forever, but the sofa-sizing of the canvases brings them up short. While Hathorn's sense of grandeur is overdeveloped, Fulton's needs to be expanded.

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