The Nicholas Robinson Gallery has two interesting shows currently occupying its two-level space this month, each representing figurative art in powerfully different moods. On the first floor, contemporary Chinese artist Wei Dong's large, fantastical portraits of "fish women" -- part cool Asian beauties, part repellent amphibians -- are hung expansively, each large canvas alone on a wall. The Chinese-born artist now lives in New Jersey, and his art has elements of both East and West.
His women's faces, with tilted eyes and flat cheeks, are delicately Chinese, while their naked torsos and languid poses suggest the sensuality of Western art. Below the waist, however, Wei Dong's visions are all his own. His creatures have mermaid tails -- but not the swishing kind of mythical mermaids. These tails are more like walruses' than fish, and in them lie exposed - in finely painted detail -- entrails and rotting flesh. They're mortal, these creatures, and they're decomposing to prove it.
The coolness of Wei Dong's compositions contrasts dramatically with the hodgepodge of contemporary portraits waiting downstairs. The works in Giving Face: Portraits for a New Generation are by artists as disparate as Damien Hirst, Nick Cave, and Randy Polumbo, each one a bravado artist with bravado, mixed media pieces in this show. No wonder the attention-seeking gets so loud.
Some of the portraits are of famous people (Obama, Lincoln, Washington), but they're not like portraits you've seen before. In these works, gone are the intricate character studies one expects from portraits. Here, instead, are dissonant images that rely more on their symbolism than their innate truths: They call on the viewer to make the cultural connections that give these works their meaning. "Washington (7 Up)," by Skylar Fein, contains a pop icon silhouette of George Washington, overwritten by part of the 7Up logo. Liz Marcus's portrait of Nancy Reagan is a thin veil of drippy paint spread on canvas -- more impression than likeness, conveying no character or depth -- much, some would say, like the lady herself. What a contrast its pallor makes to Charles Browning's chilling portrait of two grinning, grimacing Native American braves, fiercely entitled "Fuck You, You Fucking Fucks."
Most of the works in the show are executed in contemporary media, from embroidery (Cayce Zavaglia's impressively nuanced portrait of "Elly") and photo-realism to painted wool, pop art, and mixed media. Andy Diaz's "Dealer," a 3-D piece made of glass vials , duratrans photographs, and light, shows the Pusher Man looking out from behind a prison of crack vials. Some of the pieces are memorable. The rest are more craft than art. - Sue Woodman
Nicholas Robinson Gallery 535 West 20th Street New York NY 10011
Both shows run through April 11, 2009. Gallery hours are Tuesday - Saturday 10 AM to 6 PM.
Ms. Woodman is an ex-Brit and veteran journalist with a keen eye for detail.