Andrew Masullo, "6091" (2014), oil on canvas, 22 x 28 in (all Masullo images courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, NY)

Andrew Masullo, “6091” (2014), oil on canvas, 22 x 28 in (all Masullo images courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, NY)

I don’t know about you, but I experience adulthood as an unremitting crisis of faith, and I look to art for examples of how to better think about what I’m doing. How can I acknowledge and learn from the past without feeling suffocated or even preempted by it? How can I defend the things that give me meaning from a society determined to strip that meaning away and sell it back to me?

In his first solo show at Tibor de Nagy, Andrew Masullo offers one possibility, a meditative focus on constraint. The show begins with “6025” (2014–15), a roll-topped black-on-white panel pierced with nine brightly colored rectangles that establishes his terms: serially numbered, oil-on-linen canvases in handheld sizes; discreetly ambiguous figurative allusions (to me, for example, “6025” looks like a Torah breastplate, though someone else might see enormous brass church doors); and universalist abstractions approached with haimisher humility. The Euclidean grid of rectangles in “6025,” laid out by eye, paints itself into a very human corner, squeezing from a brick of glittery graffiti silver on the bottom left to a thin wedge of washed-out Pepto Bismol pink on the top right. Masullo’s palette, an ecumenical union of primaries touching on white, blue, green, and CMYK, knocks everything down half a tone from severity to comfort.

Installation view, ‘Andrew Masullo: Recent Paintings’ at Tibor de Nagy (photo by Alan Weiner) (click to enlarge)

The great comfort of arbitrary rules is that they’re useless to doubt, and Masullo’s painting “6052” (2014–15) even looks like a board game. A reversed and multicolored ornamental Hebrew letter bet stands against a white background, looking like the path of a fully self-contained mystical journey; a dot of pie-wedge colors in its center resembles the spinner in Twister. Of course, this board doesn’t seem to take you anywhere: start at any one of its three black ends, pass securely through a random progress of red, yellow, and blue, and you will inevitably arrive at black again.

Andrew Masulo, “6052” (2014–15), oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in

But the escape comes over time, as given rules resolve into transcendent principles. In “5811” (2013), an infinite world of colors seems to spring from the corners of an abstracted black aleph set against an uneven white cross. Slowly the color becomes an optical after-effect, a kind of insubstantial dazzle around the black. Then the shapes lose their superficial variation, so that each segment seems to record the same inexhaustible dichotomy of mark making — figure and ground, push and pull, give and receive.

Andrew Masullo, “5809” (2013), oil on canvas, 24 x 30 in (photo by Alan Wiener) (click to enlarge)

With enough practice, even those principles will resolve — as in “5809” (2013), a cloud of patchwork colors that distinguishes neither figure nor ground — into a kind of ecstatic nondualism, a feeling of undivided and self-evident certainty that depends on nothing else. For the viewer as much as for the artist, sustained looking can be a drill, a way of turning your back on social problems in order to tunnel through to the reality that underlies them.

A few miles south, in his solo debut at Ana Cristea Gallery, Alex Crocker proposes an older sort of magic, one powered by the more steeply asymmetrical dichotomies of terror and resignation or history and chaos.

Alex Crocker, “Six” (2015), pigment, rabbit skin glue and oil on canvas, 5.9 x 7.8 in (all Crocker images courtesy Ana Cristea Gallery)

In “Six” (2015), Crocker reduces the universe to six by eight inches of sooty black, with an ovoid network of cracks forming the galaxy or world-tree. Some red fire shines through faintly from a previous creation. A long upward drop of white continues in a languorously sinuous stroke across the top to a slight bulge just under the upper right corner. It’s either the Egyptian goddess Nuit, stretched out and reversed against eternal night, or Osiris’s slowly falling severed penis. Either way, there’s precious little room for human agency.

But this kind of fatalism can be liberating. It means that Crocker can borrow from the past without feeling beholden to it, and that he can cobble together the surviving techniques of painting pragmatically — like a shaman to Masullo’s monk — without subscribing to an overall argument.

Installation view, ‘Alex Crocker: Wyrd’ at Ana Cristea Gallery, with “Double GodHead Style” (2015), pigment, rabbit skin glue, beetroot, oil stick and oil on canvas, 65 x 63 in, at left and “Skye Saxon and The Seeds” (2015), pigment, rabbit skin glue on canvas, 118 x 157 in, at right (click to enlarge)

Alex Crocker, “The Bees made Honey in the Lion’s Skull” (2015), pigment, rabbit skin glue, oil, gouache on jute, 57.4 x 48 in (click to enlarge)

In the enormous, unstretched “Skye Saxon and The Seeds” (2015), Crocker lays down dashes and curlicues with punk élan, as if each were a ritual recap or some singular ur-stroke, until they form an enormous black and blue bird goddess in a bowl cut. She contains a peapod-shaped fetus but has no legs. In “The Bees made Honey in the Lion’s Skull” (2015), a black divining glass is set in an over-large, blood-red outline. And in “Double GodHead Style” (2015), a kind of classical syncretism of Picasso shapes with de Kooning deconstruction, we see one spiraling eye and one diamond, along with a grimacing mouth both from the front and the side. Each work moves in an entirely different direction, but they all end up with a distinctly consistent style.

Maybe the answer is to take each problem as it comes and let the whole take care of itself.

Alex Crocker: Wyrd continues at Ana Cristea Gallery (521 W 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 14. Andrew Masullo: Recent Paintings continues at Tibor de Nagy (724 Fifth Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through December 5.

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Will Heinrich

Will Heinrich was born in New York and spent his early childhood in Japan. His novel The King's Evil was published in 2003 and won a PEN/Bingham Fellowship in 2004. Currently he writes about art...