In Nathan Naetzker's compelling exhibition at Insite Gallery is a small horizontal oil on panel called "One by One." The painting, which gives the show its title, depicts a young couple embracing in a bedroom, about to kiss, while in the background the World Trade Center Twin Towers burn.
Although it dramatically sets private emotions against a public catastrophe, the painting is, according to Naetzker, also emblematic of the artist's tenuous situation in society. He says it expresses the artist's undeniable urge to create beauty in an ambivalent, even hostile culture.
"One By One" exposes the artist's penchant for an ambiguity achieved through such enigmatic juxtapositions. This ambiguity shows through many of the other paintings in this wide-ranging display, including an impressive large triptych titled "Vita."
In "Vita," Naetzker provocatively combines three disparate images: a close-up view of a reclining female nude torso, a distant view of an interstate highway and, in the middle-distance, soldiers moving through a dark swampy landscape. Intimacy is suggested by the close-up nude figure (albeit somewhat impersonally, since the woman's face is hidden), while the highway landscape seems an expression of the utterly mundane. Horizontal streaks over the silhouetted soldiers make this image of war seem less immediate, as though it is being filtered through a television screen, the medium that is such an unavoidable fact of modern life.
The show is split between landscapes -- views of icebergs and night scenes -- and figures in some sort of domestic setting. The landscapes deal primarily with form, while those that incorporate figures grapple with human emotions that spring from desire, isolation and the plight of existence.
The iceberg paintings call to mind the work of Rockwell Kent, an American painter once renowned for his icy northern landscapes and now nearly forgotten. "Ice Flow" is a lovingly rendered small oil on paper, the central form reflected in the sea and bathed in crimson hues that streak the sky. To see such care lavished on a remote, lifeless block of ice conveys more than a hint of irony.
Kent's influence can also be seen in the central panel of "Vita" with its archlike shape of light in the night sky. In this and other paintings, Naetzker's idea of the painter's bleak situation in society is reflected in the impression of a heroic loner confronting an inhospitable landscape and finding it beautiful.
Naetzker's night scenes are based on digital photographs, and his titles come from the camera's automatic documentation of time and date. The palette in these paintings is so reduced that they move toward the abstraction of flat, color field painting. "1 2/2 4/2 004 12:30 AM," for example, shows a snow-covered yard punctuated by scattered dark shapes and thin linear branches. The snow is a cool medium blue that manages to be both intense and subtle at the same time. The angled dark street at the painting's edge gracefully balances a thick vertical tree trunk just left of center, while in the distance more trees interrupt a horizontal roof.
Ultimately, the viewer may sense a paradox in Naetzker's work. The finely rendered surfaces and paint-handling indicate the artist's intense engagement with the painting process and the craft of his art. But the presentation of his subjects -- its preternatural calm and stillness -- suggests him to be a detached, even slightly cynical observer.
In the end, however, it is Naetzker's commitment to traditional oil technique and his deft brushwork that reveal the artist to be a true painter's painter. It is Naetzker's struggle to make the art of painting meaningful in the face of culture's obstacles that finally gives this thought-provoking exhibition its pleasure and significance.
WHAT: Nathan Naetzker's "One By One"
WHEN: Through Jan. 6
WHERE: Insite Gallery, 810 Elmwood Ave.