“Subject to Reversal,” painting. In his current exhibition of pencil sketches, oil studies and large-scale oil portraits, Alex Katz uses portraiture as a vehicle for formal experimentation. Produced in a somewhat counter-intuitive order, gestural oil paintings on board precede tight pencil drawings, which refine the quick, intuitive lines of the former in a quieter and evidently more careful composition. From these studies, a final painting arises, somewhere between the tightly mapped details of the pencil drawings and the vibrant, painterly strokes of the oil studies. In these portraits Katz furthers the aloofness historically present in the subjects of his paintings by turning his models around and painting them in front of a blank dark background with their back to the viewer. Here a barrier is placed between the subject and viewer, discouraging any narrative read while promoting a psychological tension. One can easily imagine a vacant stare on the other side of the sitter’s head. Void of any action, the subjects are reduced to mere artist’s models—the focus of these sparse paintings become quick, thin brush strokes representing wispy hair or checked shirts, diluted slops of deep indigo that compose the background, or the variations of opacity in the shadows on ears or sweaters. In this respect, Katz’s portraits blur the line between formal abstraction and representational painting. (Jamie Keesling
At Richard Gray Gallery, 875 N Michigan, (312)642-8877, through August 2.