Style's relationship to skill is a more pressing issue in figurative painting than almost any other idiom. Developing a personal language, an intimacy of technique and subject matter, entails not merely assured touch and mastery of tools and materials, but also a counterintuitive willingness to suppress such skills. In other words, in painting — as in any art — talent is less about technique than it is about taste.
The degree to which the artist personalizes handwriting, and the balance between freshness and quotation, innovation, and anachronism are particularly pressing questions for figurative painting for two reasons. First, there is all that historic precedent, those centuries of nuance, diversity, and accomplishment. And second, the painter is competing with the most known and observed thing in viewers' lives — ourselves.
Four current shows highlight such dilemmas for figurative painters: how much fluency or stiltedness to cultivate, the temptations of bravura style and knowing banality, competing senses of freedom and constriction in relation to the mediated image. In each case, it emerges that the better painter is not always the better artist.
Duncan Hannah is a painter willing to risk dismissal with images of almost cloying feyness. His nostalgic imagery exudes such boyish charm you want to pat him on the head. He has titled his exhibition "Wanderlust," and it soon becomes apparent that his wanderings are as much temporal as geographical, for many of the images are steeped in the early- to mid-20th century, as known to this artist born in 1952 through cinema, advertisements, and illustrations in adventure stories.
Two pictures belong to the Shipwreck Boys series initiated by Mr. Hannah in 1996, his own fictitious group of intrepid children set in a pre-war milieu. "The Shipwreck Boys in Yorkshire" (2006), which depicts a village cricket match amid rolling dales, also signals an obsessive Anglophilia that permeates much of his work. Several canvases track a becoming young woman named Nova, the Hitchcock star Nova Pilbeam, a kind of Beatrice-figure Mr. Hannah stalks through his painting. She and the lithe-limbed youths in paintings such as "John and Jane" (2007), which depicts a couple in an Eton Fives (British handball) court, and "Catherine Spaak II" (2007), account for the "lust" in his title, while sundry vintage means of conveyance — an Aston-Martin boldly taking a curve, a speedboat chopping up waves, a Spitfire, an ocean liner — take care of the "wander."
Mr. Hannah's handling of line and paint is in equal degree meticulous and cramped. There is a breathtaking sense of control in his dry, measured brushstrokes, in the carefully observed way he catches light on skin, or in reflections in water. At the same time, the very slowness and care has an anachronistically tight, illustrative tone that flies in the face of entrenched ideas of painterly finesse. His bodies seem hemmed in themselves, their smiles frozen. All this gives his pictures the disconcerting initial feeling of something you might find in a Ralph Lauren store, along with the clothing of some of the protagonists.
But that, of course, is part of the conceptualism underpinning these works. For all that the artist clearly loves painting — "The Shipwreck Boys on Regent's Canal" (2007) owes as much to Corot as Enid Blyton — he also comes out of a counter-cultural scene, in this case the East Village of the 1980s, which poked suspicious fun at painting. This double consciousness accounts for the creative tension in his work between delicacy and awkwardness. He is an artist of odd tastes, but nonetheless of taste.
Some of Mr. Hannah's awkwardness derives from transcribing secondary sources in a way that retains the quirks and telltale signs of their origins. In the work of Jayne Holsinger, the relationship of painting to photography is axiomatic, and problematic.
Ms. Holsinger has made a Mennonite community her subject. She grew up in the Brethren, and her mother is of Mennonite descent, but Ms. Holsinger's paintings, after her own photographs, reflect the artist's personal background in the anabaptist group. The results are at once less dramatic and more empathetic.
Her subjects live humble lives in rural Pennsylvania. Many are elderly, reflecting no doubt the realities of a dwindling group. While there are no overt signifiers of piety, there is an equivalence in the paintings of the grace and humility that these people strive for daily.
The works are all small, no bigger than 16 inches-by-20 inches. They are slowly, painstakingly realized, and manage to convey a sense of dignity in their process. At the same time, though, they are clearly from snapshots rather than formally composed images.
The Mennonites depicted by Ms. Holsinger have a relatively relaxed attitude toward technologies and costume than, say, the Amish, among whom they live. Still, there seems to be a camerashy awkwardness to many of the reluctant poses. The white haired woman in "Martha II" (2006) looks up with coy surprise, for instance, clutching her papers amid the floral display in what is perhaps her church foyer. The slick leisureliness of paint contrasts with the sly surreptitiousness of camerawork, creating a strange tension in these works.
"Martha II" is also an instance in which Ms. Holsinger has coupled her reworking of photographs with a transcription from an old master still-life painting of flowers in the Metropolitan Museum, again using a digital shot taken herself. The impulse to work from such paintings derived in part from her knowledge that Mennonites had posed for Rembrandt and had been active in the 17th-century art trade. Historically and spiritually, this suggests a communion of souls between the origins and endurance of this community. But it also stretches further the gap between painting and presentness. Alienation makes Ms. Holsinger's meditation on time and faith the more complex.
Painterly figuration appears to be enjoying a revival in America's leading art schools. Two debut exhibitions by MFA graduates of Yale and Columbia can be seen in Chelsea: Maximilian Toth at Fredericks & Freiser and Natalie Frank at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, respectively.
Mr. Toth uses a variety of mediums, including grease pencil, charcoal, oil paint, and gold leaf on black graphite ground to dramatic effect. He favors a bold, confident, academically correct figure outline, dealing with mythological bacchanalia configured in terms of contemporary suburban youth culture. It is an alluring debut.
Ms. Frank is an accomplished, ambitious high-style realist. There are occasional hints of caricature or mannerism in her portraits, but she is essentially an unironic exponent of tradition, of almost gross painterly bravura. A seemingly dashed off though actually carefully constructed painterly modeling presents, emotionally charged figures in easily assimilated space.
Neither artist would have much truck with the diffidence, quietude or restraint of Mr. Hannah or Ms. Holsinger, let alone their way of tapping the problematics of style for meaning. That is not the kind of taste to expect from young turks firing off as much skill and energy as they can muster. Instead, just enjoy the fireworks.
Hannah until October 6 (1014 Madison Ave., between 78th and 79th streets, 212-535-5767);
Holsinger until October 6 (511 W. 25th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-675-0222);
Toth until October 6 (536 W. 24th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-633-6555);
Frank until October 13 (534 W. 26th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-744-7400).