Referential, allusive, vernacular, discrepant: These terms and others have been used to modify "abstraction" when applied to nonfigurative painting derived from the shared visual language of our perceptible world. Such an approach is not new; little in contemporary abstraction is. Current shows by two painters in their early 30s, Rosy Keyser and Matt Connors, attest that the idea continues to thrive. Though their results differ dramatically, these artists transcend the abstractionist's allegedly solipsistic celebration of ego not by focusing on the formal dynamics of the painted surface itself but by harnessing the means of abstract painting to address the world outside their studio walls.
In her New York solo debut at Peter Blum Chelsea, Ms. Keyser shows nine large, roiling canvases with distinctly Process-art underpinnings. Her surfaces are downright geological in their tactility, and she prudently curtails her palette, allowing a range of blacks to dominate. The choreographed concretion of gesture that is "Monterey" hinges on a thin, dingy ground across which great splashes of shiny black enamel are arranged.
Raspy bundles of brushstrokes flank an awkward flare of white. "Rugburn, Whiskey Back" resembles the floor of a poorly maintained machine shop. It is a swirling morass of that glassy black, augmented by sawdust and obsidian, a by-product of volcanic activity that here resembles fine gravel, which the artist tosses in by the handful.
Sawdust reappears, carefully stenciled, in "Folk Conjugation." Reinforced by silver spray paint, it forms a scrawny latticework against background hieroglyphics that just barely suggest a shadowy forest. But a cluster of dots at the bottom left alludes to nothing in nature, and thwarts an easy landscape reading.
In fact, none of the paintings offers solid ground, especially not the deliciously ominous "New Madrid," in which a glowering, slate-blue enamel is rubbed into a blistered and blackened canvas that is misaligned with its stretchers. The sense of incipient destruction does not depend on knowledge that the painting is named after the enormous New Madrid Earthquake of 1812, reportedly felt across a million square miles.
As prone to bombast as the canvases are, the dozen smallish works on paper in the gallery's front room have a notational or diaristic quality. In addition to the relatively conventional ink, charcoal, and collaged magazine clippings, Ms. Keyser uses snippets of silk, sheets of transparent mica, tin cans, broken glass, and burn marks to suggest the fragility of the individual in the face of the force of nature. The artist has a strong command of scale, and the urgent whisper of these compact works is every bit as compelling as the big paintings' full-throated holler.
If Ms. Keyser's show is a landslide, Mr. Connors's outing at Canada is something like a cocktail party. In his meticulous installation, paintings are paired off as if in conversation; the visitor just drops in. The interpenetrating planes of black, white, and tweaked primary colors of "Third Wave Cubism (no touching)" argue for the virtues of spatial organization with its companion, an untitled, structurally clueless work on raw linen sporting determinedly arbitrary, unillusionistic daubs.
At either end of a very large, very yellow wall are two squarish paintings. Confident and preening, "Open Tuning" is worked up with concentric, hammering bands of strident hues. In this company, its untitled counterpart — muddy, greenish, and abject — looks a bit lost. The strongly graphic "This Will Break" channels the economy and visual clarity of sign painting, illustration, and diagrams while forestalling any cognitive closure. Its muscular, bottom-heavy curves in muted tones suggest a rustic vessel resting on a table. "Bwana," hanging to its right, might be a view of the same motif seen from above: a choppy weave anchoring a dark disk.
The show's well-chosen if conspicuously studious title, "Enjambment," refers to the continuation of a phrase, term, or thought from one line of verse to the next. Accordingly, each of these paintings is meant to flow into and prop up another. "Reading Room" does this literally, deploying two paintings as sculptural elements, arranged on a shallow shelf. Upon a white canvas with black rectangles marking its corners leans another, slightly smaller and deep blue. At that painting's center is an irregular grid that looks something like a picked-over box of chocolates. In its allusive imagery as well as the dynamic relationships among its constituents, Mr. Connors's exhibition equates social and pictorial space, and wittily chips away at the distinction between art and life.
Keyser until April 19 (526 W. 29th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-244-6055).
Connors until April 20 (55 Chrystie St., between Hester and Canal streets, 212-925-4631).