In his first solo show in New York, Gabriel Phipps mined the tradition of formalism—of Mondrian or even Paul Klee—with an eye to Guston’s funky paint handling and sense of humor. The surfaces of Phipps’s paintings, all oil on canvas (and at Howard Scott dating to the past five years), are lush and always considered. Through his technique and a few highlights, the artist transforms what is essentially the modernist grid into blocky structures—walls, buildings, circuitry or urban landscapes. The feeling of metaphor is open-ended, and all these associations are invited. Working, for the most part, in tonal variations of red and blue, Phipps scrapes, overpaints and glazes, and generally handles each square or rectangle of the compositions as if it were a little individual painting. The combination results in a chromatic flicker, or in earlier works, which tend to be almost monochromatic, a shimmer.

Perhaps Phipps is making a comment on the Hans Hofmann “push and pull” dictum, as some of the conjoined rectangles seem to have a hint of shadows. Cutback II (39 by 24 inches), 2009, plays an elegant balancing game, with a stack of rectangles on the left and darker blocks attached to them on the right. The medium or dark blue rectangles are played off against an elegant olive-brown ground, and there’s one smallish coral-oxide rectangle. Coloration here is precisely tuned, and the eye keeps moving all the while around this rather wacky bit of architecture. The work is ludic and austere at the same time.

In two of the newer paintings (both 70 by 94 inches, 2009), an architectonic structure is in the midst of lyric dissolution. Gun Slinger places the tile-like rectangles, painted tones of light blue or gray-black, at odd angles to each other on a brilliant medium blue ground. The feeling is one of slow-motion disintegration, but with a graceful swagger. In Nuclear Family, the teetering rectangles have become trapezoidal, implying a spatial aspect, and are painted an intense red to almost-black. These totemic and precarious stacks of trapezoids are on an even more intense blue ground. The color vibration (red and blue) makes the entire composition rattle, adding to the tenuous feeling of the whole. Some careful looking reveals a dynamic and generous vitality knowingly built into these paintings.

Photo: Gabriel Phipps: Cutback II, 2009, oil on canvas, 39 by 24 inches, at Howard Scott.