It’s not surprising that Scott Reeder lives in Wisconsin, birthplace of The Onion. Like the satirical newspaper, Reeder manages to get a lot of mileage out of the sometimes sad confluence of sensationalism and everyday life. The subjects of his small paintings, all from 2009, could be pictorial versions of Onion headlines, combining humor and pathos: a single white, childlike daisy gazing at its reflection in a cracked window that overlooks the glow of a fiery cataclysm; a flower looping from a slim vase to dunk its bloom into an Indian-yellow goblet of booze (Drunk Flower); an erect pink phallus standing onstage in front of a microphone (Comedian).

Reeder’s jokey, often anthropomorphic subjects are rendered in a style that at once pays homage to and satirizes modernism. Avery and Bonnard are the presiding spirits, though for Suicidal Shape (Study in Red), Reeder made a few artistic decisions, with offhand-looking results, that bring to mind Color Field painting, Matisse, Guston and Newman. Wiping the paint at the center of the red canvas (stained, à la Louis or Noland) into a pink rectangle shape, Reeder added a dark stool below, transforming the rectangle into a canvas resting on the stool—an arrangement that could have been borrowed from Matisse’s Red Studio. The Guston-y bit is a noose encircling the rectangle, the nod to Newman a hanging rope painted in thick ocher floating on the flat red stain, a kind of “zip.”

In less confident hands the art historical name game might grow tiresome, but Reeder’s approach is so nonchalant that his allusions are embedded in his work like those of casual but erudite fiction—it’s nice if you get the references, but not necessary to enjoying the work. (Reeder, 38, commutes to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he is tenured and has presumably been teaching the canon for years.) Where the jokes become central, particularly in the paintings with figures, the works are weaker. Four paintings in his “Cubist Cokehead” series answer the question of what to do with all those extra noses, but they don’t go beyond being one-liners.

Rendez-vous has a similarly silly premise: it isan almost all-green painting of two dollar bills having sex doggy-style among three stacks of more currency. Yet the work manages to transmit both the thrill of something naughty (are those stacks sleeping?) and a real tenderness. The bottom bill is curled up and seems to be exhaling just so. Scumbled brushwork throughout and some scraped paint on the top of the furthest stack give the picture a feeling of balmy air in the twilight. Reeder’s mixed attitude of affection and breeziness toward both his artistic heroes and his own offbeat imagery sets him apart from the crowded field of smart slacker painters. One assumes he worked hard to make his paintings look this easy.

Photo: Scott Reeder: Cubist Cokehead (Blue Table), 2009, oil on line, 28 by 23 inches; at Daniel Reich.