Having set aside overt art historical references and eye-grabbing trompe l’oeil effects, the young British painter William Daniels (b. 1976) is finding his voice, making his recent work his most compelling to date. The older stuff was clever enough: meticulous renderings of rough-and-ready collages made by Daniels himself after canonical European paintings, from David to Cézanne. In his bracing new suite of 10 spectacularly understated paintings (all oil on board, 2009), Daniels builds on his previous work while pulling free from it. Each is an assiduous, sumptuous, roughly 1-foot-square depiction of a lightly crumpled bit of tin foil on a stagelike setting lined with additional foil, illuminated by indirect colored lights. More than a mere tussle between abstraction and realism, the result is a richly associative blend of painting, sculpture, photography and theater.

Typical is one painting that conjures an ad hoc John Chamberlain plopped down in a tiny foil-covered Factory. Daniels knows how to work the brush, how to fit its movement to the task at hand. At close range, his surfaces swarm with tinted grays and flashes of deep or strong color. In the airless, flattened space (strongly implying the camera’s mediation), the object’s irregular, meandering outline—that which distinguishes figure from ground—is devilishly difficult to pick out. Only at a distance does one detect a slight softening of contours and desaturation of hues in the areas outside the crumpled form. A helmet-shaped wad of foil, defined by a blue-black passage on the lower left and streaks of dull orange and yellowish white at upper right, crowds the edges of one panel. A four-legged form lumbers across another, and is the most articulated and vulnerable of all the “figures.”

Their iconic presence recalls the bland, unblinking dolls’ heads, partially obscured by glistening cellophane wrappers, that James Rosenquist painted in the early 1990s. The resemblance of their creases to stylized drapery folds links Daniels’s forms to the flashy silks and satins of Baroque portraiture, even as their diminutive scale recalls that era’s cabinet-picture tradition. Is Daniels sending up the glittering behemoth baubles, the vapid trophies, of Jeff Koons and Anselm Reyle? Is he critiquing current art practice with these alluring surfaces that possess no color of their own but merely reflect their surroundings? Tin foil is their ostensible subject matter, and literal description their method, but really the content of these tight, tough paintings is the nature of the artist’s individual responsibility to contemporary pictorial experience.

Photo: William Daniels: Untitled, 2009, oil on board, 101⁄4 by 101⁄2 inches; at Luhring Augustine.