08/01/2012 01:38 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2012

A Chelsea Gallery Tour: Evaluating the Cutting Edge Through the Eyes of Representational Artists

A few months ago, I wrote a post entitled "The Drawing Room: Artists and Their Sketchbooks Occupy a New York Gallery" about the eponymous exhibit at the Milavec-Hakimi gallery. The conceit of the show was to assemble sketches from a diverse set of artists and then display them gallery style as if from some bygone age. Interestingly, several artists in attendance expressed the feeling that the show -- by being so traditional -- was somewhat radical in the downtown art scene. They assured me that their work was not the kind of thing I'd see in the galleries of Chelsea.

I recently spent an afternoon touring some of the most esteemed Chelsea Galleries -- think the Gagosian, Mary Boone Gallery, Tony Shafrazi -- to see if they were right. I wanted to get a better (yet admittedly unscientific) sense of what these institutions are hanging on their walls and installing in their vast open spaces. As an art lover, but neither an artist nor a critic, I was happy to be in the company of Maria Kreyn and Christopher Pugliese, whom I met at the opening of "The Drawing Room." As both are painters whose work is steeped in the representational tradition, I asked them to guide me.

Before we stepped into the first gallery, Maria and Christopher offered some advice as we stood on an abandoned West Chelsea sidewalk. They encouraged me to remember that for every piece that hangs in a gallery, one should also think about what kind of pieces aren't hanging. Through the lens of what's "not" being shown, we could re-evaluate what we saw in Chelsea, where galleries are known for showing adventurous and provocative pieces.

As with any gallery, the basic questions are important. When you enter a gallery, especially a well-known gallery with outposts in London and Hong Kong and New York, there is a temptation to believe that one is seeing the "best of the best." But is that the case? Has the curator chosen this work because it will endure, or is he choosing the work to be controversial or risqué? When we see a piece in a gallery, do we like it because of its intrinsic qualities or are we simply buying into the gallery's validation that this piece is "good." At the same time, there is an art to the presentation of the pieces by the gallery itself. So is it the presentation or the piece that moves us? If this piece were hanging in a strip mall in New Jersey would we still like it?

The tricky thing is that as one moves further way from representational pieces towards abstract pieces, assessing the work becomes more challenging. Into this gap come the galleries, which serve as tastemakers in the art world. As we went from gallery to gallery, we encountered installations of all types, walls of slashed canvases, and even a room full of Keith Harings. I liked plenty of pieces as did my guides, but I also found myself wondering about the pieces I wasn't seeing. Why is it that El Prado, the Louvre, the Met, and the Uffizi all contain vast rooms of portraits, while human figures were largely, and to me conspicuously, absent from these galleries? Why is it that classical painters were drawn to the figurative while modern artists -- at least those I was seeing -- were not?

Finally, in one of the upstairs rooms of the Tony Shafrazi gallery, I spotted a familiar face. Like an old friend, La Infanta from Valasquez's Las Meninas peered out from a large canvas entitled Las Meninas (Black on Silver) by the Bruce High Quality Foundation. The piece quoted directly from Las Meninas -- parts appeared to be a near perfect copy -- but with Velazquez's image faded and covered with a mélange of dark colors. I immediately thought of standing before Velasquez's original in El Prado and of taking in the studies on Las Meninas that hang in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona.

"I like this one," I commented to Maria, telling her that Las Meninas is one of my favorite paintings. Maria regarded the canvas and asked me if I really liked the piece, or instead was drawn to its reference to the Velazquez and the Picassos. I understood her point. Was I reacting to a piece that was not hanging on the wall -- Las Meninas was hanging thousands of miles away in El Prado -- rather than what I was seeing? Maria regarded the piece closely and declared, "if you're in the desert and you're thirsty, you'll be happy to drink a coke, even if what you really want and need is water." And with that, we made our way back into the sweltering afternoon, in search of water. Nobody was in the mood for coke that afternoon.