Darren Waterston
Greg Kucera Gallery, 624-0770.
Through June 1.

Darren Waterston's paintings seem to require a certain kind of writing to describe them, the kind of tone that leaks through reviews like a sump, gathering where least expected from writers who rarely--or never--abandon their formal critical style or dishy daily voice. You might call this particular tone "nasty lyricism," one that calls attention to itself by pairing the lovely with the decrepit. It is lyricism aware of itself, hiply critiquing itself, eating itself.

It's not hard to see why: Waterston's previous works were like Audubon paintings gone to hell, with silhouettes of not-nice animals doing distinctly not-nice things, all against a background of intense richness and decay, shifting parts pretty and distressing. The references were satisfying and sophisticated: the floating vegetation of Asian painting; the sensuality-on-the-verge-of-rot (and concomitant memento mori) found in Flemish still life; all the busy damnation of Bosch. You looked at his paintings, at all the simultaneous bloom and rot, and you felt like Baudelaire.

Fucking Baudelaire. This effect is hard won, especially in the pluralistic free-for-all of contemporary art. How easy to dismiss Waterston's paintings as kitsch, or as simple atmospherics--and the first may have some truth in it, but the second does not. There's a healthy but muted strain of irony that runs through them (allusions to those Victorian fairy paintings everyone was so gaga about a few years ago, silhouettes of couples bridged below the waist by a prominent penis), but the overall effect would be lost without the artist's seriousness about painting itself, without the combination of figurative melting toward abstract, without its tremendous and knowing smartness. (All this from an artist not yet 40.) He avoids preciousness, as do the critics who write about him, by turning that lyricism back onto itself.

Waterston's new work--oil paintings on panel, and some surprising watercolors--emphasizes this by mostly dissolving into abstraction. There are still some identifiable objects (flowers, strings), and there is still the mixture of unholy precision and the accidents, perhaps deliberate, of paint (drips, uneven stippling), but he seems to have taken for his model what is frequently called the "primordial soup": a liquid, gassy background populated with unidentifiable creatures. One large piece, called (appropriately) Origins, is a rich, dark-red field on which appear bright thread-like objects that might be RNA, and clusters of curved red dashes that might not represent objects so much as actions--the imminent chemistry of reproduction, perhaps. (Origins wouldn't be out of place at the Henry's Gene(sis).)

The lack of figures proves Waterston more than a clever postmodernist (although the presence of shapes that look like fugitive patterns from retro fabrics in a number of paintings suggests that he has not entirely turned away from high-minded pastiche). The works still feel Asian, although now it's more like postwar Japanese painting, suggestive and a bit ominous. The silhouettes of flowers that still populate a few of the paintings have the big, dark presence of a Robert Motherwell figure, jarring in exactly the right way, confounding, asking the viewer to do more than bask in the work's aura. The paintings reinvigorate old questions, making them more urgent: Exactly where are we? How did we get here?

I was particularly enamored with a series of tiny new watercolors. Some of them read as sketches for the larger works; others are single objects, some biological, some frankly penile ("phallic" doesn't do them justice), some unidentifiable. My favorite one has a variegated olive background with a couple of red bursts--fireworks? nuclear blasts?--and is crisscrossed with strings. It's like looking at the Big Bang through telephone wires, and this dissonance of time and place is a microcosm of exactly the kind of unsettling pleasure that Waterston is so good at.

Apparently, I am not alone in thinking so. At the exhibit's opening, many of the paintings--priced at $10,000, $20,000, $45,000-- were already claimed by the red and blue dots that indicate a buyer's interest. "Recession? What recession?" my companion whispered. The artist, gorgeously attired in a mustard-colored velvet suit, looked modest and pleased. It was a Waterstonian moment: In a universe of things falling apart and old models becoming irrelevant, richness--of all things--blooms.