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The modest, magical world of John Wilde: art that soars

Intimacy, subtlety, and wit are out in today's art, and passion, power, and emotionalism are in. All is not lost, however, for those who prefer to speak softly, paint modestly, and make their point with delicacy and quiet good humor. The art world may not be willing to give such artists top billing at this time, but it is much more willing now than in recent years to judge what they produce on its own terms.

John Wilde's current exhibition at the David Findlay Jr. Gallery here should stimulate just such a response. It includes very small paintings and drawings executed during the past two years by a Midwestern artist long admired for his exquisite oils and extraordinarily sensitive works in pencil and silverpoint. Also on view is a very large - by Wilde's standards - painting on a metaphysical theme, and a huge, autobiographical silverpoint that may actually be the world's largest work in this medium.

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The vast majority of his pictures, however, are tiny and jewel-like, and all were painted in a highly controlled style derived from careful observation and a long, hard look at early Flemish and Italian art. They are imbued with a spirit that is bemused, benign, and somewhat impish, and that conveys the certainty that life is good - if only we act in a civilized manner toward it and toward one another.

Wilde's world is magical but totally consistent - almost as though it existed a few inches to the right and a little above our own. In it, artists sketch while seated on colored balls floating high over rural landscapes, sparrows and sandpipers scoot about on women's legs, and huge vegetables dominate otherwise very ordinary-looking countrysides.

Everything appears perfectly logical and reasonable. The fact that the artist is seen wearing greenish tights and lecturing to a frog, a dog, and a bird in a mountain landscape makes perfect sense in this world. And the same is true of the fact that his subjects can move about as freely in the air as on the earth; that the fruit in his still lifes seems to have come straight from the Garden of Eden; and that his elegant ladies - and an occasional gentleman - can stroll about unconcernedly in situations and places that in our world would be considered outrageous and highly unusual.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Wilde is a flippant and carefree painter, or that his playfulness is merely meant to amuse or entertain. Quite the opposite is true. Because of his unwillingness to copy nature blindly, and his passion to ''distill'' what he sees, dreams, and imagines into highly ''accurate'' but imaginative forms, everything he produces comes together as art. It may not always represent him at his best, and it may occasionally be a bit too lighthearted and precious, but art it is, and of the sort that will look every bit as good a century or two from now as it does today.

This charming and delightful exhibition - the artist's first in New York since 1973 - will remain on view at the David Findlay Jr. Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, through Nov. 3.

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