Not that many decades ago high art and kitsch were thought of as irreconcilable opposites. Now, however, it almost seems as if art imitating kitsch were the norm among young artists. The less interesting work in this vein simply replicates the superficial effects of mass-culture objects, but the best of it, dating back at least to pop art but also including the panel paintings of young New Yorker Lisa Krivacka, manages to negotiate a subtle balance between distance and belief. Copying her pictures from yearbook photos, anonymous snapshots, and old postcards, Krivacka makes visible her genuine affection for these samples of kitschy “art.”

Still, it’s hard not to chuckle at her Most Likely to Succeed, one of 22 works–all single- or multiple-panel paintings–now at Ann Nathan. The toothy smiles, somewhat goofy expressions, and bad hairdos in these 12 portraits copied from her junior high yearbook seem to contradict the title. Yet Krivacka’s careful use of paint–she applies it in layers to give her colors a three-dimensional feel–creates a physical presence for each subject more compelling than that in a yearbook photo. And ultimately these hopeful kids about to be thrown into the world leave one a bit sad.

Born in 1963 and raised in rural Tennessee, Krivacka bases her other paintings on snapshots and postcards. For the latter she favors decades-old styles, graphically elegant designs of the 40s and 50s that celebrated newly built highways, buildings, and even motels with a naive optimism not unlike that of the kids in Most Likely to Succeed. Pennsylvania Turnpike shows our country’s first great superhighway from above: it makes a graceful S curve before vanishing behind a hill. No other development is visible, and the road is free of traffic–a path to freedom through a perfect arcadia. Indeed, Krivacka’s highway is painted to blend with the trees and foliage, its gray well integrated with the land. This depiction is in utter contrast with our view of highways today as choked with traffic and surrounded by buildings and parking lots–part of Krivacka’s point. We’re looking at a false dream of the future.

In this way Krivacka’s paintings play with time. All her images seem decades old, and she reinforces our sense of pastness by covering her paintings with layers of varnish. These make the surfaces almost mirror-smooth and highly reflective–the viewer can see himself–and render the paintings more like objects in themselves than windows into another world, turning these views into “things” one might possess. The varnish also imparts a yellowish tan tint: there are reds and blues and greens here, but all seem filtered through the slightly gooey yellowish tan, a color that suggests the sepia of old photographs.

Krivacka emphasizes the objectlike quality of many of these pictures by making old-fashioned “tramp art” three-dimensional frames: the picture then seems one plane among many. That sense of the painting as an object is also foregrounded in some unframed pictures that Krivacka has cut to unusual shapes: one painting is shaped like a plate, and there are four that follow the outlines of the motor vehicle depicted–right down to the wheels. Tina and Lisa in the Smoky Mountains shows a brightly colored car angled aggressively forward and up; inserted in the car’s midsection is a painting of two little girls (copied, Krivacka told me, from a snapshot of her and her sister on a family trip). They look a bit awkward–one girl’s pant leg rides higher than the other–but the picture also suggests a homemade postcard of family members showing off their car. At the same time it’s a bit like a toy car–a cutout substitute for the real thing.

One element that distinguishes Krivacka’s work from other art about nostalgia is its excess–she takes her subjects and approaches to carefully calculated extremes that mime the extravagance of kitsch yet go beyond it. 20th Century Postcards is a set of six panel paintings on thin boards connected in the manner of folding souvenir postcards. But these are views that don’t go together–of a motel, an anonymous building housing a small radio station, a suspension bridge seen from above. All are painted with subtlety and care–the colors are far more resonant and forceful than those of a real postcard. And while the views Krivacka chooses are even more random and ordinary than a postcard’s, they offer something much more beautiful–genuinely sensual paintings. Like most of Krivacka’s works, 20th Century Postcards suggests a handmade gift.

Paradise has an even quirkier form. Nine disconnected panels take the shapes of various letters to spell out “paradise”; within each one (except the dot of the i), Krivacka has painted a copy of a tourist photograph–a guy standing under a power line, vacationing couples wearing sunglasses. If these were images of fabulous monuments and exotic locales, the effect might be simple irony, but Krivacka has chosen anonymous, unspectacular views with lackluster compositions. That choice combined with her careful treatment of these scenes takes her work beyond the usual pomo mockery of kitsch. The point is not that most destinations aren’t Eden but that even randomly chosen places can have a sensuous, almost paradisial beauty. This point is even clearer in A Good Place to Eat, two paintings based on postcard photos of a restaurant. One shows the exterior, with a sign that reads “a good place to eat.” The other is an interior with pink seating and a lone couple dining; Krivacka copies the perspective of a wide-angle lens in the original, making the space look larger than it is and giving the sense it’s being offered to the viewer.

Much of her imagery has an autobiographical source, Krivacka told me. She grew up in a family without much money, and the rare vacations they took were to visit grandparents. As a child her main exposure to art was a board game the family owned, Masterpiece, many of whose paintings were taken from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago; she chose to attend the School of the Art Institute later partly because of her love of the reproductions in this game. Her father, she says, is an “amazing” outsider artist who makes cardboard reproductions of old coins–over 12,000 of them, according to Krivacka. Retired from the army, he now works in a motel in Clarksville, Tennessee. Only as an adult did she realize that her family “hardly ever traveled. That’s why I became interested in the travel postcards when I was older, because we never had vacations other than family visits–the whole concept was foreign to me.” Her subjects also represent in part the “cultural vacuum” she grew up in.

Motel Quilt is a superb example of the way Krivacka both remains true to her subjects and redeems them. Based on traditional quilt designs, this grid of 30 panels includes 18 motel scenes and 12 painted in solid colors. Among the views are one of a woman by a pool, another of two beds with bedspreads reading “Magnolia Court,” and a third showing a room with pink plaid bedspreads. Like the pictures in A Good Place to Eat, these offer themselves in the manner of advertising images, seemingly laid out for one’s pleasure. But the solid colors Krivacka chooses unify her piece in another, more profound way: the greens and tans are all found within the pictures too, heightening the sensuality of the postcard images by suggesting that everything can be seen as pure color. It’s as if the artist were suggesting, as she does in a different way in Paradise, that what’s important is not where you travel, but how you see whatever place you’re in.