The New Orleans Art Review | Spring 2016
VOL. 33, NOS. 3-4
By Terrington Calas, via neworleansartreview.org
AMONG ART GENRES, domestic scenes and still life rest in our heads as mute poetry, as temperate and solacing — and quintessentially traditional. Not Jim Richard’s. His new paintings (“Darn That Dream,” recently at Arthur Roger) have but one essential connection to the tradition. They exploit it. They manipulate the legacy of Vermeer and Chardin and Vuillard in order to target a contemporary folly. And folly is the right word. These works have to do with impossible dreams and societal charade. More directly put, the evident theme here — and it feels rather discomforting today — revolves around class, deified commodities, and a culture that exalts surface perfection. I say “discomforting” because such an issue belongs properly to another era and perhaps to another country. And yet, these pictures persuade. You come away re-thinking today’s values.
By the Pool makes the case shrewdly. With it, Richard confronts a presumed cultural dictate: that an indulgent yet orthodox lifestyle is the American ideal, or rather, the imperative. He submits a scene that verges on the picturesque, almost kitsch; but in his hands, it develops into a leisure-tribe paradigm — a suburban Eden. And a potent vehicle for social critique. The painting depicts the patio of a modernist house. Its space is conspicuously orchestrated — every planter and every shrub in its place, with all the right voids and all the right heights. You sense the eye of a finical professional designer, not a homeowner. But what strikes you is how Richard mitigates the scheme. He does so chromatically. Every color is a broken color. He renders all the foliage the same umbered green, and there are expanses of grey and a muted orange, and the mottled wood-rose of an outdoor biomorphic sculpture. This dignified restraint saturates the image — and elevates it. In effect, Richard underscores the garden’s contrivance by imposing a finer contrivance. At the same time, he redresses the tacit social mandate.
This subtle critique, moreover, is furthered by the very insertion of the sculpture. As in much of Richard’s work, it anchors the composition and, more important, provides a jolting disruption of the decorous proceedings. In this instance, it does a bit more. The form, as I say, is biomorphic, and not a little menacing. It suggests a serpent, undulant and advancing. You feel this perfect domestic world becoming less so.
INITIALLY, RICHARD’S IMAGERY can look almost quaint. Most of his subjects are smartly turned-out interiors and gardens. They appear to be rooted in the vaunted designs we see in shelter magazines, those glossy registers of domestic fantasy. His method is to take such designs and, as it were, re-vaunt them — or, as in By the Pool, blissfully subdue them. In either case, he brackets their aura of affectation, their theatricality. He then considers what they really mean — pointedly, what they say about us.
His most salient posit is that our culture fairly signifies desire. He touches on what is ordinarily a benign and unremarkable facet of today’s sociological temper: the envie for material indulgences. But he sees the pernicious truth of it. Typically, these paintings amplify the circumstance. By dint of their construction and juxtaposed subjects, they trumpet an arrant intoxication with commodities. And this intoxication does not concern the ad-mass, mundane commodities flaunted in the past by Pop Art. Rather, this is a question of luxe objects, indeed the ultimate luxe object: the impeccably stage-managed home. Consider Mulberry or Display or Thin Slice, each work a clock-like congestion of prized appointments — things, things, things — appurtenances of the life we are enjoined to pursue.
The message is clear. Our American dream of contentment may have turned into a rhapsody of possession. Madison Avenue is masterful in its job of temptation, but we seem compliant sinners. It is possible, of course, to blame the historical moment. In times of anxiety, we need paradises — even preposterous or vulgar ones. They provide a solacing reverie. And, obviously, the present moment warrants considerable solacing. But, as Richard’s work suggests, there is such a thing as surfeit. His Mulberry could scarcely hold another bibelot — or, his Display, one more picture on the wall. (In Andy Warhol’s words, “Buying is more American than thinking…) Such works pose the question, “Is our current object-prurience merely a cultural tonic, or does it imply a blanketing decadence?”
If so, that decadence looks like the protraction of a long-term condition. Many of Richard’s scenes are mid-century interiors, and he has worked with similar subjects for years. They have always resonated; they still do. The inference here is that our golden 1950s were not only a period of unfolding democratic ideals; they were also the onset of a commodities hysteria — the one we see about us now.
IN “DARN THAT DREAM,” Richard’s imagery is not the only feature that seems consistently apt. So does his delivery. This is true despite what may seem a somewhat conventional manner. The crisp schematization of form, the playful and sometimes aberrant color — these are, by now, aesthetic givens. We think of them in terms of a generalized post-cubist aesthetic. Richard’s variant, of course, is singular. He long ago devised a canny amalgam of comic book and illustration strategies. In a work like Tiger, you immediately note the cartoon-like lucidity and the rigor so typical of classic illustration. But scrutinized, the painting becomes far more sophisticated: witness the way Richard steers the nearly Baroque system of volumes and shadows. The same attainment is evident in the intriguing spatial construction in Pretty Boy. And yet, despite so much formal sophistication, Richard’s style possesses a jazziness and voyant audacity that correspond fluently with our trade-soaked world. Note the utter congestion of visual incident; note the forward push of motifs.
That style, of course, has Pop Art affinities. Happily, Richard’s paintings allow for none of Pop’s outworn and most lamentable mannerism: its irony-gambit. Pop’s embrace of kitsch — for a time so forceful in satirizing modern materialism — quickly revealed itself as parody. It became clear that kitsch was the destination, not the channel. Vulgar images were soon treasured for their sheer vulgarity — objects of blithe condescension. Metaphor was out of the question. In Richard’s art, however, when there is kitsch, it is subject matter. He compels you to see its implications.
Tiger is a good example. You are tempted, from the Pop vantage, to delight in the picture’s interior design over-kill — so many clichés fastidiously positioned in one room. It is easy to regard it, haughtily, as unalloyed bourgeois “charm.” In this case, moreover, certain elements add a comfy family-life feeling, a wholesomeness: the slouching ragdoll, a toy tiger, a color-coordinated baby chair. You smile at the banality — and at the lovely impossibility of such a world. But Richard is not so complacent. He unsettles that world for you. He gently discloses its falseness — the “perfect-home-equals-perfect-happiness” message that it advances. And his maneuver is discreet. Two tall, mechanical-looking abstract sculptures effectively intrude into the setting, like surprise guests. Indeed, they appear to hover over the space. But their colors blend in perfectly; this is Richard’s bow to discretion (and to his abiding formal adroitness). Still, there is little doubt: the sculptures denote an imperiling of this conjured utopia; and denote, further, that received values tend to delude. Whereas most of Pop managed only to reflect society, Richard seeks to analyze it.
THE FORCE OF Richard’s cultural stance is undeniable and, as I say, his delivery is markedly fitting. It accords with our consumerist fervor. But that delivery has its own separate function. It serves as a seductive portal into these paintings — a portal that is largely about delectation. Richard seizes you with junctures of out-and-out visual pleasure. And not merely the pleasure one finds in hedonistic subject matter, such as exquisite patios or soigné living rooms. I am thinking, rather, of his technical tropes. They seem geared to pure aesthetic sensation. This even includes something as rudimentary as pictorial syntax. Here, what you see is a sort of visual “perfect pitch.” Witness the cadenced sweep of shapes in Mulberry and By the Pool, or the baffling coherence of a compositional brawl like Tiger. And all of these register chiefly as poetized spaces, intended to delight the eye. You think of Giorgione’s legendary “landscape and figure poems,” pictures in which the narrative content is elusive; their meaning resides only in the bliss of lyrical structure. A measure of such “purity” is certainly felt in Richard. He appears to relish the very task of marshaling a composition. You retain the impression that he does so in the service of sheer poetics.
Although that distinctive focus on syntax is everywhere in “Darn That Dream,” another object of delectation insistently declares itself: color — color and Richard’s forthright way of working with it. I think of this in relation to two pictorial traditions.
First, the abstract one. Viewing a large Richard canvas, you can imagine yourself before a de Kooning, perhaps one of those majestic late-1950s abstract landscapes. They were part of the moment when, for de Kooning, color held sway, was practically autonomous; and descriptive allusions were, at best, minimal. Richard’s Garden with Modernism feels like that. It is, perhaps, the dazzling glory of this exhibition. Above all, the painting is about dauntless, encompassing color. You scarcely take in the pastoral setting. The immediate image is a spiraling hive of nonstop effulgence. In fact, it is a garden walkway veritably smothered by a floral canopy. It combusts with chromatic tension, thanks to a flurry of opposing hues — enticing blues and oranges and delicate olives all vying for attention. A suspended abstract sculpture, vaguely evoking Calder, commands the foreground. It reinforces the notion of a “pure” painting, an image that celebrates color itself
The other color tradition is more obvious and, perhaps, it more readily signals the subtlety of Richard’s achievement. It is not difficult to see a smaller work like Tiger as heir to the School of Paris ethos — heir to Matisse or Bonnard or, more notably, as heir to Vuillard, that pattern-savvy chronicler of bourgeois placidity. In Vuillard, you see Belle Époque interiors through affectionate, knowing eyes. It is a world of utter discretion and tranquility, and he painted it in colors as subdued as the light from a 1890s parlor lamp. But he also managed to vivify that world. To make it modern. His regard for pattern, sometimes inordinate pattern, provides a frisson that is entirely about visual delight; it all but shatters the domestic calm.
Richard does something like this, as I have said, with teeming compositions and juxtapositions — but he wrests a further frisson from color and color handling. Tiger is a tense, conflicting painting. You feel the tension, but its source is uncertain. Here is an image ostensibly of peace and security; yet it unnerves. Even more than the tall disruptive sculptures, what stirs you is the savage palette — oranges and oranges and oranges, muffled just to the point that they simmer. And because of the simmer, it is a subliminal force — but undeniable. You’re startled at the potent effect of such a small painting.
And that effect is amplified by Richard’s brushwork. This is something you grasp only upon close study, but it is crucial. He deliberately thickens and thins out his pigments, leaving a continuous pattern of tactile changes. This is where delectation is most subtle in these pictures, but also most important. In Mulberrry, for example, the thick-thin application results in a strange and irresistible sensuousness. The handling is consistently palpable, physical enough to lead the eye but, at the same time, unaggressive and utterly suave. It’s a charismatic “touch” that one might link to some timeless gestural mode, but Richard’s is more contained, more governed; at times, his paint pools at the edges of a form, stops, and then creates light yet racy textures. You’re aware every second that he’s savoring both his own technique and the paint itself.
The issue here, I emphasize, is delectation. And a part of that has to do with medium. In Mulberry — and in several other works — Richard used Flashe, a indelible paint that has the matte, velvety finish of gouache (the time-honored opaque watercolor). It allowed him the freedom to revel in color unmodified by gloss — truer color. It was also the ideal medium for his gift of formulating complex hues that exist only to ravish the eye. Consider the almost ineffable ochres and blues and peaches in Mulberry. Together, they create a singular gem-like image. And up close, the pleasure is heightened by the paint’s very character — its sweet seductive surface, the way it reveals painterly gesture.
IMPLICIT IN RICHARD’S painting is a revived perception of the decorative function of art. His pictures declare the power of decoration to concentrate sensuous experience and, thus, to grip the viewer. With a system of rhythms and carefully sited disjunctions — and, of course, his piquant sense of color, Richard makes delight unavoidable. This is partly why I invoked the School of Paris heritage. He shares in its penchant for painterly cuisine. Or rather, he understands how to employ it for now. On the surface, his dominant decorative forebear is Matisse, the fabled hédoniste raffiné who, in painting after painting, established a bourgeois Elysium — art as a spiritual surrogate for unkind reality. We have no trouble seeing such an Elysium in By the Pool or in small treasures like Tiger and Mulberry. But Richard veils every one of them with a vague misgiving. These pictures are delicious, but bittersweet. They recall the tone of an earlier hedonist: Watteau. Absolute bliss tinctured by doubt. And this translates perfectly into a disquiet about today’s cultural complexion.
Doubt may, in fact, be the presiding aura of “Darn That Dream.” Yes, there is the doubt you feel in the presence of so many paeans to material satisfaction — each one, to a degree, impeded. But also there is a lingering quality that suggests an art of two minds: the one of noble commentary and another of unabashed fascination with the pleasures many of us seek.