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When Is it Time to Fly Away? A Conversation with Ridley Howard

Installation view, Ridley Howard, Kissers in the Mountains, 2017, Oil on linen, 60 x 72 inches

By JONATHAN VINER, AUG. 2017

I hear knocking on my studio door. Shit. For a moment I consider not answering. I dig the iPhone out of my pocket to pause "Too Many People" by Princess Chelsea, and against my better judgement I open the door. It's the landlord and he tells me that he's received an excellent offer on the building, and he's decided to accept it. Then he asks me to sign a legal document regarding my month-to-month lease for the buyer's bank or attorney or maybe the buyer's bank's attorney. Not quite clear. I tell him I'll have my legal department look it over.

I knew I shouldn't have opened the door. None of this really comes as a big surprise. He had moved me to a month-to-month lease when my five year lease expired about a year and a half ago. Actually, I'm surprised I'm still here. Rumor has it that a local fella sold his pizza ordering app for millions and wants to turn our one story building into a social club. The American dream. The landlord leaves and I close and then lock the door (I always lock the door). I return to my sofa where I'm checking out images from Ridley Howard's latest solo show, "Travel Pictures," on my iPad. His restrained, poetic sensibility intrigues me. But now I'm distracted.

Hoping to shake the pall cast by the landlord, I decide to grab a late afternoon drink at Bar Tano just down the street. It's a little Italian restaurant, and an oasis in the culinary desert that is the perpetually "up and coming" Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn. I order a Negroni and sit outside beneath an array of Peroni branded umbrellas. Loud cement trucks and city busses rumble by, interrupting a majestic view of the Avis rental car lot across the way. Cin cin, NYC. 

I don a pair of noise isolating earbuds and play a track called "Fly Away" by Ahmad Jamal. I never listen to this kind of music but it hits the spot for this essay. It makes me want to book a one way ticket to Uncanny Valley. Howard's paintings are smooth and subdued, and he portrays gentle people in harmonious settings, but they contain a strangeness. The figures sometimes seem like illustrations from a "how to kiss" manual, but it works, and his oeuvre is punctuated by the occasional small painting of more explicit acts of intimacy. If Howard's imagery had a soundtrack, the incidental music would be performed on a vibraphone. The women seem serene, the men seem docile. All is swell, and there certainty aren't too many people. But within the stylish tranquility there's an undercurrent of loneliness, isolation, alienation...

At times Howard introduces fields or stripes of color to his compositions, or detached, floating elements such as a pair of legs in high heels, or the disembodied heads of a couple of kissing couples. These superimpositions interrupt the painted reality and contribute to a sense of confusion, helping the work emit a kind of David Lynch vibe. But if Howard's painting style were a screenplay, I'd pitch it to the empty suits in the executive suite as kind of Fra Angelico meets John Wesley meets René Magritte.

Howard kindly agrees to talk shop with me via email, and he tells me that he and his wife Holly Coulis (also an artist) left NYC about a year ago and relocated to Athens, GA.

JV: So the travel theme in this body of work seems fitting, considering you were moving from NYC to Athens. What factored into your moving there in particular?

RH: Well, there were a number of factors. I lost my long-time studio in Brooklyn at the same time our apartment rent was going up again, and it just seemed like the right moment to shake things up. I was looking at studios that were half the size for four times the rent, and I really wanted more space for my work. I grew up in Atlanta and my family still lives there. My dad passed away a few years ago, and I was feeling the need to be closer to my mom and my sister's family. Athens seemed like a nice place to slow down after 17 years in Brooklyn. I went to school there in the mid 90's, and have always loved the mix of small-town charm and a rich music and art community. Holly and I were able to get this big warehouse space and have bigger studios than we could ever afford in New York. But it is true that I still feel at home in New York, and I exist a little bit between places right now. Which maybe ties into themes of travel or dislocation in the paintings. It wasn't a conscious connection in the work, but it could be a piece of it.

I can't help but think, "there but for the grace of God..." I don't even want to think about the sadness and grief of losing a parent. Studio drama seems pretty insignificant in comparison. But I make a mental note to check out property prices in Athens, in anticipation of my own impending studio shake-up. "Half the size for four times the rent." Fuck. That. Not sure I'd survive long in the Georgian heat and humidity, though. "Fly away"... but to where? I finish my Negroni and I'm not going lie: it tastes pretty damn bitter. But I loved the idea of it. I pay the tab and say arrivederci to Bar Tano.

Ridley Howard, Movie Star, 2017, Oil on linen, 30 x 36 inches

JV: How did you start showing, were there any particular turning points, mentors, etc? 

RH: Well, I was lucky to have gone to the Museum School when I did. It was a particularly good moment there, a number of both undergrad and grad students moved to New York and either started working as artists or opened galleries. Many are still active and prominent artists. I also went to Skowhegan, so I had 50 or so friends in the city automatically.

My jaw drops a little when I read that. 50 or so? For perspective, I knew of 4 or so people in NYC when I made the move from RISD with a BFA in the summer of 1998, none of whom had any connection to the gallery scene. It was rough. Luck is definitely a factor, and I've basically been Mr. Magoo-ing my way around this place ever since.

RH: Most of the gallery shows I have done were the result of very casual connections, through friends and friends of friends. I did a show with Howard Yezerski in Boston right out of school, and then a show with Fredericks Freiser on 22nd street a couple of years later. Both introductions were through artist friends. In New York, I later showed with Zach Feuer, who was a friend from the Museum School, and Leo Koenig, who became a good friend. Now I'm showing with Lauren Marinaro, who was Zach's director and business partner... so again, it was initially a social connection. There were teachers and visiting artists at the Museum School that talked about how the art world works, and of course the faculty at Skowhegan too. I still ask for advice from artists who have been around. But really, I was never a super savvy art pro. I like meeting people and I like talking about art, and that has kept me afloat so far.

Ridley Howard, Bologna, 2017, Oil on linen, 50 x 66 inches

JV: And can you talk about your involvement with 106 Green Gallery and how that plays into the mix?

RH: 106 Green was something Holly and I started on a whim in 2009, with our good friend Mitchell Wright. Mitchell has really been the driving force behind the space from the beginning. It was right after the economy crashed, and he had an extra room in his big live/work space in Greenpoint. I think we all just wanted some agency in the art world, especially at a time when everything seemed to be in flux and serious. We had so many friends making great work... some well-known and some not. So we started doing group shows that included all of them. We invited artists and curators to put together shows, and it helped to create a low-pressure sense of community and energy amongst our peers. We had to take a year or two break because of some construction on the building, so when we started back, we decided to focus on solo shows. We know so many excellent artists, the hope is just to give opportunities to people we respect. It does take a lot of time, and it is tough to focus on painting while running a gallery.. so we were happy when our friend Jon Lutz joined the team. He's a curator and more available to consistently handle the operational end of things.

Ridley Howard, Passeggiata, Rome, 2017, Oil on linen, 72 x 96 inches

I don't mention this to Ridley, but I participated in a benefit group show at 106 Green two or three years ago. They were raising money for an artist friend of theirs who had been brutally attacked while walking home in Brooklyn one night. It was serious enough to require an extended hospital stay. It struck a chord with me because some years earlier I had been attacked in Brooklyn as well. I was carrying a painting of mine home from a gallery, wrapped in a black trash bag. They snuck up from behind and cracked me in the head. I went down and the first thing I thought was that a window ac must have fallen on me. I managed to scramble back up to my feet and I was surrounded by angry, laughing silhouettes kicking and punching. The laughing was the worst part. I jumped over a snow bank into the street, but they followed. I escaped (cue the music: "fly away"...) with a few lumps on my head (Advil helped) and a badly bruised ego (time helped). They got my headphones, messenger bag, and the cutting-edge click wheel era iPod within it, but I still had my painting. It sustained slight damage on one corner, yet it actually sold a few months later. It was a small sale (well, big compared to the cost of that iPod), but an important sale. Likewise, the small painting I contributed to the benefit show at 106 Green found a home, and while I wasn't a part of that social scene, for a moment there I experienced the supportiveness of that community. But enough about me.

Ridley Howard, Miami Beach View, 2017, Oil on linen, 40 x 50 inches

JV: This recent body of work seems a little muted, a little less erotic than some of your previous work. Is this intentional?

RH: Funny, I didn't make any conscious decision about that. I guess I still think of these paintings as pretty sexy.. and maybe a bit weirder in unexpected ways. I have definitely done more muted shows than this one, I've always had a thing for the seemingly banal or empty. I started a few small paintings, just before I began preparing for this show, that were more explicit. Maybe that satisfied my urge to make them for the time being. They were in the Intimisms show at James Cohan last summer, so didn't make it into this group. But think of them all existing in the same landscape. And I am definitely aware of shifting gears from painting to painting, and not relying exclusively on that kind of charge. Maybe my mind was more on depicting time and movement in some interesting way, or thinking about a space between distance and intimacy. I think it is still in the work though, just less overt, perhaps.

JV: Cool, so do you have anything lined up for the future?

RH: I have work in a couple of group shows now. Joel Mesler's new Rental Gallery in the Hamptons, and a small show at Monya Rowe in St. Augustine Florida. I have one painting in a show at the Hall Art Foundation in Vermont. I will have work this fall at Nada and Basel with Marinaro and Fredric Snitzer, and I am doing a solo project in Mexico City this November with Galeria Mascota. I am really excited about that, starting to work up some paintings now.

JV: That's great! Looking forward to seeing the new stuff.

Back at my studio, I restart Princess Chelsea's "Too Many People" and jump back into a painting I've been happily struggling with. There's a guy, his back to the ground, using his leg as a fulcrum to throw his opponent in a judo match. Between you and me, dear reader, an art career is an unrelenting, desperate struggle that requires endurance, pragmatism, and adaptability. The most important thing is living to fight another day. If that means fly away, fuck it, we'll fly away. Cin cin, NYC. WM

Jonathan Viner

Jonathan Viner is a painter based in New York City

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