Ridley Howard at Leo Koenig Inc.
545 West 23rd Street, New York, NY 10011
March 6 through April 11, 2009
There are at least two peculiarities about Ridley Howard’s new painting exhibition. Only five paintings appear in the show, which borders on sparse for a solo exhibit. Photographs of all five of the paintings appear on the Leo Koenig gallery website, so one could conceivably view all the artwork without even going to the gallery.
If one were to do this, however, they would be missing out. Even if one were observant enough to read the dimensions of the paintings on the web, he or she would have difficulty visualizing them in their proper scale: they’re friggin’ huge.
This is perhaps underscored by some of Howard’s previous work. One of his canvases shown in New York last year was no more than a foot on its longest side. The small size gave the portrait a concentrated power, constricting the viewer’s focus to the psychology of the man in the picture.
Howard’s virtuosic brushwork is another reason to view the new paintings in their proper form; it’s characterized by large areas of near-flat color, with faint, delicate toning (think Hockney or Katz). The features of his subjects are rendered in a soft focus (think a Chuck Close painting up close.) His execution is clean, pristine, and pleasing to the eye.
The scale of these paintings gives them an enveloping quality, while the vibrancy and saturation of their color makes them radiate. Two paintings possess a large field of dominating, practically neon color which bathes the white gallery space: Leaves (predominate color: green), and Mexico City (predominate color: red). These are the most distinctive works in the show.
Leaves depicts a woman staring off into space, her face expressionless. Two bright green leaves emerge from the bottom of the picture plane, seemingly from nowhere. The large, feather-shaped greenery obscure the faces of two women flanking her. The stems of the leaves could be held by the woman’s hands, but their source can’t be seen as the picture is cropped at the breast level. Her face, however, seems too devoid of emotion to match a gesture as playful as holding a piece of foliage in each hand. The only trace of emotion visible in her face is a set of dimples near her lips, ambiguous in meaning. As a viewer, it’s amusing to consider the woman’s stern facial expression in contrast to her absurd surroundings. The situation could be a celebration, a wedding or performance in which women ritualistically wave and flaunt leaves, but the subject’s thoughts are elsewhere. The oddly positioned objects and the partially concealed figures, build tension in a way that recalls Magritte.
Mexico City depicts a slightly blushing lady on a red bedspread in her underwear. Her gaze is averted from the viewer. The light from the window is pure white; it could be sunny or overcast outside. The furniture and walls of the room, seemingly a hotel, are all straight lines and grayscale. The bedspread is bright tomato red, the only color in the room. It provides a powerful warmth in an almost entirely cold, modern environment. It is echoed by the flush on the woman’s cool face. The softness of the bed sinking under the woman’s weight is quite tactile, but her face is not quite inviting.
River perhaps surpasses the interest of Leaves and Mexico City. This piece breaks new ground for the artist in a way that‘s difficult to put one‘s finger on. The man in the picture doesn’t just stare blankly; he looks downward, but appears thoughtful, either content or weary. The way a tree bends in the background appearing, due to a flattened depth of field, to touch the man’s head, adds a natural or spiritual suggestion to the man’s thoughts. Like Leaves, a woman’s face appears partially covered behind the man, which can allow the viewer to develop theories about their relationship, or lack thereof. River has a realness that the others seem to lack, while maintaining the ambiguity Howard seems to revel in.
Enigmatic imagery has certainly become characteristic of Ridley Howard’s work. The imaginative viewer can delight in the artist’s mysterious and rich scenarios. One can disappear into the cavernous recessions of his backgrounds, look for subtle flicks of feature that betray what the subject is thinking, or slip into a reverie like the figures in the paintings. Ridley Howard certainly crafts an interesting and aesthetically pleasing world - but it is too sleek, cool and detached to illicit an intense response. The intense fields of color, the precision, the spacious interiors are deeply attractive, but I wish the scales of ambiguity were tipped a little more in one direction or the other.
Dan Tarnowski is a writer and artist in Brooklyn. He runs the small publisher On Lives Press and is currently working on a collection of short fiction.view all articles from this author