By SHANA BETH MASON, MAY 2015
It’s a rare thing when painting, as an independent discipline, reminds you that it’s painting to begin with. It reveals its own traces: perhaps in a brushstroke, an imperfect color gradient, somehow the paint speaks for itself. Even better is when the artist strikes a harmony between mysterious content and context alongside solid technical execution. Such a balance was achieved with Ridley Howard’s solo exhibition Nude At Home at Fredric Snitzer Gallery’s new location in Miami.
The exhibition’s title is slightly off-putting. Any expectation to see a series of conventional odalisques or a muted kind of domestic eroticism was swiftly shut down once the full scope of Howard’s work became clear. “Nude At Home”, as a title, feels like a headline in Town & Country Magazine or a sedate stock photography series. Instead, Howard’s small-scale paintings are various glimpses into a distinctly tropical, seemingly idyllic lifestyle. There is no single protagonist or narrative, but the backdrops for each work appear startlingly related with pastel colors, drab couches, and several pairs of women’s feet clad in comfy-looking high heels. Just as you’re settling into a cruise among the non-confrontational bits of knee, feet, or one full nude woman reclining, one tiny painting makes the whole engine grind to a halt.
From the side, a man orally pleasures his female lover: the whole action is implied, as both faces are hidden and no specific features of either body are visible. They could be anyone, anywhere, at any time, but it is impossible to determine anything beyond what sheer imagination provides. Because of this one work, the momentum of the other works on show is cast aside and their inherent meanings (or supposed meanings) are called into question. Those docile high heels in blues and reds suddenly seem a bit more dangerous; after another pass, the nude woman on the couch can be seen glancing suspiciously sideways; the unassuming bare knee protruding upward looks a bit spicier the second time around. What’s most genius about all of this? Howard must have planned all of this from minute one. It’s Howard’s command of every turn of this aesthetic racecourse that makes this show so enjoyable. He treats every composition like a hairpin turn, knowing that flat lines, pale color combinations, and subtle gestures drive the whole machine forward. Once the course has been run, your head is still spinning and your questions keep coming. Was this Howard’s own story? Were these scenes from a life already lived or a storyboard of a narrative that never happened? It all seemed so normal, so uncomplicated. Then, sex changed everything.
Howard has also accomplished an even rarer thing with Nude At Home: while each of these exquisite little canvases are desirable in their technical precision and collectible size, owning one (only one) seems less than satisfying. The whole parade of works has a rhythm and sensuality, a sensation that would be unfortunate to break apart. So not only has Howard’s painting set a shining example of what painting should be, but it holds such a captivating effect that to buy off any of the works would diminish its charm. Art too precious to buy: the rarest thing of all. WM
Shana Beth Mason is a critic formerly based in Brooklyn now active in London, UK. Contributions include Art in America, ArtVoices Magazine, FlashArt International, InstallationMag (Los Angeles), Kunstforum.as (Oslo), The Brooklyn Rail, The Miami Rail, San Francisco Arts Quarterly (SFAQ), and thisistomorrow.info (London).
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