East City Art Reviews—W.C. Richardson: Blind Spot at Addison/Ripley Fine Art

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on July 6, 2020
Javari, oil and alkyd on canvas, 31” x 31”, 2020. Photo courtesy Addison/Ripley Fine Art.

An exciting group of recent paintings by W.C. Richardson opened in early March of this year at Addison/Ripley Fine Art.  Not long thereafter, the gallery was forced to close because of the pandemic.

Richardson was the second place winner in last year’s Trawick-sponsored Bethesda Painting Awards with paintings from the same series that began around 2016.  These works represent the most recent stage in a 40 year interaction with abstraction that has formed a remarkable trajectory.  According to a fascinating talk that the artist presented to a DASER[1] in February 2017, the ongoing link from one phase to the next of his working process since the early 1980s has been “conceptual collision”.  Before exploring how this idea is manifest in his current work, I’d like to quote a passage from written text of that talk:

“I was especially drawn to the idea that there is a language of form beyond iconography, a visual vocabulary that provides a foundation for how we perceive art and, indeed, all images.  I was initially fascinated by cubism, futurism and constructivism.  [They] seemed to address energy and space, not just things themselves. The works of Mondrian and Pollock became my polar ancestors. […The] crossroads or collision if you will, between the rational and analytic on one hand, and the intuitive and poetic on the other has been central to my work ever since.”

And, it still most evidently is.  In my review of the Trawick painting exhibit I expressed something notably similar, without having seen the artist’s earlier work, nor read this paper.  What I saw was a practice that is “fundamentally painterly”, “despite the impression, especially in reproduction, of minimalist flatness and hard edge form”.  Even more to the point, I could feel the artist’s dual aims, in that while working with geometric abstraction and underlying structure, Richardson’s aim is to maintain emotional expression, “something like the way a classical composer like Mozart worked within a structure but achieved enormous feeling in his work.”[2]  Richardson went on to say that although his influences over the years come from many places, his “interest in science, especially physics and geometry” is perhaps chief among them.  Yet, it is equally clear that he has always worked from an intuitive basis, avoiding purity of form or surface, aiming to “conjure up perceptual consciousness the way music does.’[3]  His surfaces are tactile (he calls it “a dirty [sic] hand-painted geometry”) with various layers of color he applies in an unpredictable way that often show through and project a sense of shimmering light. While engaging the viewer visually, it can also provoke an emotional response.  This is not to say that one has never had this kind of visual experience with minimalist painting—think Agnes Martin or Sol LeWitt at his best.  But it is, I believe, that tactility that Richardson leaves, the trace of the hand that makes the difference.[4]

W.C. Richardson, Light Through Time, oil and alkyd on canvas, 31” x 31”, 2017.  Photo courtesy of Addison/Ripley Fine Art.

The earliest painting in the exhibit dates from 2017 and is a good example of the artist’s practice at that time.  Light Through Time is a relatively small canvas at 31 x 31 inches, but its visual punch is strong.  As described by the artist, he usually begins by setting down the grid which remains visible in the finished work, as here in the red lines that trace it.  Richardson would typically make a line drawing consisting of arcs over his grid.  In this painting, as in others of the series, he then began the process of painting the rectangular bars that follow the grid but placed in the patterns indicated by the arcs of the drawing.  No minimalist taping is involved.  If one concentrates on the gridded forms, which are hand-painted by tracing small wooden templates onto the canvas, suddenly there’s a figure ground phenomenon.  Are the white areas ground or figure above the grid? And what about the pale pink and lavender lines around each of the forms? In the usual pictorial spatial sense, where are they?  This kind of visual game is essential to Richardson who loves “tiling, fractals, diagrams, maps, puzzles and games.”[5]  There is a certain random patterning in the way the dark forms combine and cross over each other—the result of following a certain set of rules the artist sets for himself.  But that tension is where the emotional content begins to emerge.  In this painting the red lines against the dark forms made me think of plaid and brought up potential associations with it.

Detail of Light Through Time, 2017.  Notice the pale colored lines edging the white areas.

Ball Lightning comes two years later and is twice the size of Light Through Time. Here the underlying arcing pattern is much more visible and seems to control the agitated movement of the red bars, pulling them out, as it were, away from the center.  The painting has the feeling of an explosion, its bright colors riveting the viewer’s attention.  There is less interaction with the underlying grid which remains more statically behind the translucent red of the bars and shines through it.

W.C. Richardson, Ball Lightning, oil and alkyd on canvas, 2019, 60 x 60”. Photo courtesy Addison/Ripley Fine Art.

All the works in the show are in a square format of either 31 or 60 inches, and they are all painted with oil and alkyd, the latter a synthetic-based oil paint with a high gloss for shine.  The use of oil, rather than acrylic, is crucial to the actual character of the surface.  The alkyd accounts for the way that colors will change when looking at the surface from different angles under the lights.  This effect can be seen in many of the canvasses in the show, but particularly in Javari, one of the smaller squares from this year where the beige edges around the red and black bars will turn to a shimmering gold.

W.C. Richardson, Five Figure Alternator, oil and alkyd on canvas, 2020, 31” x 31”.  Photo courtesy Addison/Ripley Fine Art.

The yellow ground in Five Figure Alternator of 2020 also projects this shining surface effect, particularly effective against the dark green of the interior lines of the forms.  My first response was an allusion to Gustav Klimt and his gilded imagery.  The interior patterns in the dark rectangles in this painting have an Art Nouveau look, once again suggesting associations outside of the simple formal vocabulary.  This painting, and a few others from this year, show a tendency toward verticality and larger self-contained forms, as well as to figure/ground phenomena.

These last are also seen in the large and very striking Expanded Chord (For Steve Reich).

W.C. Richardson, Expanded Chord (For Steve Reich), oil and alkyd on canvas, 2020, 60” x 60”.  Photo courtesy Addison/Ripley Fine Art.

Here Richardson actually attempts to recreate the progression, from top to bottom, of a musical chord from a tight beginning to an expanded middle and diminution, and then a return to closeness.  Dedicating the work to Steve Reich, the quintessential Minimalist composer whose repetitive music often works in just this way—that is, in progressions of sound that expand and contract—creates a reference point for the viewer familiar with it.  The large canvas has a deep surface, the white-ish ground speckled with hints of pink and blue peeking from under it.  The bold rectangles of black and blue can almost be seen as dancers—close together, then crossing, then couples, then separating, etc.  I saw it that way, imagining a dance to a Reich score.  My son, a former dancer, happened to come in while I had this image on the screen.  He asked if it were a choreographic diagram.  This is why this work is so strong.  It is completely abstract, but it can connect with one’s deepest feelings and memories.

Addison/Ripley Fine Art is located at 1670 Wisconsin Avenue NW. For further information, visit addisonripleyfineart.com or call the gallery at 202.338.5180 to schedule an appointment for an in-person viewing.

[1] DASER are the DC Art and Science Evening Rendezvous, Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences, Washington DC.

[2] https://www.eastcityart.com/reviews/east-city-art-reviews-bethesda-painting-awards-2019/

[3] Artist’s statement to the current exhibition, courtesy Addison/Ripley Fine Art.

[4] The distinction is similar to one made between the work of artists like Jasper Johns and Jim Dine to other Pop artists in the exhibit Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition 1955-62, that was at MOCA, Los Angeles 1992-93.

[5] Artist’s statement to the current exhibition, courtesy Addison/Ripley Fine Art.

This article was funded in part by a grant from the Capitol Hill Community Foundation.  Visit their website at www.capitolhillcommunityfoundation.com