Observations of Modern Life, Ridley Howard: Slows, Leo Koenig Inc., New York

Text by Dan Tarnowski

Slows is a new exhibition of paintings by the Brooklyn artist, Ridley Howard. Howard’s second show at Leo Koenig Inc. marks both a new direction in his artwork and a continued exploration of his typical style, which could be described as conceptual figurative work.

The first painting seen in the exhibition depicts a man in a patterned sweater of brown, white, and orange. The man’s face is realistically rendered with soft shading but the pattern of his garment is painted in flat shapes that conjure a Native American blanket. The 2-D style of the sweater recalls the geometry of the abstract and minimalist art contained in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Man With Sweater (2011), with its juxtaposition of soft flesh and angular shapes, sets the tone for the exhibition.

Blue Yellow (2011), a composition of yellow circles flanking a pink square over a blue background recalls the colour experiments of Josef Albers. It also shares a similar colour palette to the Pac-Man game for Atari. Considered alongside Black with Shapes (2011), a composition of green squares on black, it begins to seem like the artist has a serious interest in abstract painting. But the abstracts only encompass one of three artistic styles exhibited in Slows.

Progressing in detail, next comes Building (2011), a fairly realistic representation of the front of a factory, the kind of building common in Howard’s hometown of Brooklyn. The building is viewed from straight on and framed in the canvas so it makes a perfect rectangle; no slanting of windows or doors; all right angles. The flattened composition and factory aesthetic recalls Charles Sheeler’s modernist paintings of industrial architecture.

Progressing in detail once again, next are Ridley Howard’s paintings of people. And they stand in stark contrast to all the geometry. Meticulously rendered with full attention paid to anatomy, Howard’s figures are quite sensual. Nudes (2011) is the most erotic work in the exhibition, showing a couple embracing, a woman wrapping her legs around a man as he sits on a white downy bed. Despite the sexiness of the image, the viewer is not invited into the scene for long. Small details—the birthmarks on the man’s back or a perfect horizontal line across the back wall—serve to distract the viewer and remind them of the artist’s geometrical theme. The yellow color of the woman’s tights matches a neighbouring painting, a still life called Trattoria (2011). The still life features a yellow wall, a table, overturned wine glasses, and a small photo of a cat. Thus, the viewer is led out of the lovers’ scene and sent through the exhibition once again, looking at each painting a second time.

Holly, Rose Dress (2011) offers an interesting counterpoint to Man With Sweater (2011). In the portrait, a woman in a striped and flower-patterned dress features the same blend of three-dimensional form and flattened graphics as the man in the sweater, however the top half of the woman’s face is cut off so the majority of the canvas is filled with her dress. Thus, the pattern on her garment becomes a composition of its own, the flowers drifting towards the right while the stripes ripple to the left. The movement in the pattern on the dress hints at emotions that are not captured in the stoic face of the woman.

Although Howard bridges organic and architectural forms, their combination doesn’t seem jarring or disharmonious. The underlying geometry that appears throughout the paintings, even in the positioning of a nude’s birthmarks, gives the artwork an orderly effect. The clearest example of this appears in Tracks (2011), a mostly-monochrome painting in which a green racetrack runs horizontally beneath a bevy of puffy trees. Each tree is different and spontaneously placed, while the track is a sleek horizontal zip. Although the scene is banal, it gains a picturesque quality from the subtle sunset in the background and from the orderly nature of the composition.

But what does all this order mean? Is it the artist’s yearning to find meaning in places and relationships? Or is the artist detached from his subject matter, lining up his figures and shapes as an homage to painting?

Ridley Howard: Slows, 19/01/2012 – 25/02/2012, Leo Koenig Inc., 545 West 23rd Street, New York, NY 10011. www.leokoenig.com


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