From exhibition brochure for solo exhibition at Fusebox, Washington, DC 2003
In his recent paintings, W.C. Richardson has gone beyond the work he did in the late 1990’s, when he “counterposed” what David Moos described as two “antithetical grounds of paint.” In Overlay Wind (2001), it’s as if two distinct systems are passing through each other at different speeds. Each is simultaneously solid and permeable. One is made up of swirls of interlocking white bands and red shard-like shapes, while the other is made up of brownish-red oblongs and diamonds. The intersection of these two realms creates a third system, a compelling visual conundrum.
The logic (or laws) governing what shape (or part) is in front and what is behind is not immediately apparent. Our attention shifts along an unpredictable continuum, as we try to isolate a part of the painting, while being conscious of the entire work. Looking is an active engagement, a commitment to discerning the different kinds of interactions occurring within the painting. Are the interlocking red shapes and white swirling bands on the same paint plane? Is the pattern of oblongs and diamonds floating behind the red shapes and white bands or absorbing them into reddish-brown order? Instead of defining antithetical grounds, he is exploring their symbiotic, non-hierarchical relationship. It is a relationship whose metaphorical implications extend into both science and the social, physics and politics.
Richardson consistently subverts our desire for a cause and effect relationship. In doing so, he has moved from a mechanistic order to an imaginative one. What are we to make of all this? A lot, I would suggest. Take Slider (2002), for example. The two systems appear to be both independent of each other, yet absolutely in need of each other. And within the two larger systems we notice all sorts of molecule-like shapes, free floating universes that exist on their own. Reality, we might remember, keeps escaping any model of it we construct. The more we know about the universe, the more wondrous and mysterious it becomes. Richardson seems to be on a parallel course, directing his attention and ours toward the mysterious.
It is in the molecule-like shapes that the painting seems to take over, demanding Richardson’s complete attention. By going back into the painting, and being attentive to every mark, both the random splatters and the patterns, he develops a possibility that goes beyond the systems themselves. What is striking about Richardson’s recent work is that he arrives at his complexities through the act of painting. It is not a complexity he imposes upon the painting, but one that he discovers in the making. In his best paintings, his discoveries strike us as hard-earned.
One of the recurring dilemmas an abstract artist faces is subject matter. Should the work refer to naturalistic sources, the history of abstract art, or to an idea about painting? Richardson doesn’t resort to any of these by-now familiar approaches. Rather, his work evokes the latest findings in physics. One thinks of dark matter, for example, matter so small it passes through solid objects. These paintings not only remind us how layered and complex reality actually is, they also celebrate it.
John Yau, May 2003
John Yau is a poet, critic, and the publisher of Black Square Editions. He has taught extensively, most recently in the Yale University Graduate Art Department.
From exhibition brochure for solo exhibition at Kiang Gallery, Atlanta, GA 2004
W.C. Richardson’s paintings are quick on the eye, slow on the mind. Pick a square. There is complexity, but also clarity. For all the curves and corners, the hues and curlicues, there is the intimation that the image is easily graspable, all at once. This is a promise whose pleasures are in the breaking.
There is no one way in, no one way out. Spirals delineate the most obvious pathways for the eye; they also prove to be the most neatly thwarted. Color makes its diversions, overtly from relations in form, more covertly from the eye’s overeager apprehension of color itself. Rhymes of shape and shape, line and line are always more subtle than was first assumed.
In 5 to 6 to 5, any of the spirals can be picked up at the tip of its centermost coil--medium blue set against lighter, cooler periwinkle--and traced outward. Through cream-colored segments framed by a vibrantly variegated, underpainted line it runs, back into the blue, nicking or piercing a rubbery black, the colors shifting, the path nudged by stubborn spatters of paint, until it exits the side of the picture plane, only to take up the game again on its next orbit through.
But to relentlessly track a spiral until it departs the solar system of the painting is to contrarily ignore not only color, at the expense of line, but also the titular geometry that color establishes. Like the others, this painting is laid out on an 11-by-11 grid, a format that suggests a number of glib central symmetries, none of which is exploited. The rhythms, though constructed from small, repeated units, are always several beats from simple.
It's a fact of simple arithmetic that the spaces separating a series of objects number one less than the number of objects: five fingers, four spaces between them. 5 to 6 to 5 toys with our expectations by flipping back and forth between space and object, figure and ground, negative and positive. On the left, six light blocks are separated by five darker fingerlike projections; on the right, their numbers are reversed. And in the middle, somewhere between five and six, the exchange takes place.
Scholars of musical perception disagree over the number of overlapping lines the brain can track at one time. Some say three, some four, some more. In any case, it’s fewer than you’d think. However many analogous visual events we can follow—say N—Richardson offers N + 1, N + 2, N + 3…
The object isn’t to overwhelm but to entice, to keep us manipulating the terms we’ve been confronted with. This pictorial algebra aims at no solution. There’s no point at which we can smugly attach a Q.E.D. to the last line and toss the pencil back into the drawer. These paintings aren’t about finding the right answer, as in mathematics, and they aren’t about producing the reproducible result, as in science. They’re about the good answer, an experience that, though played out upon a configuration that is itself unchanging, is different every time.
And the good answer isn’t really an answer at all. It’s a perceptual state, a frame of mind, marked not by resolution but by a welcome frustration. We assemble a mental image of the physical image before us, cobbling it together from layer upon layer of attempts at understanding it that never seem to go more than half the distance. There’s one game here, played a dozen different ways. And though we come to relish the contest, we don’t get much closer to winning it. Nor would we want to. In this case, practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes patient.
SWING SHIFT, Glen Dixon. Washington City Paper June 15, 2003 P. 52
In my other life, I work on records for a mail-order music repackager. When you see some double-disc compilation advertised on late-night TV, sometimes I’m the guy who transcribed the lyrics, edited the liner notes, or looked up the chart positions. We recently wrapped up a jazz series on which I was responsible for giving player lineups and instrument credits the third degree: Is that string bass or brass bass on that scratchy CD’s side? Is there four-to-the-bar guitar buried beneath the piano in that ‘30s big band? How many horns in that speedy bop intro?
When deadline was approaching, nothing was so welcome as a famous small group Blue Note date: A quick listen through the track to make sure nobody was laying out, and I was done. But some of the most rewarding work came in trying to isolate details from the immense tapestries of sound woven by shakily documented larger ensembles. It required a nimble finger on the CD remote and a different kind of listening. Once I’d grasped the central action, I’d divert my attention to less noticeable features. I’d focus on the interstices, waiting for the flourish that definitively revealed the presence of a player whose task up to that point had been to bolster and blend with the rhythm section. Or I’d follow one alto line exclusively, checking to see whether the soloist had enough downtime to switch over to clarinet. Once I figured out how the pieces fit together, I’d allow my self the luxury of retuning to the whole; it never sounded as it had before.
You look at the geometric abstractions of Washington painter W.C. Richardson in much the same way. First you attempt to accustom yourself to the underlying structure, adjusting to the repeats in the pattern used to tile the square of the picture plane as if learning rhythms and chord changes. Then you begin to follow the melodic phrasing of the bubble-chamber spirals that coil across the tiles, changing colors at each border. You take note of the finer points of the arrangement, the spatter of grace notes that delicately alter the eye’s direction through the picture. Suddenly, the whole apparatus throws you: Figure-ground relationships flip. Inside and outside, loud and soft change place. Submerged colors rise to the surface, expanding as though released from great pressure. The diffident sideman steps into the spotlight and starts improvising a whole new tune. Caught off guard, you race to match his speed.
Naturally, all paintings of any depth give themselves up in a variety of ways to the solitary viewer, but the oil-and-alkyd canvases Richardson has been making over the past few years seem to be concerned chiefly with the shifting pleasures that the static image can strike into the eye and mind of a dedicated observer. Persistence is required, and focus. To walk into the Fusebox opening is to observe a handsome gathering of recent Richardsons, but mere graphic bounce isn’t what this painter is after, no matter how skilled he is at it.
His work, like classic jazz, is at once both dance music and art music of great intellectual sophistication. And Richardson knows how to swing smart. The obvious asymmetries in the larger forms of Pale Array(2003), for example, shrewdly mask similar relationships translated to a smaller scale and nested inside. And when Richardson paints the designs he has transferred from sketches, the looseness of his handling prevents the shapes they describe from stiffening into predictability: Flung (2000-2002) reverberates with the varied spacing of adjacent semicircular and bull-nose contours. Amid the boldly clashing blue and red of the 77-inch square Check Changes (2002), exquisitely pale and brushy purple and green tender the barest suggestion of self-assertion.
You soon learn not to underestimate ostensibly simpler pictures such as the small-format FMLB (2001-2003). And Jerry’s Twine (2002), though less than 3 feet on a side, could hold a wall all by itself. Richardson’s paintings don’t play nice, and they don’t play fair. One of them can muscle around a roomful of strong pictures (as at Fusebox’s Chromophilia a year and a half ago), or it can dominate dozens of weaker works (as at last year’s University of Maryland faculty show). When placed in a room together, Richardson’s canvases threaten to pull the brain in 20 different directions. But to fault him for this effect would be as foolish as blaming Hoagy Carmichael for your inability to whistle “Star Dust” while reading the sheet music to “Baltimore Oriole” as “Georgia on My Mind” hovers in the background.
You’re not done with Richardson until he gets in the sucker punch. Something you’ve glossed over and misapprehended while struggling with his jostling formal schemes – something right in front of your face – blindsides you utterly. For me this time out, it was the dark dots that anchor light-colored vertical switchbacks of Check Changes. I’d seen them as the regular crossings of a grid, when, in fact, they follow no simple layout: dependable ranks of rectangles are syncopated into slinky cascades of trapezoids. There it was: the rush of corrected perception, followed quickly by stunned disbelief that the painting hadn’t somehow physically altered itself while my attention was diverted elsewhere. Once you feel like a sap and are all the more grateful for it, then you can go home.
On a macro level, one Richardson painting works pretty much the same way as the next, but each pictorial organizing system is completely specific to its microcosmic self. Finding your way through one of them in no way gives you a leg up on the next; you take up the challenge afresh. The 50-year-old artist claims to be content doing pretty much the same thing he has always done. But his most recent works far surpass earlier elaborations of his concerns in subtlety, complexity, and force. The painter’s modest self-assessment calls to mind a remark Peter Greenaway made to this paper years ago: “Jean Renoir once suggested that most true creators have only one idea and spend their lives reworking it, but then most people don’t have any ideas at all, so one idea is pretty amazing.”
You could describe Richardson’s one idea in purely formal terms: He plays figure-ground relationships that are defined, reinforced, and undercut by competing applications of color and pattern. To do so, however, is to sell short the achievement of one of the best abstract painters yet produced by Washington, a town that cares deeply for abstract painting. To see his art is to become at once sensualist and skeptic, mistrustful of the charms of first impressions but susceptible just the same.
David Moos Essay from catalogue for 1998 solo show at Baumgartner Gallery, DC.
There is a photograph André Kertész took of Mondrian’s studio in 1926. What is visible, in this image, is the threshold, the entrance to Mondrian’s third floor Paris sanctuary. The right half of the image shows the view beyond the doorway, revealing the curving handrail of the staircase and the wooden floor of the landing. And inside the studio: we see a round vase that throws a diagonal shadow across a blank table top; some flowers in a vase; the round from of a hat hung above the dark silhouette of a coat. Merely from this fragment of the studio -- composed of table leg and top, doorway, and hat board -- one gleans that Mondrian’s interior environment is faultless, composed, ordered.
The image is interesting because it apparently reveals so little of Mondrian’s studio. All we see is the antechamber to the artist’s domain, and a bulbous vase containing flowers. Mondrian described this vase as an emblem of “feminine grace and charm” inserted into his otherwise stark environment. Discussing these flowers, posed here as a kind of sentinel, Mondrian stated: “The flower is artificial, and what is more, I whitewashed the leaves in order to banish that impossibly naturalistic green from my interior.”1
What I find compelling about this eccentric emblem, overripe with symbolic significances, is not how it might affect a reading of Mondrian’s work and thought at the time, but rather, the gesture of its making. Forget the purchase of artificial flowers and their strategic positioning as mediary between inside and outside realm: What grips my imagination is envisioning Mondrian painting over the plastic leaves, applying his brush to the rippled, uneven surface of a leaf. Kertész’ photograph is a black and white image. Unless we know of this gesture -- this odd application of paint -- it would be impossible to notice the forced whiteness of the leaves.
The surfaces of W.C. Richardson’s recent paintings are comprised of two counterposed, even antithetical grounds of paint. Visually, and then often spatially, these grounds change places and may be seen to merge. Consider works such as Floating Link and In the Beam and their method of construction.
There seem to be two distinct phases of making; each could not be more separate from the other. First, there occurs an intuitive, curvilinear application that flows freely across the canvas’ surface. These applied spiral lines are then retraced, reified by a steady, intent brush. Richardson re-paints, in order to define, the apparently random Pollockesqe swirls. The “drip” is treated like a continuous spool. Richardson appears to have unraveled circular lines of near-equal width with a measured, almost designed precision. This linear pattern is often punctuated by dots and splotches that signal, semiotically, that these curvaceous networks were once poured, long before the painting became an act of transcription. With In the Beam, Richardson has changed colors to allow nine circles of black to intrude within the bright spiraling green.
Following this phase of ground preparation, a rigid geometric template is used to map out a specific territory for the paint brush. While the brush’s trace has been suppressed in the drip/spiral phase, here with the arrival of geometric structures, the brush acquires a tangible, modeling presence. In works such as Pushing Switches or Simple Rules Richardson moves his white-laden brush with a determined, Ryman-like, horizontal drag. Whatever colors are trapped beneath, now flicker through this striated covering. The thickened, lushly fashioned white has been pulled like a horizontal blind over the paintings’ surface. Conforming to the shape of his chosen templates -- be they grid-like or compass-drawn -- Richardson allows these white forms to void out the spiraling chromatic paths. Because the color white recalls the material ground of primed canvas, we construe it as a ground. This reading may shift, however, propelled by the paradox that the white is the most textured and materially rich component to the paintings.
This oscillating, visual vibration, sets up the sequence of opposites that underwrite Richardson’s project as a painter. While an obvious group of dyadic properties arises -- figure/ground, intuition/logic, surface/structure -- from this formal frisson, other readings unfold. The labor of the painting’s construction, as structuration, yields to the sonority of the interpretive possibility. Richardson recently spoke of his paintings, “as compressed visions that somehow embody the thoughts, associations, references, connections, histories and sources that are brought to bear in their making.”2
At this point, whatever subjectivity the artist has invested into his work defers to the viewer’s investment. These paintings trap the viewer in his or her willingness to grapple with the conundrums that Richardson has spliced together in paint. The paintings all reach toward the fusion, as pure confusion, of positive and negative spatial structures. By imploding whatever hierarchy might be noted throughout the sequence of making, a new seamlessness results perceptually, experientially.
The afterground, a term that relates to the possibility of an other, third ground, arrives as the consequence of perception seeking to structure itself through the painting. This effect is available only through paint, and could not be substituted by, for example, the suture of collage. The painted boundaries within the work, of paint abutting with paint, create both an absolute and smooth division. The disparity between one patterned ground and another ground produces an unstable difference that continually circulates. This, of course, is the illusory, fictive ground of thought -- of vision striving to make sense of its own perception. The mind is freed through this process of self-observance, is left to wander across plausible and improbable readings. Only a strange conclusion will interrupt the binary reading, and thereby fuse solidly, impossibly. Such strangeness might be akin to Mondrian painting the surface of an artificial leaf: learning, through doing, how this must actually feel.
-- David Moos 1998
1. Mondrian as quoted in Briony Fer, On Abstract Art. New Haven: University Press, 11997. P.43.
2. Richardson as quoted in Jeffrey Brown, “A Conversation on Ideas and Art,” Washingon Review, Vol. XXIII, no. 3. (Oct/Nov 1997). P. 8.
Excerpts from brochures, articles and reviews
From exhibition brochure for solo exhibition at Cecille R. Hunt Gallery, Webster University, St. Louis, MO. October - December 2007.
Richardson’s recent work presents an intersection of layered systems, seeking an intricate unity established through the act of painting and inviting an active engagement with his volatile color and figure-ground relationships. His oil and alkyd canvases explore predetermined geometric structures that interact with free-drawn forms and harmonious systems of paint are influenced by both science and politics. Intentionally subverting our need for a “cause and effect” relationship, Richardson pushes his formal schemes as he moves from what he describes as “a mechanistic order to an imaginative one” as the successive layers flip and reconfigure in a boundless space. Using inundated color palettes and growing patterns he shifts our perception, playing with asymmetry by covering and interlocking large and small-scale shapes, the viewer is left to decipher between inside and outside, foreground and background. Simultaneously concrete and permeable, the intersection of these passages create a visual puzzle highlighting the underlying structure, where, complexity and energy are defined and weakened by layers of opposing grounds. Richardson’s paintings investigate the non-hierarchical association between his systems, ultimately to discover that they appear to be both independent and symbiotic.
Dana Turkovic, Director
Cecille R. Hunt Gallery
Excerpt from catalogue essay by curator Christopher French for WPA/Corcoran at Central Armature, a component of ArtSites 96, a multi-venue exhibition of artists working between Richmond and Baltimore. July-August 1996:
The art of Caryl Burtner, Matt Dibble, Larry Mullins, W.C. Richardson, Todd Rosenbaum, and Daniel Sullivan consciously straddles a line between sensuous materialism and metaphysical inquiry. To convey this duality between recognizable material forms and the shadowy identities they assert, these artists employ disparate styles, media, and subjects that variously take their inspiration forom natural models or human innovations. At a time when the rapid, relentless pace of technological advance makes it sometimes seem that art objects are destined to become yet another outmoded commodity, Burtner, Mullins, Rosenbaum, and Sullivan embrace, often with an intensely purposeful primitivism, the human qualities of the handmade art object. On the other hand, Dibble, Richardson, and Turk emphasize mechanical strategies or devises as a means of codifying, determining, or understanding a personal perspective on physical existence.
…Taking inspiration from recent scientific developments in chaos or string theory as well as the artistic color theories of Joseph Albers, W. C. Richardson’s paintings evoke the warp and woof of physical structure. While his brightly colored palette and looping gestures may at first give the impression of an action painter working spontaneously, each of Richardson’s “gestures” is in fact meticulously planned. Constructed from a host of smaller gestures, they are, in turn, harmonized within the geometry of an overall composition that serves as a self-regulating plan. Pinned and Shifted, for example, fuses figure and ground, image and form into a matrix that shimmers with the contradictory tensions underlying its many constituent parts. Richardson adopts the purity of abstraction as a means of distinguishing the gestures of individuality from the larger patterns of social, biological, or mechanical interaction; his paintings imply that the state of being is a single actuality fashioned from a multitude of potentialities.
Despite their differing viewpoints, each of these artists embraces the Platonic tradition of art as a mirror that, despite its all-too apparent imperfection, is valuable when it functions like a moral fable, as a means of distinguishing the categories and values of action and knowledge in the real world.
Excerpt from review of exhibition at Baumgartner Galleries. Martha McWilliams. “Shaping Up.” The Washington City Paper. April 23, 1993. P. 52.
Until recently, (Richardson’s) works were artful pictorial commentaries on his understandings of the ambiguities and paradoxes of modern science, gestural loops and webs of color tracing the knowable after it was gone. The new works contain forms, perplexingly asymmetrical shapes which emerge from or sink into the gridded ground sculpted by concentric rings of paint. In some, particularly Evenflow, Fielding Fits, and Brown Steps, a thick, knife-smoothed ground breaks into the field of rings, producing spatial ambiguity and visual tension between the contrasting layers of image and texture.
This ambiguity and tension combines with a new confrontational quality, producing a surprising aggressiveness and even brutality in a few of the forms. In this move from the diagram to the model, so to speak, Richardson has moved from intellectual to physical confrontation. And just as the paintings refuse an easy mental resolution through symmetry and anticipated balance, they refuse both illusionism and the appeal of elegance.
Excerpts from reviews of the exhibition From the Potomac to the Anacostia: Art and Ideology in the Washington Area curated by Dr. Richard Powell. Washington Project for the Arts. Washington, DC. January-February 1989:
For example, (Powell) suggests that the city’s abstract layout by Pierre L’Enfant – “the grid-like streets, diagonal avenues radiating out of circular plazas, and genesis in 18th century rationalist thought” – has been an influence on the webs and systems painted and drawn here by W.C. Richardson, Andrea Way, Darrell Dean, Simon Gouveneur and Frank Smith.
But beyond this similarity to the city plan is a more profound theme linking these artists’ works – a preoccupation with the way events, like living organisms, natural forces and matter are interwoven inextricably both in the material universe and in our cultural consciousness.
The Smithsonian Institution has been proselytizing the idea of the universe as an all-embracing web of relationships for the last two decades, so it is natural that Washington should also be home to some of the most eloquent art exemplifying this concept.
Jane Addams Allen. “Paradoxes of D.C. The Washington Times. February 4, 1989. P. E1, E8