I fell in love with Ridley Howard’s painting when I saw his 2014 exhibition at Koenig & Clinton Gallery. The show, as a whole, created a world that one rarely sees in contemporary art: romantic, refined, delicate, and impeccably crafted. In sentiment, the work was full of nostalgia and fantasy, but it was also believable and contemporary, with references to street fashion and specific New York City locations. I joked that his work was my new painting crush, and I think I actually blushed when I met him at an opening a few weeks later.
Recently we talked at his studio, which he was about to relinquish (it was, for fifteen years, its own kind of fantasy — a sun-filled storefront in the heart of Williamsburg, near the water). At one point, I wanted to ask a question about a painting of lovers, and I said, “You know, the one with the rose tattoo,” blushing, again, when I couldn’t quite get myself to refer to the “from-behind” sex scene. It is telling that the work, which is not aggressive in feeling, color, or paint application, can still be provocative, especially in our shock-resistant culture.
Howard paints couples — kissing, having sex, and going down on one another. He also paints imagined portraits — women elegantly styled with high heels, lipstick, and earrings. He has painted his wife, the painter Holly Coulis, in a patterned dress and glasses. However, the paintings are as much about distilled form and color harmonies as they are about narrative. Howard uses broad, evenly painted color planes and large swaths of abstract geometries to create a symbolic environment for his characters. His colors can be soft and gentle, but the harmonies are charged and highly specific in tone.
Howard was born in 1973 in Atlanta, Georgia, and received his BA and BFA from the University of Georgia, Athens, and MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He shows with Andréhn-Schiptjenko Gallery, Stockholm, Sweden and Frederic Snitzer Gallery, Miami. He has most recently shown in New York with Koenig & Clinton (formerly Leo Koenig Gallery). He was also the subject of solo exhibitions in 2013 at the Savannah College of Art and Design and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. A selection of Howard’s paintings is currently on view, through July 29, 2016, in the Chelsea location of James Cohan Gallery as part of the group exhibition Intimisms.
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Jennifer Samet: You grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. Did you have any family members who were artists, or draw as a child?
Ridley Howard: My great uncle was a hobbyist artist of sorts. He did wildlife painting and had a basement studio. I was obsessed with that basement, and the fact that he could spend his afternoons doing whatever he wanted. He was involved with the world of wildlife art – both making it and collecting the work of other artists.
I was always drawing and painting watercolors. I remember drawing a lot of sports logos and mascots at age six or seven. My father would be watching the game, and I would draw. I got attention for it, partly because he loved that it was the Bulldog or Falcon or whatever. I also drew a lot of cartoons and did some wildlife paintings to imitate my uncle.
I was lucky to have a great high school art teacher, who introduced me to 20th-century art. I also became interested in contemporary art, and I remember loving the Robert Rauschenberg and the Ed Ruscha at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. By age 16 or 17, I was enamored with the idea of being an artist in New York, even though I didn’t actually understand what that meant.
JS: Were you also interested in sports? Did you play sports growing up?
RH: I was a daydreamer as a kid and stared out the window a lot. My parents, who were very athletic, worried about me being uncoordinated and a bit of a space cadet. They signed me up for soccer, which was unusual in the 1970s in Atlanta. The first day of practice I fell off the jungle gym before it started, hurt myself and couldn’t play. After a rough beginning, I turned out to be a pretty good player. I had a lot of heart and worked hard.
My friend, the artist Jim Lee, and I have joked about how our friends are either sports fans or painters. The willingness to give yourself up to a fictional space, which ultimately doesn’t mean anything, is something that I admire in people. It’s about believing in it, and being passionate about it, despite a colder logic. As a kid, you fantasize about the drama of scoring the last second winning goal. I think it’s good to maintain some of that irrational romanticism.
JS: What kind of work were you making in college and graduate school?
RH: I did my undergraduate work at the University of Georgia in Athens. Most of the conversations at the time revolved around material and process, and a kind of neo-expressive painterliness. I was doing paintings influenced by Frank Auerbach, Eric Fischl, and Lucian Freud. My student work was very typical 1980s British School. I was good at slinging thick paint.
I did my MFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which was more of a 1990s conceptual postmodern program. Some grad students were doing painting, but they strongly encouraged multi-media crossover. After struggling through my first year, I arrived at doing some decent Gerhard Richter-ish paintings, which were all about staging and mediated experience. I am still interested in that, but it was pretty heavy-handed back then.
Now, I feel like the work is a combination of those two extremes. On one hand, it is fundamentally romantic painting, and about a kind of escapism in image and process. But, at the same time, it is a construction of space that feels more cerebral than what we often think of as “expressive.”
JS: I am surprised that I don’t see a lot of images posted on your studio walls. The figures in your paintings seem very specific, and you articulate details like accessories and makeup. What kind of source imagery do you use?
RH: I do usually have images around, but I never pull from a single source. I look at film stills, I find images online, and I look at old advertisements. Sometimes I take photographs if I need a reference for an anatomical issue. The paintings are a composite of a number of sources, including invention. The eye shadow, earrings, or fingernail polish, or tattoos — you can sort of say it’s all imagined, even if I’m finding reference images.
The language of photography and film is embedded in the work, but I don’t want them to read as replications. When the paintings become more developed, I typically put away reference images. The logic of the painting dictates what happens.
They have the implication of a personal space, but they are also connected to a broader cultural image bank. I’m not so interested in postmodern pastiche, but I do think about a melting of my interests and the influence of external information. How do you navigate this constant flood of images, and also carve out an experience in a painting? How do you make a personal landscape that is also impersonal?
All of the spaces and locations in the work are references to places I have been — Rome, Mexico City, Bologna, New York — so there is an autobiographical aspect, but in the end, they are the fictional version of those places. Part of that comes from the emptying of details. There is a distillation that happens.
JS: Can you talk more about your process? How do you work out the compositions and the color chords in your work?
RH: I usually start by working in a Moleskin notebook, doing thumbnail sketches, and thinking about possible compositions. Then I do big drawings. I work out a lot of structural issues in the drawing phase before painting.
I directly transfer the drawing using tracing paper, and loosely block in color from there. The complexity of the paintings really opened up when I started drawing ahead of painting, because I could think about space in a different way. I found that if I was fumbling with a paintbrush to draw a hand, I couldn’t think about color and light with the same kind of intensity.
I used to do color studies, but now I figure it out as I go. So I’ll start with a general idea of tonality, or a sense of light. It’s then a gradual process of building up the density of the paint and adjusting color as I work. Sometimes they change radically, and sometimes it’s just the subtle difference between blues that changes the tenor of the painting.
I will easily spend an hour or more just mixing color. Muddy, lazy color drives me crazy. As a painter, the variables are so few. Color is one of those things that is always in play.
I used to be a more freewheeling, sloppy colorist until I worked for Jeff Koons on his color-mixing table. We would be given a swatch and asked to match it perfectly. You could spend three hours preparing a color that would be used to paint a shadow on a cheek or a Cheerio. They were so strict; it was like basic training. I learned a lot about deliberately mixing oil paint.
JS: I wonder what other artists are particularly influential in your work?
RH: I think about second-generation Pop artists like Tom Wesselmann, John Wesley, Ed Ruscha, and Rosalyn Drexler. In late Pop Art there is a more personal, almost surrealist fictional space. I also love the stillness and detachment of American scene painting, like the Ashcan School, Edward Hopper, Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz, and Sylvia Sleigh. And I still think a lot about Piero della Francesca and Fra Angelico.
The Pop artists have the graphic punch that I want my work to have, but the language of romantic painting is also important to me. I think that materializes in the way that edges are teased out. In some ways, you can tell everything about a painter from how they deal with the edges where colors meet. If you think about Raoul de Keyser, Wesley, Morandi, Piero, Manet, or Picasso, you see that the real character of the painting is in the edge. Like in Morandi, there is a kind of trembling line.
JS: What have you been looking at recently?
RH: I was in Italy last summer and spent a lot of time looking at Venetian and Baroque painting. It’s probably been since undergrad that I thought about Caravaggio or Titian in relation to my own work — it seems to have such a different character. I thought about the high-contrast lighting in that work, and how shadows affect the feeling of a space. I love the tension between rendered forms and the vast spaces around them. I also thought about the landscape elements in Bellini paintings — even in his most intimate portraits. What interests me is how they are like images of landscapes. The mountains function as mountains, but they are also about the language of landscape.
Ruscha does this in a interesting way. On the one hand he is playing with the language of images — it is a quotation of sorts. At the same time, the paintings offer a visual indulgence into the landscape space or the painting space. He has it both ways. This is also true of the recent Ken Price drawing show at Matthew Marks.
JS: You have mentioned this fictional space that exists in the work, or the work of others. Can you talk more about that idea?
RH: I like that painting is inherently fictional. I have always been interested in the decisions painters make within that space — the kind of experience they create. I also have real filmmaker envy. I sometimes think of constructing a world that might exist in a film, or a film that I’d want to watch. Occasionally I’ll reference facial features of obscure actors or actresses. But it is always a blend of different people, and essentially made-up. These people only exist in the paintings, with a few exceptions.
Sometimes I take cues from actual films, and I love book design from the 1960s and 70s. I’m interested in the graphic designer Lester Beall, and others like him. That period of design feels very painterly. I also love the graphic design around the French New Wave film movement, and the way that Michelangelo Antonioni’s films were packaged in terms of design. I like that film posters can capture the essence of the film in an arrangement of graphic elements and image.
JS: Sex is recurring subject in your work. Why do you depict lovers?
RH: I like thinking about the love scene as a genre. Even in a movie that isn’t a romance, you have to have a love scene. So, I think about the painting that is the love scene. They exist within the broader body of the work and are presented as kind of ordinary. There is a hot/cool balance that is important.
Maybe it is interesting to make paintings about intimacy as a youngish, male painter. A play of masculinity is part of all of my work, I think. It would be easier to make dude paintings about sex. I want them to be more vulnerable, in a way. I’ve had people think that I was a female painter — and I kind of like that. My first name is slippery. At the same time, the paintings are unapologetically what they are.
I like making paintings that can be read in multiple ways, all in one synthesized image. That concept is most active in some of the lover paintings. In one way they are very banal, in another way they are charged, in another way they are funny, at times they feel like appropriated images, and they are almost sentimental in their romanticism. I hope they are difficult to pin down.
What is happening in “Line Rose” (2016) is so straightforward. The way that it is cropped is abrupt. But it is also kind of sweet and soft. There is no conclusion to the painting or, really, to any of my paintings. There isn’t one way I want people to experience them.
JS: Do you consider who the audience is?
RH: I guess it’s a hypothetical audience, but the reception of the work is important. The audience I think about specifically is made up of a few close friends and my wife, Holly Coulis. They are a microcosm of a broader group. Over time, I have realized there will always be some percentage of people who dislike my work. There will be people who think it’s just okay, but maybe not their thing. And then there are people who might like it. I’m not just making work for the people who like it, but also for the people who hate it. I want them to really hate it. I want to understand what they don’t like about it, and make sure those elements are pronounced.
There are certainly times when even the clothes people are wearing, or the scenarios they find themselves in, could be more over-the-top or outlandish. But there is something very rich about holding back, which is true for fiction or film or any painting I really love. I think it would be really easy, in an age of pornography, for example, to make sex paintings in a different way. I think about restraint a lot.
JS: For how long do you generally work on the paintings?
RH: They can take a few weeks, and a couple of months for the larger ones. I work on multiple paintings at once. For me, the paintings become stranger when they crystallize. There is something about the combination of distance and touch that happens. The immediate payoff of a more painterly painting is seductive. I often quickly block in a painting and think, “That looks pretty good.” Then I wrestle with it for a month. In the end I like it much better, because it has become weirder in sneaky ways.
For instance, “Peach Sunrise” (2016), was a difficult color scheme to work out. At one point the sky above the mountains was dark and the space around the figures was light. The blue strip was green, and the woman’s shirt was pink. That painting has far more than a typical four layers. Now I like the idea of it being very early morning. Maybe they are in an interior space; maybe they are under the sky. That blue strip can either be a windowsill, or just a graphic moment in the painting. The figures look as if they are lit by the sky. I like the psychological space now, and that has something to do with the time I spent painting it.
I love playing formal games in the work, but I want the figurative elements and the formal elements to inform one another. I hope it all adds up to some kind of larger experience. A blue painting feels very different from a yellow painting, beyond just the color itself. A stripe is never just a stripe; a color is never just a color.