Richard Hull, “Delayed Surprise” (2016), oil and wax on linen, 24 x 78 inches (all images courtesy the artist)

CHICAGO — I first met Richard Hull in 1981, when he came to New York for the opening of his second show at the Phyllis Kind Gallery. At the time he was painting architectural interiors made of archways and planes intersecting at unlikely angles. Often, he depicted figurative silhouettes in the foreground, mute witnesses. In 1984 I included his work in an exhibition Bright Lights, Big City, an exhibition that I organized for the Phyllis Kind Gallery. In 1986, while in Chicago to do research for an essay on Roger Brown for his exhibition at Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C., organized by Sidney Lawrence, I visited Roger in his place on North Halstead Street, but never learned that Richard lived next door. On another occasion, while I was in Chicago, Richard graciously clued me in about the different groups of artists in the city, and the enmity that existed between various individuals, all of whom I was about to see, just not in the same room.

Richard Hull, “No. 2” (2015), crayon on paper, 24 x 18 inches

A few years later Richard and I lost sight of each other because our lives went through a variety of seismic changes. Through them all, he continued to live and work in Chicago, where he had gone to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for his MFA (1979), after earning his BFA at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1977. Meanwhile, I moved out of New York, returned a few years later, and then lived for brief periods elsewhere. For these and other reasons, Richard and I did not see each other until three years ago, when I was a visiting critic at SAIC, where he teaches. At that time I had only an inkling of how his work had changed in the thirty years since I last saw it.

When I was invited by Jessica Campbell to be on a panel at the Kavi Gupta Gallery and speak about Roger Brown and Andy Warhol, I decided to make sure that I would be able to visit Richard’s studio. After a few emails, we agreed upon a time to hang out and go to some galleries. It was during our email exchanges that I decided I would invite myself to his studio, seeing as he hadn’t.

Richard Hull, “Pink Mirror” (2016), oil and wax on linen, 36 x 30 inches

Richard’s studio is in an old storefront in the East Village section of Chicago. He paints in the front room, which was where the store used to be, and he and his wife live in the back, as did the grocer who once owned this store. Although Richard’s work had changed since I last saw it, there is one constant running throughout, which is his medium: he paints with a mixture of oil and wax. The result is a matte, warm, fleshy surface, which feels perfect for his subjects: abstract heads.

Richard Hull, “Joan of Arc” (2016), oil and wax on linen, 48 x 36 inches

The idea for the heads came from a game of exquisite corpse that Hull played with two friends, the saxophonist and composer Ken Vandermark and the illustrator and printmaker Dan Grzeca. Hull drew a horse’s rump with a looping tail, which became a profusion of petal-like shapes activated by concentric lines and dashes. He carried this profusion of shapes into his paintings, where a cell-like structure, complete with nucleus, can be found in many of the petals. The cells can look like eyes, all of which seem to be staring at you blankly. Other times the petals resemble the tongues of panting dogs, whirlpools of paint, a multitude of large ears, the leather plates and scales of samurai armor, or parts of unidentifiable and possibly dangerous plants. This dense bouquet of colored shapes is balanced on top of a neck and shoulders (or is it the top of a jug?) rising up from the painting’s bottom edge.

I was reminded of the depictions of the backs of heads that are frequently featured on African barber shop signs; the abstract heads that Barbara Rossi painted on Plexiglas (1972-75), which I reviewed when they were shown at the New Museum, and the melting, dripping heads of Peter Saul. These comparisons do not diminish Hull’s work. They help clarify how much they are his own, works you would never mistake for someone else’s. Hull’s paintings are alien creatures, psyches turned inside-out, abstract portraits, cartoon explosions of blob-like forms, otherworldly cousins of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s portraits composed of fruits, vegetables, and fish. They are comic, menacing, endearing,

A selection of the artist’s crayon drawings at his studio

At some point, I asked to see some drawings. I was curious because, during our conversation, he mentioned that he drew with Crayolas when he was a kid growing up in Oklahoma City. He began using them again when he moved to Chicago to get his MFA at SAIC, and hasn’t tired of them. It’s not hard to see why. Originally there were eight colors in a box of Crayola Crayons. Now you can get such colors as “Alien Armpit” (yellow green), “Atomic Tangerine,” “Neon Carrot,” and “Blizzard Blue.” I would not be surprised if Hull has used nearly all of them. It would be interesting to learn the names of all the reds, browns, and blues he uses in a single drawing.

In his drawings and paintings, he layers one color over another, and then scratches back into the surface. He will use many shades of a single hue, , and then find ways to interrupt our expectations with flashes of strong, contrasting and complementary colors. The scratched surface, with other colors peeking through, requires you to refocus, begin noticing all the different tones, shifts, and surprises Hull has orchestrated in one composition. I have the feeling that Hull will use whatever color is available, that he has no set palette, no identifiable preferences. There is something wonderfully incongruous about what he calls his “stolen portraits.” For those who know Hull’s early work, the blossoming, exploding heads are related to the silhouettes in his architectural paintings, except in the recent work we are not sure where they are what they are seeing as they stare right at us.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...