Richard Hull, “The Ridiculous Mirror” (2016), oil and wax on linen, 52 x 56 inches (photograph courtesy of Western Exhibitions, Chicago, Illinois)

CHICAGO — In October 2016 I went to Richard Hull’s studio in the East Village neighborhood of Chicago and wrote about my visit. He was working on what he calls “stolen portraits,” and this is what I gleaned from our conversation:

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.

As chance would have it, I was recently in Chicago and saw the exhibition Richard Hull: New Work at Western Exhibitions (April 13 – May 26, 2018). 

Richard Hull, “Mirror: Here” (2018, front and back), oil on CNC-routed MDF, 30 x 25 x 9 1/2 inches (courtesy of Western Exhibitions, Chicago, Illinois)

The big surprise for me was the inclusion of five painted sculptures, which open up new territory for Hull. In an interview with the painter Alex Bradley Cohen, available on the gallery website, this how he described his paintings and sculptures:

I mostly see them as mirrors, especially the new sculptural pieces that take the actual form of a vanity mirror, with a nod to among others, the Rogier Van Der Weyden two-sided painting in the Art Institute of Chicago. I have always been interested in two opposing forces in a painting. 

After mastering his vocabulary of looping, concentric forms, Hull is clearly pushing them in different ways, toward unexpected trajectories. As long as I have known his work, which I first saw in 1981, Hull has used a mixture of oil and wax to articulate matte, warm, fleshy surfaces that feel perfect for his subjects: abstract heads.

The sculptures are made of MDF fiberboard, an industrial product that is denser and stronger than plywood. Their shapes resemble an explosion or cartoon splatter. They are edged with narrow, painted frames that conform to the contours of the exploding shape. They rise out of a base like heads on a neck, so that the base reads as shoulders. And yet, even as Hull courts this figurative reading while making a nod to vanity mirrors, the blooms of petal-like forms painted on both sides push towards abstraction. 

Richard Hull, “Dedication” (2018), oil and wax on linen, 78 x 96 inches (courtesy of Western Exhibitions, Chicago, Illinois)

We might read the petals as tongues and the painted vacuoles within them as eyes, or we might read them as wings. One side of the sculpture, the overlapping shapes often evoke a face but never add up to one. Meanwhile, on the reverse side, Hull depicts a simpler form that, for this viewer at least, evokes the back of a woman’s head, reminiscent of a hairdo from the 1940s and ‘50s, as well as African barbershop signs. 

The painted sculptures are a breakthrough for Hull. For while they share something with the painted objects made by artists connected with the Hairy Who, particularly Roger Brown and Karl Wirsum, Hull’s sculptures create a play between figure and abstraction, transparency and opacity, that is very much his own. The thrusting, overlapping petals shapes suggest barely contained energy, while their shapes point to myriad associations – tongues, sperm, feathers. In contrast to the tightly wrought styles of Wirsum, Jim Nutt, and others — practically a signature aspect of the Hairy Who and Chicago Imagists, Hull has loosened his application up. His concatenations of concentric, looping forms don’t define an overall shape so much as register a controlled whirlwind of paint. 

The other thing that struck me about Hull’s work was his color palette. He can use ten closely related greens in a painting such as “Arrived” (2016), while employing sharp contrasts and tonal shifts in “Ridiculous Mirror” (2016). He seems to have no agenda other than to use as many color combinations as he can. Some works are busy with dashes and circles, while others are dominated by broad swatches of unbroken color. 

Richard Hull, “Tuesday” (2017), Etching, aquatint on Arches Cover paper, 31 x 42 1/2 inches, edition of 15 (photograph courtesy of Manneken Press, Normal, Illinois, and Western Exhibitions, Chicago, Illinois)

The bulbous forms in Hull’s “stolen portraits” are funny, weird, seductive, robust, mysterious, saucy, and nearly impossible to decipher. That resistance to readability is key to what separates Hull from his more figuratively inclined forebears. Hull readily acknowledges his love for the Chicago Imagists, but that does not mean he is derivative.

The “stolen portraits,” with their myriad forms spilling forth in all directions, seem to know they possess more than they can handle. Clustering and overlapping his forms into a profuse visual bouquet, Hull carefully collapses the categories of abstraction and representation into something that engages the eye and mind. The reason is not purely formal. Taking a cue from Philip Guston, he establishes visual rhymes between noses and phalluses, and adds his own take by evoking tongues. As mirrors, his paintings and sculptures present viewers with an impenetrable surface: we never do know who someone really is. In Hull’s work, that opacity invites further curiosity and inquiry. 

Richard Hull: New Work continues at Western Exhibitions (1709 West Chicago Avenue, Suite 2c, Chicago Illinois) through May 26. 

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...