David Richardson: Three Episodes
Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man; it cannot be mastered by laws and precept, but by sensations and watchfulness.
David Richardson is producing some of the finest abstract painting of our time. He is a serious painter, and his work has a narrative force even though it is abstract. It flows from a conscious quest for form unified with color that holds a very wide vision.
Art was everywhere in the childhood home of David Richardson in Waterford, Michigan. Waterford was a rural community with over twenty lakes, and it is located near Detroit, where Richardson would visit the Institute of Art. Richardson's mother, Norma Richardson, and brother, Nathan Richardson, painted and David Richardson always remembers seeing his mother's easel set up in a corner of a room in the house. Norma Richardson was an impressionist painter. There were reproductions of Van Gogh, Monet, Pissarro and Degas in the house and Richardson remembers seeing them very early in his life. It was Nathan Richardson who introduced his younger brother, David, to the abstract possibilities of figures and color composition.
As a child David Richardson would help his mother stretch her canvas, make frames, and apply oil stains on reliefs she would create. Richardson would get payment for doing chores by getting instruction in drawing. He remembers a five-minute instruction on how to draw a tree, and next day he was the one who could draw a tree for his fellow students.
Richardson recalls that his father regarded the painting of his wife as a kind of “magic she performed.” Later after her husband died the painting became critical to the financial survival of the family, as Norma Richardson became the breadwinner. Richardson recalls his mother being referred to as a painter, and traveling with his siblings and mother to outdoor art fairs.
Accuracy was important to the instruction Richardson's mother would give him in art, but it was placement of objects that was primary. “She pushed me to draw, learning perspective and composition,” Richardson recalls, “but there was some scolding if one drew a small figure in the middle of a large picture plane - she didn't approve of wasting paper; I had to fill the space. One also got marked down for putting the focal point in the middle of the page or splitting the composition in half - she was an asymmetrist. She got the color wheel out early and taught complements and contrasts to me early.” Richardson would watch his mother paint; she was quick and intuitive in her approach. He says, “The intuitive part helped me later when I began to rely on color as my main tool. I'd seen her simply make it happen, so I figured I could as well.”
Later when Richardson was in his late twenties he remembers, “I bought a copy of Itten's book on color and was intrigued to find he broke color use into three categories: those who use their teacher's color, those who use their internal color modus, and then those at the highest level who have a natural sense but expand on it through study and experiment. My mother was the latter - she pushed me to study color in order to augment my natural talent and to be able to solve problems of color in a systematic manner when necessary.”
The last lesson in painting came from his mother when she was at the end of her life. Richardson called her from Korea to question her about being an artist. He recalls the conversation, “'Mom, am I ever going to lose the inspiration to paint?' to which she replied without hesitation, 'No, Davy, you never will - I didn't and you won't.'” Richardson says, “It was a big relief!”
David Richardson has painted three important series of pictures in the last decade. The first is the Trojan War Series that not only precedes the other series but also continues to manifest. Wandering around Tokyo, Richardson noticed stone markers on temples, civic buildings, and businesses marked in Kanji. He could not read the inscriptions but somehow the shape of the markers haunted him. When he returned to the US in 2000 he painted a rough sketch from memory, no longer extant, and that was the beginning of the Trojan War Series.
Richardson is an artist who takes his literature seriously. He speaks of, “Big literature - Dickens, Remarque, Fitzgerald, Camus, Manning, Poe, Twain, Eliot - were authors I read and understood, some, as early as twelve. I was introduced to Homer in high school or college and the mortal characters mesmerized me. Homer's mortals are mythic, heroic and fraught with idiosyncrasies and contradictions.”
Myth is a mask, but it is a mask that is worn to allow greater freedom to reveal larger truths. These intensely painted works of Richardson make use of full-blooded color that relates to Homer's own "wine dark sea." Each picture is named for one of the personages of the legend. Richardson's paintings are divided into shapes suggesting fields in landscape that at the same time feel like figuration. The forms open up, as do windows in a wall or eyes into the soul. They are felt and experienced action; felt reflection.
In the richly textured paint there is an insistence on the linear. There are etched lines coursing through the paint furrows as well as larger imposed lines that define and redefine the larger shapes. One senses a strain in all the works that is the effort to fully express these characters through the presence of the brush. Richardson's brushwork is expressionist.
With the Trojan War Series I think of Matthias Grünewald. There is something in Richardson's paint quality that has Grünewald's urgency and richness. Richardson admits that Rembrandt's glazing technique has had a big technical impact on his work. He also states that, “Gottlieb was the first American I recall becoming transfixed by. Looking at Diebenkorn, Motherwell, and Gorky gave me jumping off points in my work.” In fact the greatest kinship one can compare in recent painting to Richardson's Trojan War Series is Motherwell's “Elegies to the Spanish Republic.”
Moving to Seoul, Korea started another series of pictures for Richardson. He found it a “gritty” and crowded city. He says New York City seems much more small town than Seoul, where people are packed together. The group of pictures having to do with Korea is titled “Expatriate,” and Richardson said part of his experience of Seoul was “people partying all night at the seemingly end of the earth. It's the wildest place I've ever lived.”
These recent works are constructed in pieces: squares and rectangles joined together. Richardson had the stretchers made by a carpenter in Seoul and he would take them on his bicycle to his studio. Being joined together makes them have a fragmented feeling, but Richardson paints so well they cohere easily. There are crosses in the pictures that are depictions or transcriptions of the lit-up neon crosses of the churches found throughout Seoul. Even though his paintings are abstract they are literal depictions of the chaos and cold energy of the huge, compressed, urban megacity.
The “Resurrection” series, started in 2008, and evolved out of the “Expatriate” series. These pictures incorporate the cross, as symbol as much as sign. They sometimes have a redemptive quiet calm, and an almost sweet beauty. They are some of the most lyrically accomplished work by this artist. Richardson is singing assuredly as he works to achieve cohesion and pure space. In these works he has taken his own interior life and transformed it into sure melody as well as dissonance.
When asked about the future of the Trojan War Series, Richardson speaks about the future of his painting as well, “It's going to spread out, almost as if I'll dismantle the pieces of the main motif and scatter them across the plane of the picture. I've tried it a few times and it hasn't worked... but I have not given up. One day, something will give and I'll get fed up with failing and it will work.”