Ridley Howard Travel Picturesby Jason Rosenfeld
MARINARO GALLERY | MAY 3 – JUNE 18, 2017
Athens, Georgia, and Brooklyn-based painter Ridley Howard’s first show at Marinaro Gallery is consistently compelling and abundantly aware of the history of art—strengths of a painter in his mid-forties with his own fully developed style. He is part of a powerful current of artists who work in finely rendered imagery far from photographic realism, but who present individuated, concise, optical realities. Ellen Altfest, Mathew Cerletty, Orion Martin, Keith Mayerson, and Aliza Nisenbaum come to mind. Of them all, Howard trades the most in both art history and the corners of memory in his placid yet moving works: meticulous paintings marked by a pleasant wistfulness.
The eight works, throughout three rooms and all painted this year, move away from earlier pictures of standing figures frozen in silent conspiracy, that blended Giovanni Bellini’s Venetian Renaissance sacra conversazione altarpieces with the secular stillness of Edward Hopper and David Hockney. Less one holdover—Over the Star (2017), depicting two half-length women spied through a window as they share something humorous—Howard’s most striking works here feature floating, disembodied heads, or, as in the gorgeous 6 by 8 foot centerpiece of the show, Passeggiata, Rome, a woman’s striding legs levitating above the Tiber River. Each oil conveys snippets of intimate memories, but this particular detail calls to mind the most famous torso-less legs in art—those of the trapeze artist shod in mint-green booties in Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882)—also positioned in the painting’s upper-left corner. The similarly dream-like quality of the French artist’s late masterpiece, with its tantalizing reflections of modern society in the mirrored background and vacant expression on the bartender’s face, reverberates deeply in the Lungotevere landscape below Howard’s gravity-defying walker. Riparian Rome has been the subject of painting from J. M. W. Turner to Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot to the contemporary British photorealist David Wheeler, but here there is no panoramic view, no peaked dome of St. Peter’s, no sign of local activity—just a midday stillness.
Adjacent to Passeggiata, Rome is the seemingly more resolved Benvenuti Lovers, with a cropped il Tricolore at top left, the sans-serif letters B-E-N-V-E-N-and half of the U seemingly paused in mid-scroll across the right top, a blurred view of mountainous coastline in the background, and two brunette women, with near identical features, popping up from the lower right. Most delightfully, what look like thirty-seven dashes of paint, representing whitecaps in the sea, reveal themselves to be boats, like plastic game pieces from Battleship. Ambiguities abound. The travel poster aesthetic of the flag and lettering—and especially the women’s stark red lips and unmodeled sweaters that read as flat color shapes in muted neon—contrast with the softened atmospheric perspective of the seascape background. Sharing an openness of expression and a delicacy of intense color, similar features grace the subject of Movie Star, a portrait of a woman in a shimmering gold dress standing against a red and white walled terrace. Yet here the fini of Howard’s surfaces, their seductive smoothness, is in stark opposition to the delicate and wide brushstrokes that convey a gilded Klimtian iridescence in the actress’s dress. It is a striking work.
The Amalfi Coast, movies stars, snippets of memory, all call to mind the romantic modernism of the Italian post-war Neorealist films of Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini and their pop progeny in film posters and album covers, or even Peter Blake’s famous screenprint, Babe Rainbow (1968). Howard’s careful compositions and chalky tonality are resemblant of Piero della Francesca and the stillness and proto-surreality of Fra Angelico’s frescoes at San Marco in Florence (1440s), which the painter has acknowledged as a treasured site. Echoing the dislocated heads and hands in Fra Angelico’s still mind-blowing Mockery of Christ and Meditation on the Passion, Howard’s crepuscular Bologna features a bust of a stylish woman in lilac shades hovering over a leafy villa-lined road. The surface is characteristically smooth, delicate, but not absent of facture. It is reminiscent of the subtly modulated touch in Gerhard Richter’s blurred realist oils, or the variation in handling in Rene Magritte’s landscapes, but without the discordant treatment of light and inert surfaces.
Howard’s style is richly his own; it is one thing to offer homage to those who have inspired you, and another to have the confidence to make from it a personal vision. To enter Ridley Howard’s distinctive world is to grasp at reminiscences not your own, and surely not quite his, either, but to be enfolded in a delicate scrim of recall—the glint of a seemingly forgotten piece of jewelry, the way a person’s hair momentarily moved in a warm breeze in a far-flung locale, the still surface and reflected trees and clouds on a sluggish river. Forget Proust. Think Bryan Ferry’s grandiose and elegant cover of the standard “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)” (1973). Sensual memory lingers in sharply focused appendages and faces, nondescript byways and hazy peaks.
JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for The Brooklyn Rail.