Elizabeth Harris Gallery
529 West 20 Street
New York 10011
212 463 9666
March 17-April 16, 2005
Scott Richter doesn’t use oil paint to create the illusion of depth on a two dimensional surface. He uses it to build three dimensional forms. We look down at or try to view Richter’s tabletop paintings from all sides, and this is not the way we normally look at a painting on the wall. Richter simulates wet oil paint through the use of a quick drying silicone medium that he allegedly invented. This medium hardens the oil paint so quickly that we are thoroughly convinced we will ruin the surfaces of these works if we touch them.
There are different types of tabletop paintings in this exhibit. One type consists of thin layers or slices of opaque oil paint that are laid one on top of another to form sagging but somewhat coherent masses. Another type consists of rough edged or smooth edged spirals that come to a point approximately three to four feet above table level. The two paintings, “Attempt to Babel #3” and “Attempt to Babel #5,” are supported by paper cones in their centers, which are not visible because they are covered by solid wedges of oil paint. Besides the obvious comparison to wedding cakes, these gyres gain intensity through the dramatization of rough and smooth. You marvel at the way the oil paint is built up and smoothed out, the way the artist transforms a squishy and amorphous medium.
Although I will probably be barred from all future exhibits I have to admit that I could not fight off the urge to gently and not so gently poke the hardened oil paint with my finger. These paintings/sculptures are amazingly resilient and dense. They can’t register the way paintings do because you can’t take them in all at once the way you would a painting on a wall. This was somewhat frustrating and undermined Richter’s careful balancing of tones. It is hard to appreciate the way the separate elements interact when you can’t really see them all at once. I kept trying to stand on the tips of my toes in order to look down on the tabletop but this never worked because I could not get high enough above them.
“As Stones for Building Empires” and “Building Empires” resemble stacks of pancakes made with bloody raw meat, and stacks of raw steaks. “Banquette” resembles a table covered with piles of multi-hued greenbacks of various sizes. In these works Richter is self conscious about balancing darks and lights. Blending of pigments takes place in each successive layer but the separate layers do not physically blend. The transparency of oil paint is removed from the process, because the quick drying medium doesn’t allow for it. The quick drying medium does allow Richter to capture the moment at which colors swirl together, but do not perfectly blend. He also blends colors together before hardening them with the silicone medium, and this allows him to balance darks and lights. What is unusual about these layered works is the way the viewer must study the edges of the piled masses in order to see what is beneath the top layer of color, rather than studying the underpainting. The brightness and surface detail of the hardened oil paint is so seductive that the impulse to look for familiar shapes amidst the abstract forms is short lived.
“Redboat,” a universal boat form over 5 feet long and 2 feet tall, is smooth on all sides but one. The smoothness gives way on one side and clumps of red paint, the building blocks, are visible. To see how this impressive solid form came to be, to see fragile blobs of wet looking oil paint captured in all of their contingent glory and doing the impossible, supporting a great weight, is exciting.
“Smell of Oil,” a tiered dollop of black oil paint that runs over the four edges of the table and forms a bulge beneath it, activates the ground plane more than any other work in the exhibit and hopefully points to future explorations Richter might make beyond the tabletop. The viewer is overwhelmed by the sheer glut of oozing black oil paint and Richter is conscious of the impact large quantities of this glistening, unreal matter will have on the viewer.
For over eight years critics have been pointing out Richter’s interest in the painter’s palette and comparing his tabletop works to this painter’s tool. I think the rectangular tabletop is limiting the artist because it has become little more than a neutral showcase for his wonderful inventions. Who wants to look at dull colored table legs over and over again? Every painting in this exhibit resides on a table and a number of the tabletops are covered with a thick sheet of paper that has smears of paint on it and is stained with pigment like a canvas. The painterly activity on these sheets of paper is wan, little more than an afterthought.
The clumps of paint Richter wipes on the edges of many of the tabletops act like an index for the color scheme of the whole. They also contain splotches of color that complement the predominant hues of the whole. The problem is that these marginal clumps are unbearably self conscious and detached from the main action. Richter is alerting us to the fact that he is interested in process and although this might have given the critics something to write about during the past decade it has become tiresome.