In my favorite childhood book, Gods, Graves and Scholars, by C. W. Ceram, there is a description of the 19th century excavation of an Etruscan tomb in which the heavy human-form cover of the sarcophagus is lifted and falls back to reveal an Etruscan warrior sitting, fully fleshed, as if he had been placed there a day earlier. Once the air touched the corpse it dissolved, leaving nothing but some dust and armor. I was reminded of this fairy-like story while visiting the studio of Carin Riley, to look at a series of drawings and paintings she was preparing for her exhibition Adaptive Traits at the Smudajescheck Gallery in Ulm, Germany. Riley has focused many of her drawings and a grey and white acrylic painting, Grey and White Athena (2013) on the fibule, a highly practical piece of jewelry that was a centerpiece of Etruscan attire. Literally and figuratively this giant proto safety pin was the center that held the costume together. So I reasoned there was probably a fibule on that gloriously ephemeral warrior’s chest. And when he melted slowly into clouds of dust, his bodily form became an abstract assemblage of hammered gold. Riley’s paintings are exactly this: an abstraction and diagramming of natural forms, the fibule linking a constellation of shapes which are both abstractions of limbs, but also concepts—the passage of days and seasons and the elements.
Adaptive Traits, which is on view until the end of October 2013, is an amalgam of Carin Riley’s preoccupations: the evolution of cognition; Chinese astrology; and classical and pre-classical form and symbol. In the end she returns to the idea of the emblematic medium that represents the idea, and then the further iteration of that medium represented in paint or drawing. Her wood appliqué drawings utilize paper-thin slivers of wood that unite a monochromatic ink drawing. Wood is one of the five Chinese elements, but within the context of the drawing it represents not only the growing living element (versus fire, metal, earth and water) but a nexus and center-point in a drawing that is part diagram of the cosmos as well as map of the human psyche. As Riley says, “It’s a way in.” The bulbous circular drawn forms revolve and expand from the wood, imitating its shape and cellular structure. They pay homage to the “real” object, even which wood it is: walnut, teak, or cherry, much as the Etruscan-themed paintings utilize the fibule as an object as well as an idea.
Riley’s studio is a long white space, a corridor of sorts. One drawing and one painting are worked on at a time, and though she works in series, each piece is not a variation of its predecessor, but a completely different entity—this becomes apparent when the pieces are dissected intellectually—though visually similar, the metaphysical groundings vary wildly, and incorporate multiple textual and cultural readings. The forms may be taken from a classical Roman torso, but the silver in the grey background activates the metal element in Chinese orthodoxy. Roman mosaics are the newest source of inspiration; a floor from a Villa at Tor Marancia—a menu-like composition of fish, fowl, dates and asparagus. The sense of volume and color that was achieved by ancient craftsmen placing multicolored stones adjacent to each other, a truly abstract process, are deconstructed in Riley’s grey and white palette. In her words: “It was stop-start, the mosaic created a new way of breaking up the space.” Images from mythology, symbols of bounty and prosperity, and the virtuosity of the medium, are transformed into simple fluid diagrams and abstractions in Conversation/Still Life (2013), a reversal of the assembling of the image in a certain sense—an insistence on destroying the illusion. That the Romans were obsessed with illusion—the walls and floors of their villas dissolved into landscapes and idylls, grottos inhabited by dolphins and sprites, is almost impossible to reconcile with our own concept of what art is, and Riley takes the Romans to task for their affection for what is decorative and ultimately escapist, demanding a more intellectual and symbol laden reading than perhaps the ancients were willing to admit, at least in the profane work with which they decorated their homes.
Carin Riley studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York and The Art Institute of Chicago in the 1970s with John McCracken, Richard Artschwager, and Robert Mangold. The simplicity with which these artists express themselves—the bold blunt statements, especially Artschwager’s doors and furniture pieces, can be seen in her dedication to the clarity of medium. Ink, though brushed and swirling in a calligraphic gesture, does not hide its natural predilection to flow and pool; similarly, the appliqués are a pure and honest use of the wood. For Riley, Lao Tzu sums it up when he compares living the right life (and here we apply this to painting and drawing as well!) to the flow of water: “of all things the most yielding can overwhelm that which is of all things the most hard.”
Knarr: The Vikings, a group show curated by Carin Riley is on view till May 9 at the Queens College Art Center. 65-30 Kissena Blvd. Queens, New York. Telephone: (718) 997-3770print