The incredulity of the painter
Jordan Richardson paints from a place of incredulity and with this approach he seems to deliberately defy easy categorisation as a figurative painter. His practice embraces painting from many directions, and the use of figuration (at which he is undeniably technically accomplished) is just one of the many vehicles for carrying the narrative of painting itself. Here is a painter as much committed to portraying the image of the body as he is to plying the slippery matter of paint’s body. All the while, the paintings quote and improvise upon art historical tropes familiar from the canon of Western easel painting. The visual effect of these disparate elements is somewhat slippery too; as a viewer one can’t help but feel slightly left out of what sometimes feels like the artist’s personal joke. Narrative is hinted at and frequently ambiguous. Paint slips from being unseen under a virtuosic likeness, to surface presentation as freshly squeezed lushness, then to anatomical dissection as its mysterious workings are revealed as if through an x-ray. Titles hint at humour and mystery but are impenetrable. Richardson’s multiple perspectives are bound to the fluidity of what painting is and are brought together in this exhibition of a new body of work at Michael Reid Sydney, appropriately titled Shadows on a Cave Wall.
Shadows, and their tenuous connection to the forms that cast them are interesting to consider conceptually as they apply to Richardson’s subjects and imagery. In this suite of works, as previously, there is a discernible melding of figuration, portraiture and biography. Richardson paints himself and those close to him into his works, creating a recognisable cast of characters; the king, the joker, the girl, he, appear over and again, donning a procession of costumes and personas. In addition, there are the painted images – of drapery, flowers, poses – pictorial tropes from art history, suggesting dislocation and fracture from context. Positioning himself as painter-puppeteer, Richardson’s own painted avatar is almost but not definitively visible as The Colossus as much as he was once a Goya-esque corpse. In this, he very much inhabits his own paintings, commentating from within and without the canvas.
Richardson describes this exhibition as ‘an exploration of story telling through the medium of painting’ and paradoxically it is painting’s failing at explicit story telling, that creates such a fascinating, open-ended (and shadowy) parade of pictures. It is a technique that revels in the fallibility of painting as chronicler. Similarly elusive is the tale of paint itself, and Richardson nominates this as a parallel concern. Obvious in his works is a deep joy and reverence for paint that is handled so knowingly as to reveal its physical traces, tactile qualities and slippages from opacity to transparency. Passages of pure colour burst forth in an accretion of brushstrokes that slip from depicting a petal to simply portraying the languid sweep of a loaded brush. If in painting the shift from illusion to abstraction was a shift from thinking of painting as window to surface, both are present here. The story Richardson tells is as much about didactic deployment of the medium as its place in art history and conservation.
And so this question of our contemporary art age, ‘why paint?’ is transmutated into why painting, and this is why. Painting for Richardson is inquiry, into the personal, the material and the historical. Painting is to skilfully fabricate an illusion only to lift the surface and probe beneath, into its construction and past. Painting is subjective windows hung on walls. Painting is pigment bound in oil, solvent lapping at the edges between fluidity and paste. Painting is a history of painting, a weighty narrative collapsing from Giotto to the present. Painting is a flicker of expression on a well-known face. Painting is ritual, brushing downward daubs of ultramarine blue into the deep space of flat canvas, with the knowledge that this same blue was characterised by Kandinsky as having the soft texture of velvet, or by Klein as a dive into the void. Painting is a decision followed by a change of mind, doubt revealed in pentimento. And so, this painter paints on, asking the questions and finding shadowy answers.
The sense of keen inquiry is visible in the paintings. There are passages where the paint, deliciously blended, modulated and liquid as it describes a downcast gaze, stops suddenly on an upturned chin, becoming thin and fugitive as it bares the canvas textile and exposes quick movements of the brush. The titling of the smaller flower pieces as Floramancy, alludes to a mixture of mania and magic. Elsewhere, the sheer scale of works such as The Robe enables a wide-open expanse of pictorial space for the discourse between subject, story, paint and painting to unfold.
There’s a celebrated subject in art history, which has been painted many times. It relates an episode of incredulity in which a doubting disciple tests his scepticism by poking a gnarled and stubby finger into the open spear-wound of a resurrected messiah figure.[i] It is an oft-repeated image, a delicious, awful probing of painted flesh, and is appropriate for Richardson’s approach. This new suite of paintings, these Shadows on a Cave Wall, are located at an expansive moment of incredulity, the pause before faith. For incredulity, slipperiness and ambiguity not only underlie Richardson’s imagery, but also are present in his treatment of paint. His is an alchemical interest in animating the inanimate matter, the oil and stone, of painting. Technical knowledge and mastery mingle with smeared paint and visible moments of doubt. This is Jordan Richardson, painter, incredulity cured as he touches the painted body.
[i] The Incredulity of St Thomas, has been painted by Vasari, Caravaggio, Rubens and Rembrandt among many others.