Three American Painters Engage in a Dialogue on Primitivism and Expression
Two shows running simultaneously at New Haven’s FRED.GIAMPIETRO Gallery highlight the work of three painters similarly committed to a primitivist style and expressive imagery, but who each use these components in radically different ways. Enrico Riley’s “Surfer’s Delight,” and Bill Traylor’s “I Say” (which also includes work by Christopher Mir), generously gesture towards neo-expressionism, art brut, and the New Fauves without ever getting pigeonholed or trapped by mannerism.
Riley’s work incorporates many elements from his personal and his artistic life in a mélange of imagery. “It has become important for me to take advantage of the ebb and flow of my non-painting life and use that as primary information in my painting practice,” he explains. “Painting for me is formal but the formal decisions have to be deployed through something else: need, desire, or appetite.” Riley conveys desirability in his painting with his lush, brushy handling of the medium. Abstract: Figure, Mischievous Drummer, Alex (2013) features a sketchy depiction of a figure, visible mostly as a head and hands. Much of the painting is covered by thick skeins of black, but this serves to heighten the intensity of the blues, greens, reds, and yellows used to render the subject.
Two other works, Untitled: Portrait, Black Surfer (2014) and Abstract: Man with Helmet, Do You Have the Time? (2015) each use a motif of a helmeted bust, with eyes peering out from a thin slit. The latter painting is especially colorful, with a strong pink-and-blue background, the figure half-painted and half-drawn in blue, green, yellow, and red with a heavy black outline. Riley’s faux-naïve style is reminiscent of painters such as Jean-Michel Basquiat or artists from the CoBrA group.
Traylor’s and Mir’s paintings are formally quite different, but come from similar aesthetic concerns. Traylor was self-taught—an outsider artist born into slavery in 1850s Alabama—and his paintings are sparse, observational, made with modest, found materials. The poster-paint-on-cardboard painting Bird on Triangular Construction (ca. 1939) depicts a black bird on a shape that could indicate a toy boat or a small decoration. The three-tone image is powerful and direct. Turkey Chasing Bug (ca. 1939) is similarly plain, but, like Riley’s work, captures almost effortlessly the physical and psychological experience of the artist interacting with the world.
Mir’s work is contemporary, but the silhouetted landscape of Sunshine Pines (2015) echoes the black birds in Traylor’s work and the helmeted surfer in Riley’s. Blue Bell (2015) uses a palette similar to Riley’s gestural paintings to naturalistically depict a woman in blue against a red background. Pyramid Split (2015) mimics Traylor’s triangular perch, as well as the riotous colors and brushy abstractions of Riley’s paintings. All three artists carry on a dialogue, through different means and at different times, that pulls into relation several wings of painting’s wide possibilities.
“Enrico Riley ‘Surfer’s Delight’ & Bill Traylor ‘I Say’ with works by Christopher Mir” are on view at FRED.GIAMPIETRO Gallery, New Haven, Mar. 21–Apr. 25, 2015.