By Andrew L. Shea
Enrico Riley is a painter and artist based in Vermont. Educated at Yale’s graduate fine arts program in the late ’90s, he was a 2008 recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship and more recently spent the 2016–17 academic year in Italy as a recipient of the Rome Prize. Riley currently serves as Professor and Chair of the Studio Art department at Dartmouth College, where I had the fortune and pleasure of briefly studying with him as an undergraduate back in 2015. Over the course of his career Riley has crossed widely divergent modes of art-making, moving (broadly) from a sort of cerebral minimalism to a more frenetic, gestural, and high-keyed manner of expressionism. Within the last few years he has shifted directions once more, toward narrative works that engage with race and social concerns—prompted, he has said, by the proliferation of news stories about police brutality and violence against African-Americans. Some of his latest paintings and drawings can now be seen in an exhibition titled “New World,” at Brooklyn’s Jenkins Johnson Projects.
Greeting us upon entry into the two-level exhibition space is an oil painting: Untitled: Martyr, Into the Hold (2018). In the center of the canvas, a black figure has been bound by the legs and hoisted upside-down by a yellow rope on a pulley. We are on the open-air deck of a deep-sea ship. All we can see of this man are his legs: the rest of the body hangs in a pitch-black hole in the deck and is otherwise obscured by a pile of boxes. Gripping the other end of the rope is a black hand, whose own body is also cut out of sight, this time by the left edge of the canvas. We can only tell that this hand is lowering the bound figure, as opposed to raising it or holding it in place, by the painting’s subtitle: “Martyr, Into the Hold.”
There’s an ambiguous, anachronistic quality to the picture’s layered symbolism. The setting—a slave ship, presumably—places us on the Atlantic Ocean in, say, the seventeenth century. Thinking further back, those versed in Renaissance painting will notice the clear quotation of Piero della Francesca’s Arezzo fresco The Torture of the Jew (1452–66), in which a man is pulleyed out of a well by his hair. But it’s impossible to look at that coil of rope without also leaping forward centuries in time, to Jim Crow–era lynchings.
This multivalent historicity permeates throughout the twenty-four paintings and drawings included in “New World.” Many works, like the one described above, are set on boats, evoking the horrific Middle Passage that new slaves were forced to make from West Africa to the American colonies. The nautical setting is echoed by a proliferation of askew horizontals that destabilize our sense of firm grounding and give the works a rocking, lilting, wave-like movement. But though the show’s title evokes this cruel underside of the Age of Exploration, the paintings move beyond that historical milieu. Elsewhere in the exhibition we see swords, spears, and shields, but we also find trumpets, tulips, rifle-barrels, bowler hats, high-heeled shoes, suit jackets, cufflinks, and a crashed-out automobile. Temporal pinpoints meet and clash within and across paintings, creating a sort of liminal, dreamlike space in which Riley’s fragmented narratives take place.
His figures—all of whom are black—are rendered in a cartoon-like idiom: hands have just three fingers, feet just three toes, and bodies bend and bulge as if made of rubber. Human presence usually appears in the form of single appendages, such as contorted legs or arms, which jut out from any and every edge of the canvas. Faces are covered by sobbing hands, and not once are we given an unobstructed view of a body in full. This visceral splintering of form befits the corporeal violence of Riley’s subject matter. The paintings, with their latent political content, are clearly reminiscent of Philip Guston’s Klan paintings of the 1970s, but Riley’s handling of paint seems less ham-fisted and densely worked. Yet the works also avoid “pretty” or virtuosic mark-making, and one can scarcely find evidence of the loaded-brush Ab-Ex mannerism that Clement Greenberg derisively termed “the Tenth Street touch.” Rather, the paintings are porous and open, and not “finished” in any sort of classical sense. Surprisingly, we find that areas of flesh are rendered especially thinly, the light of the canvas ground shining through knife-scraped translucent pigments. The handling is vulnerable, even awkward at times, but in a way that feels self-critical, varied, and honest.
The paintings, which are usually taller than wide and sometimes approach a nearly square format, combine chromatic hues—often deep, powerful blues—with more muted browns, blacks, and grays. Spatially, forms are broken up, disjointed, and flattened, but Riley’s evocative use of aerial perspective often opens up the works to create breathable (and improbably believable) spaces. In one of the more flattened works, Untitled: Resistance, All of May (2017) Riley collages his motifs in a Medieval, tapestry-like fashion. It’s a frontal and direct painting of images, of icons—as conversant with Giotto as with Guston. But even here, the presence of soft silhouetted forms in the background open up a hazy atmospheric space that gives us pause and asks us to peek beyond what clutters the picture’s frontal plane. Even when the horn is blaring in your face, or the barrel of the gun points dangerously close in your direction, Riley seems perhaps most interested in what’s just beyond our reach of sight or attention.
The seven wax crayon drawings on view give a different look into Riley’s creative process. The artist has spoken in the past about the important role that drawing plays as preparatory work for the paintings, but the paper works on display here seem more like finished works than mere studies. Self-contained and intimate, the drawings occur within misshapen borders that Riley himself draws on his pages. Their whorling lines of black wax pulse with energy.
Riley’s chosen subject—the slave trade, and enduring violence against African-Americans—could easily descend into shallow fatalism, but Riley’s paintings imagine alternate outcomes. While Riley’s move to figuration might have been prompted by news-cycle stories of cruelty and grief, his paintings transcend the present moment by dismantling traditional history and reworking it in a thoroughly modernist fashion. The power of these works is their ability to engage these stories and do with them what only painting can. Collaged with ineffable and enigmatic force, the narratives generate a still, if mournful, optimism.