In “New World,” Enrico Riley’s exhibition at Jenkins Johnson, the title could refer to a variety of things: the historical distinction between Europe or Africa and the Americas; arriving in a foreign land; and fresh states of being. Part of Mr. Riley’s strategy is to keep you guessing, allowing the paintings to be open-ended enough that you will stand before them looking, pondering and occasionally grimacing.
Boats, water and black figures appear frequently, often in fragmented form. This suggests that “New World” refers to the notorious Middle Passage of the slave trade and the transportation of African people to the Americas. Names like “Untitled: Crepuscular, New World Old Game” (2018) and “Untitled: Martyr, Into the Hold” (2018) suggest a continuation of these oppressive practices, as do the sight of bound feet, glimpses of ships and an arm and hand dangling from a broken car window.
Mr. Riley combines the round, bubbly drawing of comics and cartoons with the rigor of painters like Philip Guston, who offered a similar psychic collision between difficult subject matter and user-friendly presentation. Sometimes, all seems right in Mr. Riley’s new world. Maybe the faceless figure wearing a bowler hat and reading a newspaper in “Untitled: Castaway, Lost at Sea” (2018) is just out for an afternoon cruise. Perhaps the crowned figure consulting a map or nautical chart in “Untitled: Destination, New World, Carrier of Dream” (2018) is a monarch in a fairy tale that ends well. Given Mr. Riley’s deadpan delivery and a number of clues, however, positive outcomes feel less likely.