by Malcolm Ganet
Freelance Writer and Art Consultant
To be granted a
place in a contemporary museum of art, an artist of today needs to
establish a visual language that is unique, insightful, and
powerful. Unfortunately, it is often not required that the exhibit
artistic craftsmanship of a high order – let alone traditional
craftsmanship with brush and canvas. When an artist combines
masterful painting technique with truly eloquent imagery, that his
work not only deserves museum placement, it can also take credit for
revitalizing artistic tradition and making it contemporary.
A case in point is the work of Richard Currier. His subjects –
mangoes, seashells, nudes, faces – meet the eye with such surreal
intensity because they are taken out of normal context and displayed
as if levitation and magnified. The float like huge icons
superimposed upon strange background landscapes or monochromatic
panels. Superficially, it is method that connects with photographic
surrealism, which manipulates negatives to combine images from
disparate sources (think Man Ray or to different purposes, Jerry
Uelsmann). Yet in Currier’s work, this imagery has an entirely
different direction than surrealism.
The way to a deeper appreciation of these paintings is less
indicated by his subjects than by his treatment of them as
paintings. His is an art that is openly concerned with the craft of
painting. How does one represent skin under the tenuous glow of dusk
or of nearby lantern light? How does the angle of the face affect
the fall of shadow? How do you create imbalance in a composition to
excite and energize vision? How do you arrange shapes to produce
balance? When we remember that the craft of traditional painting
evolved through the effort to communicate human sensibilities, we
can understand the importance of artistic treatment to Richard
These were concerns of the Renaissance masters, which Currier no
doubt encountered during his studies in Amsterdam and Paris.
Visually, there is a striking connection between Currier’s work and,
say, Rembrandt’s portraiture. Like Rembrandt, Currier uses obscuring
shadow and dark, grainy atmosphere for background, setting off the
subject which might be a face, as shell, a nude, or a mango), and
giving it psychological force by the chiaroscuro created by a
slanting light across surface features. Where Rembrandt embraces his
subjects with full sartorial regalia, however, Currier sheers away
social identification by using bare faces or nude figures or isolated
mangos. He is painting a more general human environment, and in this
he is more like the contemporary neo-humanist, Odd Nerdrum.
Nerdrum was aware that he was resisting the prevailing currents of
modern art when he chose to paint human figures with consummate
painterly craftsmanship. Currier is in the same boat, so to speak.
And, like Nerdrum, he creates images that take familiar subjects out
of familiar contexts, in order to probe more deeply their singular
inner natures. The techniques in both cases have grown out of
traditional painting, but they have been adapted to communicate the
sensibilities of our age.
And yet not without an austere intensity. Of course, there is a kind
of “lightness of being” in levitating a seashell or a mango to move
it into a realm of how painters once painted divinities or deities
suspended in the air. But there is darker irony as well. “See . . .
No Weevil” is a punning signpost applied to an otherwise daunting
image. On the one hand, the painting satirizes the prudish viewer
who sneaks a look at what he considers “evil.” On the other hand the
image may also stand for the determination of the artist to look
objectively – or perhaps not even objectively; perhaps just
seriously -- at what others consider offensive or even prohibited.
“With Head Above Water” uses another familiar phrase to relate to an
image suggesting both pleasure and discomfort. In the inward
concentration of the visage, there seems to be a tension between the
prospect of being overwhelmed by something -- perhaps existence? –
and the consciousness of being somehow above it (while, of course,
being immersed in it). “Between Black and White” can be taken to
refer to humanity’s existence between extremes of all kinds
(religious, political, social) and simultaneously to the painter’s
application of lights and darks on a canvas, the extremes of this
“Shades of Gray,” one of the most intriguing works in the show,
plays with the ides of the artist himself being contained to some
degree within the confines of his canvases. Here, his self-portrait,
repeated in five canvases, takes us through five elements reflected
in his art – left: passion (anger? frustration? protest?); right:
thought (contemplation? meditation?); top: observation or
objectivity; bottom: amusement or pleasure, and, in the center,
earnest questioning or concern. These take the form of a cross.
There are no extremities. No black or white, only the multifarious
colors of a human being, the symbolic equivalent of shades of gray.
Currier’s craftsmanship, founded as it is on a long tradition of
painting, is rich and varied enough to give body to what his eyes
want to see about life in our age; but his visual, not didactic. He
casts an atmosphere of surging isolation and mystery onto the
canvas, making paintings as silent as inscrutable as one’s own image
glimpsed in a dark mirror it is up to the viewer to form
interpretations. Currier’s world is very much a private world, and
that is what makes him absolutely contemporary.