Troy Richards

In the less than four years since he earned his MFA in Painting from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, New York-based Troy Richards has covered a vast stretch of conceptual ground.

As a graduate student, the Wisconsin native was dedicated to large-scale abstract painting in all ways but one: he didn’t want the burden of a backlog of unsold works. "I was fortunate enough to sell a lot of my work, but I still had four or five of these seven-by-seven-foot paintings. It was part of the racket of graduate school, I realized, that you have a great opportunity to make big work, but then you’re just sort of left with it. It’s difficult to avoid the real practical concern of what to do with it when you’re done."

Richards sought ways to wed the discipline of painting to the time frame of performance. His first solution was a series of balloon assemblies - dozens of hand-painted balloons that, as balloons will do, deflated relatively quickly. One by one the buoyant multi-colored spheres withered down to strangely patterned husks. "These were paintings that you had to keep feeding or they would collapse. I spent hundreds of hours on these works, and it was very gratifying because it was all about the act of painting. I was always painting in the present."

Another of Richards’ solutions utilized decals he made by pouring small pools of acrylic paint onto freezer paper. He’d array the dried wafers in an exhibition space, frequently on surfaces otherwise unsuitable for paintings. One of these decal works, Aggregate (Expansion), looks like a spore colony that has migrated across a casement window’s panes, framing, and sill, around the window setback, and onto the adjacent wall.

Richards bought the paint for these projects from hardware stores. It was inexpensive and he liked the idea of having his palette chosen by someone else. "I felt such a connection to Ace Hardware and Builders’ Square. When you grow up in a fairly rural community, you spend a lot of time in hardware stores. This material was part of my culture and I loved taking it and transforming it into abstract images that you wouldn’t associate with a hardware store…even though they had in a way been there all the time."

At this stage, the artist’s interest in comic book illustration re-emerged and the color decals morphed into black strips painted on freezer paper, peeled off, and assembled as line drawings of people in cartoonish scenarios. By similar means but to very different aesthetic ends, he cut fragments of foam core and construction paper and hung them on walls in arrangements that suggest unpeopled landscapes. The media’s rigidity, along with its inherently muted palette, lend these images the spare, calligraphic quality of Chinese scroll painting. The landscapes were often assembled, photographed, and disassembled in the same day.

"It was liberating. The process was organic, with each new work suggesting another." In this brief, but fertile, progression through material and method, the young artist’s imagery consistently wavered between abstraction and narrative figuration. So it is no surprise that his installation for Grand Arts is almost equal parts formalist and phenomenological, and that the question "Which part is which?" remains up for grabs. These new works appear at first glance to be straightforward artifacts of lower-middle-class suburban culture - backyard lawn furniture, giant balloon characters like those used to advertise strip mall openings, and a partial interior from a mobile or modular home. Each work, however, contains a Möbius-strip-like twist to confound that first impression. Nothing here is as simple, nor as innocent, as it seems. Richards’ investment of ambiguity into every detail causes the works to emanate (and so to invoke in viewers) a steady state of unease. The works embody a form of commentary that seems to be social, but that might in fact be purely visual …as in a visual critique of a social strata’s outward manifestations. But isn’t social status defined largely by appearance? And so doesn’t a purely visual critique bring us right back around to social critique? And there it is again: the Möbius twist.

What looks at first to be a constructivist painting is in fact a wall-mounted series of aluminum lawn-chair frames with the familiar striped plastic webbing woven continuously from one to the next. This work is a subtle and not-at-all cynical play on the degree to which modernist ideology has infiltrated consumer culture. The tubular construction and Mondrian-like striping are direct responses to the early-20th-century Bauhaus mandate that design serve the needs of the people. By surrealistically erasing the boundaries between the individual chairs, Richards brings into clear focus the art that spawned this particular mass-produced commodity.

The Duplex Twins are mutant hybrids of the ubiquitous roadside cowboy and diner chef. One balloon fuses the two characters’ upper bodies, the other their lower halves. Picking up supplies for a painted-balloon installation in Philadelphia, Richards kept encountering big advertising balloons. "I’d see this giant ape and my first response would be, ‘Wow, that’s really wild,’ but by the fourth or fifth time it was just something in the corner of my eye, another part of the landscape. The figure was empty, with no psychological component. I wondered what could be done to reinvigorate it."

Like the squeaky-voiced teddy bear that hawks toilet paper on television, the figures are empty because they are designed by ad agencies to be void of threat. The basic rule for advertising mass-market products - common household items, fast food, used cars - is that the audience must feel superior to whatever (the teddy bear, the inflated ape) or whomever (the chubby chef, the grinning cowboy) is being used to tout the product. The audience may be, and often is, annoyed by the advertisement (the characters’ insipidpersonalities, the banal scripts), but that is only to the good from the advertisers’ point of view. You can feel superior to the messenger and still absorb the message, whereas if you feel intimidated, or even ill at ease, chances are the message won’t get through. The messenger, in other words, is designed to deliver the message below the viewer’s level of conscious awareness.

With the Duplex Twins, Richards aims to get a couple of familiar characters back on the radar screen. He recognizes that the cowboy and chef are stereotypically masculine, but, as with most stereotypes, contradiction lurks just beneath the surface. By bisecting the figures and merging their halves into two forms that arc in complement to one another, he introduces allusions to homosexuality as well as to non-missionary sexual positioning. These disconcerting suggestions are a far cry from what the merchants who incorporate inflated cowboys or chefs into their promotional schemes have in mind, but insinuating them into the characters’ personae required only a relatively minor visual tweak.

The final installation, Young Jimmy Olsen Dreams of Seeing Through Walls, is a stage-set fragment of a shabby sitting area. Overlapping circles cut through one of the wood-paneled walls reveal a desolate winter landscape. The landscape is presented as a large photograph, back-lit via a light box, which further emphasizes the impoverishment of Jimmy Olsen’s vision. Light-box technology itself is decidedly low-rent; it’s as much drama as you can get on a limited budget.

In Richards’ mind, Jimmy Olsen is the Midwestern Everyman. He’s not Superman; he’s Superman’s friend. "He’s the ultimate putz. There’s nothing putzier than living in someone else’s reflected light. And, of course, Jimmy Olsen doesn’t grow up to see through walls."

Returning to the question of visual critique vs. social critique and whether it is possible to separate them, Richards acknowledges that acute visual awareness is rarely as soothing or satisfying as full-out surrender to the unceasing onslaught. The catchy slogans, the product-supported sitcom plots, the mini-epistemologies built around about brand names - these form cultural bonds. "People talk about these things. Not critically, but as a shared experience."

And among people not purposefully educated to see, he notes that any complaints about mainstream cultural output tend to run along the lines of "Oh, that was dull" or "That was dumb." Images assail us like machine-gun fire; for much of society there’s little time or motivation to make judgments, let alone access to a language in which such judgments could be formulated.

Richards believes that whether one is attuned to or mowed over by the visual environment has largely to do with socio-economic issues. Cultivating "taste" or "an eye" requires money and access to cultural education. "Otherwise your involvement is almost guaranteed to be passive…always a spectator, never a participant."

The prickly, unease-generating character of Richards’ installation echoes that of The Americans (1958), Robert Frank’s seminal photographic project. Frank’s immediate and unfiltered images expose the absence that is the hallmark of real life - the absence of graspable purpose, of boundaries, of protection. And because the photographs were taken by an artist, whose aim was more than anything else simply to see, their message is organic, not rhetorical. Meaning is inseparable from an individual’s experience with the photographs’ specific content, and so they can only be interpreted one viewer at a time.

Frank once held a mirror in front of curator Philip Brookman’s face and asked, "Do you like what you see?" Forty-three years later, Richards holds up the same mirror and asks an even more elemental question: "Do you see what you see?"

Roberta Lord
New York
February 2001

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