Riley Brewster recently showed two paintings at the Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven, CT. They are part of a show called Concrete and Shadows that includes two works each by Jiliane Jones, Christopher Mir, and Howard el Yasin. Holding together marvelously, the group show by the two sculptors and two painters deserves attention and commendation. The show was curated by Steve DiGiovanni and is open from June 24 to July 29, 2016.
My intent here, however, is to highlight Riley’s work in the context of his other recent exhibitions. Three summers ago, Riley had many paintings on exhibit at the Giampetro Gallery at Erector Square in New Haven and that show gave a large expansive sense of of his recent work. The concern with and passion for poetry, for a sense of place, and for a personal and authentic meditation remain consistent over the years. The paintings resonate deeply.
As I reflected on these two summer shows set apart by three years, I happened upon an article that I had written a few years earlier.
Much of the piece still pertains to his work now as he continues to draw inspiration from his early/childhood sense of space and experience. In talking with Riley about the recent works showing at CAW, I was fascinated to hear him speak about the dynamic of painting a memory of a place and the influence of the present environment (the here and now). The memory and the current place become the visual dialectic, the texture, light, and presence in the painting.
The recent paintings feel more open and aerial in atmosphere and perspective. They inspired me to think of his experience of Seattle, Washington where he lived for several years. I marvel at the distinctions he makes in considering and expressing abstract ideas about painting and how they become concrete in his articulation.
A Little History of Riley
When last Sunday (one in 2008) Riley Brewster brought his paintings to hang in the Gilbert Gallery in the dining hall, he brought for my daughters Ruth and Jane a book by E. H. Gombrich called A Little History of the World and hence the title of this message.
A couple of people asked for a window into Riley’s world, wondering what these paintings are about.
So here’s a window that I hope will give you some perspective into these paintings in the Gilbert Gallery.
Riley grew up (at least part of the time every year) in a house by the ocean, looking east. There was a lawn extending to a hedge of brush and through that brush was a little passage from which extended a long flight of wooden steps that would lead you gradually to the sands and to the seaside’s lulling, crashing waves.
So many of his early images (back when he was more of a representational painter) are based on the view looking toward that vignette or passage from his house to the ocean.
If you look at the first image that was in Riley’s show in the Gilbert Gallery you can see an etching of the silhouette of someone coming up the steps, just arriving on the lawn, having ascended the wood steps from the beach. She peers out toward the viewer and her gestalt (her body-shape) is seen in the aperture of a large rectangle, the break in the hedge of bushes. This rectangle or a similar space occurs repeatedly in his later work that you see in the show in the Gilbert Gallery.
When in fourth grade, Riley studied with George Chaplin.
George lived by the sea too (in Maine) and George’s experience of watching the ocean inspired him to leave behind imagery and to work with color, pure color.
George had been a student of Joseph Albers, the famous Bauhaus artist who came to America after WWII and became the Dean of the Yale School of Art.
Albers was a famous teacher (Chuck Close, Janet Fish, Brice Marden, Rackstraw Downes, William Bailey and others were among his students). Albers wrote a book called the Interaction of Color.
This is an Albers Painting:
In America in the nineteen forties and fifties, artists were interested in taking out what seemed extraneous and getting to the gist of the medium and to essential form.
Riley’s work grows out of the Albers and Chaplin lineage.
But there is an interesting turn, another layer (among many) to the story.
William Bailey was Riley’s teacher in graduate school. Bailey works from memory. Bailey’s paintings are not realist but rather figurative paintings (as in a figure of speech).
Riley is engaged with imagery too but it’s layered under there in the rich paint surface.
The idea that the painting has a life of its own was best articulated by Jackson Pollock who admired the transcendant work of Albert PInkham Ryder.
Here is a Ryder painting:
Bailey is what might be called a metaphysical painter. Spend some time with these paintings and you will begin to see how much they are about color and relationships.
So figurative painters inform and influence Riley’s work too.
Several of the paintings in Riley’s show in Gilbert Gallery are named Room by the Sea and they pay homage on some level to the painting by Edward Hopper that Riley grew up seeing, Hopper’s Room by the Sea.
And that is probably enough of a clue into the work of someone who I believe likes the work to challenge you a bit.
It’s work that is remote yet distinctly present, authentic, and fine.
Go up close to the paintings and step away from them.
See them illume in different times of day and in ambient light.
How dark they are and yet how emanating, much like the artist himself.
I close now with a quote from another of Riley’s teacher’s.
Andrew Forge wrote this about his own work but it could as well have been written about the work of Riley Brewster:
…Naming is not important. Being aware of one’s own seeing is. For some this will involve a sense of recognition and for others not. To this degree the pictures are abstract.
On the other hand, all of them are “about” seeing things outside of painting: places, seasons, times of day, conditions of light.
These are what determine the palette, sometimes in a very literal and local way. Sometimes the task is to find among the triads of nameable colors on the palette, firm equivalents for those conditions of color and space in the world that are un-nameable and that have such power over one’s state of mind.
When I am working, an aphorism of Auden’s often comes into my head; “Poetry is the precise statement of mixed feelings.”