aubade, oil on linen 34 X 30″, 2017
from forest; through field; toward ocean oil on linen 31 X 30″ 2017
the exact rock oil on linen 23 X 24″ 2017
October 14, 2017 – November 11, 2017
On Saturday, October 14, 2017, I went to Giampetro Gallery on Chapel Street in New Haven, CT. I entered the gallery and saw a beautiful show, deep, haunting and poetic, by my old friend Riley, lovely rugged abstractions.
On the front wall was a painting that was one of two with the word pilgrim in it and it made me think of the huge charcoal drawings Riley was doing back in 1978, drawings of pilgrims in black and white, very different from the quiet sensual paintings now so humbly gathered on the walls of Giampetro’s intimate and elegant gallery.
After savoring each painting (each world of Riley), each squarish painting like a private conversation with the sage, I looked closely at the titles on the exhibition list and was drawn to aubade and to palimpsest. These gave me little windows into Riley’s personal creations so obstactled in the blanket of his private meditation, all the more intriguing for its implication that it would prefer not to be told.
I talked with Fred Giampetro a while, who was a double bass player at Yale School of Music the year before I arrived at the Yale Art School in 1979. Then as Fred and I talked briefly, early arrivals included Riley, Sarah Stewart, Jenny Lynn McNutt, Suzanna Coffey and others streamed in gradually.
It had been nice to engage in Riley’s near square format works, mostly monochromatic paintings, some familiar for their reference to the view from the old Brewster house on Martha’s Vineyard, highly abstracted, and some paintings more seemingly from a bird’s eye view, ones with little maps, thresholds, or control panels in the lower areas. The surfaces are delectable, earnest, and endearing.
And it was good to see our old teachers Bill Bailey and Richard Lytle there. Also present was my old RISD class-mate, Charlie Rayburn who knows Riley from their boarding school days at Pomfret. Bailey said, “I’ve never seen this gallery look better.” I can’t build much higher on that.
This was without doubt Riley’s best show. His sense of poetry, of sadness, deep Romanticism, sense of restraint, and absolute authenticity as he draws on his most personal moments, experiences of places, and meditations, is truly exceptional and marks time in a significant way for our time.
On October 29, Riley gave a talk at the gallery. But first the Elm City Consort (Lucine Musaelian, Rosamund Morley, and Michael Rigsby respectively on treble, tenor and bass viol) played and sang Renaissance music “framed by the austere, mystical sounds of the 12th century”, as noted on the leaflet.
The music played gently and we’d been invited to walk about and see the paintings, drawings, and prints while listening and refraining from conversation. This I found to be wonderful and somehow I was drawn close to each painting. Observing them from a few inches away was an experience new and different from my first viewing a few weeks ago. I travelled over each surface like a low flying plane over fascinating topography. What had happened in this landscape?
This is a detail.
Later Riley talked about two places of entry to each tableau, often at far left and then further in toward center left (and then he stopped himself not wanting to “explain” the paintings). But with the three musicians playing, mystical droning, carrying my spirit, I found new questions and observations in my archeological dig at close range. Were these marks in the upper ranges dug deep or were they preserved, laced-over with diagonal criss-crosses? Both, I think. Several weeks ago, those diagonals reminded me of Jake Berthot’s grids overlapping his landscape drawings. In his remarks, Riley mentioned Jake and how Jake had talked about painting being about presence, gaze, and other. In relating them to us, Riley brought in the idea of body, inside, and key.
Riley’s paintings up close revealed gentle brushes of course brushes, flattened impasto touches, and scratched surfaces. And dry opaque layers press on top of more shiny ones. The bottom edge is sometimes a zone of admittance; remnants testifying to the trajectory and struggle of each painting.
At the close of his remarks (that had begun with a quote from Alice Munro, and remembering moving to New Haven in 1960 and my presence in his growing up in New Haven, his years in Seattle, and his return to New Haven), he opened up to questions from the audience at the gallery.
To break the open and sustaining pause filling the air, I spoke up and mentioned Van Gogh who had said that a good painting is the equivalent to a good deed; and Rothko’s writing about the redemptive act of expression and how this contributes to society. (The quote I was trying to paraphrase was from Rothko’s The Artist’s Reality, Philosophies of Art,”…society benefits every time an individual improves his own adjustment in the world…” And “Art is not ony a form of action, it is a form of social action. For art is a type of communication, and when it enters the environment it produces its effects just as any other form of action does.”)
What Riley wrote and sent before the opening of his show is:
the assertion of the body presence of the whole
that locates, gathers, the space of bodies inside
the narrative of scale, of light, of shape, of surface
the record of accumulated decisions:
of time recorded and remarked
Laura Battle asked about color and Riley talked about light and atmosphere, opacities and washes, a sense of place and time. Natalie Charkow asked if the central shape could be read as a hole. This was in response to Riley talking about how the work is not flat and not decorative. His reply was that it could be whole. By that, perhaps he meant that the ocean could be a hole. It’s both a surface and a threshold to another level. (It makes me think of our 4th grade Art teacher George Chaplin later saying, as George reflects on his own childhood in Maine, how the ocean is always changing and always the same).
Riley had mentioned two horizons in one painting. Someone asked about the little sort of aerial view map at left in some paintings.
Riley also wrote:
painting is evidence
of the search for a home
that painting can give
painting has the capacity to make present in my life
relation to a world that is otherwise absent
In my view, these writings get to the heart of what painting is. Riley always stands for and maintains the integrity and necessity of painting. He is an advocate and leader in this respect.
Riley talked about how this show at Giampetro Gallery felt like a sort of homecoming for him and that he thinks he is here now in New Haven to stay.
When asked by Ruth Miller (as I recall) about the concept of time in his painting, he said that he wanted a time that is other than that of the maker of the painting and other than the time it took to make the painting. When Ruth mentioned the word, distance, he liked that better than obstacle which he had mentioned earlier.
Asked about his prints, he reflected on his teaching printmaking at Western Connecticut State University (where he currently teaches) and about access to a printing press. He also told about the epic search within some of the works on paper, a whole array of materials including ink and gum arabic, a long partial drying and reworking process from both front and back of the paper.
Riley shows great courage in his authentic path as a painter and teacher, one who finds the words about painting.
As for the social impact of his painting, he said, in the end, “I don’t know.”
But he mentioned the host of voices or presences in the studio as he paints, and his interaction with that society.
It reminded me of what Philip Guston said about those beings in the studio, in the mind, and how “as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then if you are lucky, even you leave.”