|R i c h a r d R e i d|
© 2012 Richard Reid - all rights reserved
Richard Reid: Tracing the Figure
by Paul Crawford
As an art historian, the greatest pleasure I derive is from the rare opportunity to dig into the past of an artist's career and to explore the roots of their artistic interests, tracing the outlines of development and filling in the forms that make up their body of work. While some influences are direct, others are absorbed, conscious or not, and lend their fingerprint to that artist's development along with the work of their contemporaries. For the art historian, it is interesting to draw parallels and comparisons in an effort to understand where the work comes from or to link it to the past, while at the same time finding and making comparisons with the ideas and works of artists who have helped shape and further the limitations of contemporary art practice. The early works remain the most interesting as they are the synthesis of influences which form the foundation that an artist develops into their own unique vision and distinctive style.
One thing that is immediately apparent is the consistency in subject matter, form and pallet, which in itself is characteristic of Richard's work from its beginning, and which continues through the majority of his work. His love of the human form has remained constant throughout; evolving from the literal to the increasingly abstract, then back to more identifiable and back again to the abstract.
One of the earliest works "Reclining Figure" (p.6 in catalogue), a 1953 oil painting on canvas, has all the bravado of a young artist looking to make his mark. The reclining nude figure heralds back to the Odalisque favoured by the Orientalist painters of the mid nineteenth century. These paintings are highly romanticized views of life in the Harems of the Middle East as imagined by artists of the day and is a tradition that carried on through the 20th century. The woman lounges nude staring out indifferently at the artist, and the viewer is contrasted against a sumptuous patterned background with hints of the Arabesque. Although still a student work, it foreshadows the artist's career and the long exploration of the human form, its relationship to its environment, and how the two work in harmony, each defining the presence of the other. While his handling of the paint is far removed from the likes of Ingres, the passion for decorative pattern and motifs is evident, and his works may in fact borrow more from the handling of the subject by Matisse who visited Algeria and Morocco in the first decade of the 20th century. During these trips, Matisse was inspired by the brilliant light, exotic environment and Moorish architecture which led to an ongoing series of paintings based on the Odalisque, recalling the exoticism of the 'Orient' and the artist's preoccupation with the figure and elaborate pattern.
Two intaglio etchings done the following year show a shift in Reid's handling of the form and influence towards cubism and especially in the early work of Georges Braque. Again the subject and main focus of exploration continues to be the human form. It is interesting to see the artist in his first foray into the realm of abstraction, and while the images show a tentative side, you begin to see Richard developing his vocabulary of forms which are found embedded in his work to this day. In particular, his 1954 etching "Cubist Figure" (p.13), contains the beginnings of the rounded ovoid forms reminiscent of ancient goddess figures that would inhabit and populate the landscape of Richards's imagination and the surfaces of his canvases. For Richard, the life essence in his artistic world is the female form that all at once becomes the artist's lover, muse, goddess and model. Tracing the arc of her hips, breasts, and the curves of her belly, the body becomes its own landscape extending beyond the plane of the canvas out into the realm of our own world prompting us to re-evaluate the surface of the landscape around us.
Two years after graduating from the University of Manitoba in 1955, he traveled down to the artist's 'mecca' of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. Like many artists who gathered there in the decades after World War II, Richard appreciated the affordable lifestyle and the creative group of artists who were attracted to the community from all across the continent. During those six months in San Miguel, Richard immersed himself into his work creating an impressive body of work while connecting and exchanging ideas with artists, many who would remain friends throughout his life. Like many of the artists who spent time there during this period, Richard was transformed, gaining confidence and growth as an artist.
With the later works of the 50's, his exploration of the human form continues while moving further towards the abstract and, while remaining grounded in the narrative, he works to capture the movement of figures in space. Here, he moves past the formalist qualities of cubism and becomes much freer with his subjects while gaining confidence in his own identity. One can see parallels in his work to that of the Italian Futurists in the way he works to capture movement and the dynamic relationships between the subject and their environments and the contrast of one against the other. Here again, the artist is pushing further still working to find his own place and relationship between himself and his environment.
Returning to Canada after Mexico, Richard settled for a year in Winnipeg to deal with debts incurred. He had bought a new 1956 MGA prior to the trip, and with a small trailer, had hauled the supplies and paintings to Mexico and back. After leaving Winnipeg he spent two years in Vancouver. In February 1960, he married Beverley; they left the next day for Europe, where they would stay for close to five years.
The work during these years is a synthesis of his earlier experiments and influences, perhaps brought on in part by his reversal of role from student to teacher. One can see the direct influence of Picasso in Richard's 1960 painting "Three Musicians and Dog". One can also see traces and knowledge of the work of the Abstract Expressionists painters working in New York. Richard's figures are far from the beautiful, romanticized depictions that move towards the non-objective as with the New York painters, but hang on to the vestiges of a more classical tradition. The artist is on the cusp of a massive change in direction moving from the depictive to a far looser approach to painting, based more on the intuitive than the representative. This change comes with the move to London, England.
In London he found a new sense of freedom as he moved away from the need to be depictive, creating paintings far more intuitive in nature; works that transcend the need for the narrative. These works, such as Red Seductress, 1963, (p.16) are bold expressions of an artist who is full of confidence and stand as brash statements to this newfound self-expression. The canvases become much larger and the artistic output seems to flow freely as if the creative dam burst setting forth a torrent of images which transform and blend into one another almost effortlessly, creating a cohesive body of work. While in London, he was actively engaged in an arts community that was truly international. Organizations such as the Commonwealth Institute created a fertile environment where artists from across the globe could gather as a home away from home to exchange ideas and knowledge, while providing an outlet to exhibit their work.
With the first series of paintings produced, he held onto the interest in Cubism, but it was not long before the works begin to break down and dissolve into a mixture of expressionism and colour-field painting. A series of works done in 1961 again explore a singular reclining figure that herald back to the concept of the Odalisque. These are also are the first paintings which are directly connected to Richard's long study of Manet's painting "Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe". This subject and this painting will continue to fascinate and beguile the artist for the greater part of his career and will be an ongoing subject he will revisit over the coming years. During this time, his mark making begins to take on a more lyrical, calligraphic sense, moving away from the chunky stiffness of the cubist inspired works, to become much more fluid. As his figures become more illusive, they still remain the central point of interest of his work. This newfound sensuality is the start of what will become the hallmark of his work, exhibiting all the stylistic fingerprints that will inform his own vocabulary and artistic identity.
During a very productive six month period of painting in an old chateau north of Paris, Richard traveled in 1963 to Salzburg, Austria, to attend 7 weeks of classes with Oskar Kokoschka. As a figurative painter, he had access to live models for 7 or 8 hours a day and the resulting artistic output totaled over 570 watercolours. Sadly, only 100 or so of these works remain, as many were destroyed by the artist upon leaving Austria. A small selection of those watercolours in this exhibition testify to this growing command of the figure and his medium, while not being depictive, carry the weight and presence of the figure. Although drawn to the live model, the majority of Richard's figurative work is derived from the muses who occupy the inner reaches of his imagination.
Returning to Canada in late 1964, the Reids moved to Vancouver. The paintings done throughout the latter part of the 60's borrow on the aesthetic of the colour-field painters with large washes of colour overlaid with sumptuous forms locked together in various states of embrace. The figures are anonymous, but painted with a great sense of sensitivity and compassion. Here, the artist is becoming much more of a minimalist favoring the simplicity of line and colour to accentuate the forms and their relationships to each other.
In 1971, Richard accepted a teaching position at the University of British Columbia. As Assistant Professor in the Department of Fine Arts, he continued to teach at UBC until his retirement in 1979. As Richard's attentions returned to teaching, his work continued on from the paintings of the late 60's, but with greater focus on print making as he experimented with a variety of mediums from serigraphs and block prints to intaglio etchings. These works continue his exploration of the human form and the relationship between figures. His works from the late 60's became much flatter, and the graphic qualities of printmaking made for a logical extension for the artist, as did the increased demands of teaching. During the 70's, Richard's artistic production tapered off, as did his desire to paint the huge physically demanding canvases of the decade before. While the subject remained of interest, the accessibility to the tools of printmaking opened up a new and logical progression, while providing a vehicle to still create art in a meaningful way. The period during the 1970's was also difficult philosophically for Richard. There was a burgeoning of the 'conceptual' movement in art, the tenets of which opposed Richard's aesthetic sensibilities - "Painting is Dead", was the cry. There tended to be a somewhat destructive denigration by this new art establishment. Richard survived the onslaught, but was clearly affected.
After retirement in 1979, Richard and his wife Beverley moved to their property located near Christina Lake. He had planned to engage himself more in his art practice; but while doing that, he also found himself quickly immersed in the local arts community. Largely due to that involvement, the Reids founded the Grand Forks Art Gallery. Richard became the Director, a position he would hold for 20 years. During this time, he experienced something of a renaissance, engaging the region's artists in workshops, life drawing and regular discussions and critiques. His work throughout this period travels down two distinct paths. For the first time, he begins to look at the landscape as a subject on it's own, devoid of the human presence. A large body of watercolours was produced. This is his first real engagement in the medium since living in London. The landscapes, while depicting the vistas around him have more of a feel of the wide airy openness of the prairies of his childhood. It's also important to note that during the latter 1980's, Richard participated in five of the Emma Lake Workshops. His work shows the influences of these workshops. While in many ways the works can be viewed as representational, they still hold onto the abstract and possess a sense of open-endedness, providing the viewer with visual clues while leaving much to the imagination.
The other move was towards a more painterly sense of abstraction, working with acrylics on a wet surface and letting the paint bleed across the surface contrasted with a more heavily applied acrylic. These works have the delicacy of Toni Onley and Dorothy Knowles, and the in-your-face approach of Jack Bush and William Perehudoff. While not apparent upon first viewing, these works are largely figurative and owe their existence in a large part to Richard's long-term fascination to the relationship between the subjects of Edouard Manet's 1863 painting "Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe". This painting once again became the direct source material for a body of work in which Richard attempts to unlock the mystery of the Manet painting. One work in the exhibition, a watercolour (p.8), is a fairly representational interpretation of Manet's painting and is the point of departure for this collection of works that explores the composition and the relationships between the figures. These works are in themselves are engaging abstracts, and their relationship to each other as a body of work is an interesting study in the artistic process. Through this exploration, there seems to be resolution in solving the mystery, but Richard's interpretations provide the viewer with even more 'food for thought' and leaves open the door for future examinations.
During the next 15 years through 2004, Richard's production seems to drop off to some degree, as he is caught up with the complexities of running the gallery. During this time, his work tends more towards the imagined than the real, pulling figures from his imagination, and landscapes from his memories. Moving more towards watercolour as a preferred medium, his work tends to be more expressionist with his figures having some similar qualities of the late painter Maxwell Bates, who was largely influenced by the works of the German Expressionists, and in particular by Max Beckmann. Richard's paintings, while not outwardly beautiful, belie the sensitivity afforded the subjects and the vulnerability each one possesses. These are works by a maturing artist who is coming to terms with his own sense of identity and place. In all these works, there exists a sense of ambiguity which confronts the viewer and challenges each with self examination.
Upon retirement from the Grand Forks Art Gallery, Richard was able to get to his studio more frequently and get back into his art on a more regular basis. The body of work created over the last few years shows an artist still searching his identity while acknowledging his past, as a number of these paintings are the continuing conversation with his earlier works. In the past year or so, Richard has returned to painting on larger canvases providing him both the freedom to become more physical with his work and to engage the complex problem of pulling the images together. The last works, while new, hold onto the vestiges of his previous explorations and owe their existence to a lifetime's study in art. As Richard becomes less distracted and more involved in the studio, the resolution of these works will come much easier. While these works may not comprise the same brash confidence and cohesive sense of vision of his work from the 60's, they show a movement forward and provide a great sense of anticipation for what is about to come.
Richard is a painter and an artist in the truest sense - one who is far from finished in sharing his vision. Exhibitions like these serve to act as an overview while providing both the artist and viewer a vantage point to see what has come before and where the future may lead. The expectations placed upon an artist are huge, and it's only understandable to see the ebb and flow over the course of a career. What is important to see is the overall clarity of vision and its progression over time, showing both growth in the person and in their art. Here is a painter who is an artist's artist in every sense of these words, and one who is in need of far greater recognition. As a body of work, this exhibition barely touches the surface - it serves as a roadmap for further examination and discussion. I am excited at the prospects, and to see what will result over the next few years, as Richard works to get back into the studio and further work out his interpretation of the world that inhabits his imagination, and in more ways than one, our own.
Paul Crawford, 2006