At the age of 36 J. Kirk Richards is already a well-respected artist, especially beloved within the LDS community, where his mysterious and poetical images have gained a place in a genre known better for sanitized illustration. Over the past decade he has been prolific, working in both two and three dimensions, creating an oeuvre that shows the artist shifting between modes of expression. “I’m torn,” says Richards, “between efficiency, sincerity, texture and earthiness, economy of space and effort, directness and spontaneity versus virtuosity, method, beautiful illusion, divine idealization, and perfection of drawing.” A new body of the artist’s work is featured in A Dream, an exhibition at the Saint George Museum of Art in which Richards’ paintings are paired with the work of Brian Kershisnik. Like all of the successes experienced in the artist’s career, this show proves to be a great measure of his aesthetic breadth, seen in myriad departures that with each new subject show the artist grappling to find the right note of expression, be it powerfully dramatic or delicately subtle. “These polar ideals pull me back and forth,” he says of the influences behind his work. “I’m inspired by the skill and control of Bouguereau, but perhaps more inspired by the textural earthiness of Anselm Kiefer.”
Richards’ talents are not confined to the visual arts: he is also an accomplished musician. He is drawn to the studio, though, for its privacy, as a place to contemplate and explore. “One of the reasons I chose to pursue the visual arts,” Richards says, “is my lack of ability to perform live–whether in a social setting, a musical setting, a church setting. I find it difficult to contribute to a discussion in church. I’d much rather write you a letter or an email than speak to you on the phone. I want to be able to compose and revise my thoughts, as I would compose and revise a painting.” Exhibiting paintings, though, is a sort of performance, and frequently artists who find success with one style or niche end up repeating themselves; but Richards is not one for stagnation and one simply does not see him repeating the same methodologies in his work as he challenges himself with each new subject and method. As life and art are intrinsically united within the artist, perhaps much of Richard’s aesthetic polarities are a processing of life’s greatest challenges
Looking at Richard’s breakthrough work after graduating from Brigham Young University, the now iconic “Cherubim and the Flaming Sword,” from 2000, and comparing it with a now equally iconic work, “Every Knee Shall Bow,” 2008, it is surprising to know the same artist created both. They represent two entirely different approaches to painting and tone. “Cherubim” is magnificently rendered with tight brush strokes, a bold color palette of fiery reds illuminating the tree; an uncanny light emanates from the sword, casting a bright glow on the cherubim that contrasts with the dark expanse behind, lit only by a faint tree-line horizon. It is mystical but concrete, magnificent in its presentness and brings the visionary episode dramatically to life in a presentation from which one feels a power emanating — if not from Richard’s spiritual message certainly from an impressive and striking composition naturally affecting the cerebral and the visceral sensibilities.
“Every Knee Shall Bow,” painted eight years later, does not represent simply a development in rendering, composition or structure — as one would expect in a more conventional artistic progression — but represents an entirely different vision. This painting is softer, quieter, the multitude gathered before the figure of Christ still and hushed. The hillside is a basic shape, a light source emanating from above. The figure of Christ is obscured in the distance in a red robe and before him every knee of the throng bows. The color palette, influenced Richards says from time spent in Rome, ranges from the red of Christ’s robe to a generalized amber of the robes of each rear view we see bowing before him, understood to be white, but tinted in a rich ambiance. The painting is minimal, melodious, miraculous.
This later painting is more about vision than virtuosic skill. Says Richards, “In addition to practical concerns, the style differences also suggest a shift away from wanting to convey artistic virtuosity towards wanting to convey first and foremost the intended message of the painting. I became less interested in showing what I was capable of doing, and more interested in what the work of art was saying. Now, looking back, I find value in the arresting visual detail of a beautiful classical piece, as well as value in a stripped-down, more minimal and more essential aesthetic.”
“Visiting the Widow in Her Affliction,” a new painting of tremendous power, shows the type of compositional and narrative complexity Richards can achieve with a style that is poetic and evocative rather than concrete and illusionistic. In the physically dominant frontal plane, we see two women. One is certainly the widow, and most certainly the woman who leans over her, the heads drawn close together, her hand raised to caress the other’s cheek, is the visitor. The widow responds to this caress as she raises her own hand to touch the visitor’s, with eyes, seemingly to soon fill with tears, closed, as she welcomes this act of love. This plane is in shadow. It is rendered in broad shapes with generalized color using dark blues, flesh tones, the brown hair of the visitor and the white hair and eyebrows of the widow. Though the plane is in shadow, and as loosely rendered as it is, Richards still manages to capture the fullness of the moment. He builds on this tender narrative with the rest of the painting. The central plane is a large cluster of white flowers, having the appearance of chrysanthemums, painted with broad strokes and echoing the white hair of the widow. In full bloom, these flowers seem to have a ray of light cast upon them, and shine brilliantly, immediately capturing the eye. The mystery of the painting is in the background. In the upper left corner, again loosely rendered, we see a woman’s face with dark hair, lit dimly. Her eyes are open, her lips are sealed and she has a slight look of melancholy. One can only wonder who she is. It is reasonable to surmise that with the emphasis placed on the whiteness of the widow’s hair, her eyes closed in a moment of the utmost emotion, that this is perhaps a vision in the mind’s eye of the widow of herself in youth, when her hair was dark, when she was not hunched but stood tall, and the flowers, obscured from her vision, in full bloom representing youth. Or perhaps this is some other kind of “visitor” visiting the widow in her affliction. Although one can only ponder, the apparition creates a sense of mystery that heightens the already emotive primary subject. The emotion on the canvas is real and is much more than physically comprehensible. “I don’t want to shy away from the whole of the spiritual journey,” says Richards. “Someone recently told me that art creates a safe place for light and dark to coexist–a safe place to talk about things that might not be safe elsewhere. I love that about art,” he says.
“Lighting Candles” is one of Richards’ most emotive and dramatic new images and creates a terse nebulous center of spiritual intensity that resonates from the canvas with an emotional feeling of solemnity with the verisimilitude of sacred energy and lucid reverence. Richards has chosen an inventive and challenging composition for this image that is fecund with authentic serenity and meekness. Richards says, “I believe in the opposites of our human experience. Not that there is a necessity to personally experience the deepest darkness–but rather to acknowledge the dark. And let the light be defined through the darkness.” This singular painting is divided into three sections. At the bottom are thin, tall lit candles. At the top are the faces, headdresses and cloaks of two women. The middle plane is a hand that seems to hover in space, lighting a candle. The painting works wondrously and with such effect because of the marvelously inventive composition, as well as the use of light that is cast from the candles – they provide illumination that creates a localized warm golden glow upon the women, naturally hitting various surfaces creating a bold contrast of gold tones and then darkness. In this stunning image, with only the two women, partially illuminated, Richards uses light to the best effect to create a mood that is warm in its subtlety and radiates the power of the illumination of light as we see the tranquility and utter fixation of the women, drawn to the light.
Like these women ensconced in a feeling of security and peace, Richards perhaps feels most secure in his silent and serene universe of creation, and with his family. They live in the southern end of Utah County, and have a rural studio in Sanpete County. Art is very much a part of their lives. His wife is also a painter, and his children have been drawn to creative expression, something he wants to encourage in them, in all its facets. “I want my children to love that about art, that it’s a safe place to talk about things. When my nine-year-old son writes an angst-ridden song, I don’t want to steer him away from expressing those emotions. The temptation is to worry what others will think when he sings about running away and never coming back. But it’s important that these emotions are expressed in a safe place –and the specific lyrics are just incidental. The catharsis that art affords is healthy. And the safeness of the place of expression is beautiful.”
As the exhibit in St. George demonstrates, Richards has found that safe place, a locale where he can experiment with aesthetic styles and emotional registers. While one has come to expect the unexpected from J. Kirk Richards, one can expect him to continue using his gifts to express the deeply-seated passions that come from a mind that thinks profoundly and heavily on aesthetics; and to continue bringing his subjects vividly to fruition while maximizing the potency of sacred subjects while expound on truth as he knows it.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.