In Roger and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music, Maria says that “when God closes a door, he opens a window,” alluding to the hope of new opportunities presented in the face of current obstacles. When an artist chooses to work from within a specific culture and experience, possibly shutting doors to those outside of it, can the art make it possible to open a window of understanding to all viewers, regardless of their background? Musing over such a question brings interesting insight to J. Kirk Richards’ current show, Carried Away in a Vision, at Provo’s Writ & Vision.
In this current body of work, Richards explores the writings of Nephi, a central character in the Book of Mormon, holy scripture for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other Mormon faith traditions. In the first four chapters of Nephi’s writings that Richards uses as his inspiration, the young Nephi must come to terms with his father’s prophetic calling to abandon the family home in ancient Jerusalem and set out into the wilderness for a new life. It is a story of relationships, between parents and children as well as between siblings and friends. It explores faith in God, confronting one’s doubts and overcoming adversity.
With titles often pulled directly from scripture, these works will quickly resonate with those within the LDS community as they see familiar stories unfold in Richards’ expressive brushstrokes. A viewer unfamiliar with the teachings of the LDS faith, however, could feel put off by the artist’s statement and the works’ titles, which instantly place his audience within the culture of the LDS Church. Even among general christian scholars, Nephi and his story are unknown territory. In these works, has Richards shut the doors to a broader audience? Maybe. But each of his paintings show powerfully vivid and raw emotions that any person can relate to.
For example, “Having Been Born of Goodly Parents” shows a mother and father tossing their child in the air. The child is surrounded by a halo of blue-tinted white with rays of dark reds and pastel blues, making him the focal point of the painting. Even without faces, real joy is felt through the splayed arms and legs of the child in flight, along with the outstretched arms of the mother and the stoic presence of his father. Here the art can move the viewer beyond the artist’s inspiration to a personal experience and connection.
In another painting, two distorted faces in blue express agitation and anger. Prominent teeth give open mouths a menacing quality. Red noses and cheeks hint at the heat of controversy rising, while dark, lifeless eyes remind viewers that enmity can so often lead to emptiness. “Laman and Lemuel Again Began to Murmur” refers to two brothers in the family who violently oppose their father and their brother. But the gnarled faces and distinctive teeth in this work or the related “They Did Murmur” will resonate with malicious intent to a viewer unfamiliar with the story.
Neither traditionally beautiful nor meticulous, Richards’ works reverberate with passion. Joy, love, fear, anger, even peace can be felt in quick, dry brush strokes and splotches of color that often come together in grotesque and bizarre forms that more quickly resemble sentiment than the intended human features. His overall palette consists of blues and browns, with occasional splashes of purples, pinks, and yellows. In a few of his images, like “My Father Dwelt in a Tent,” “An Angel of the Lord Came,” and “He Thought He Saw God Sitting Upon His Throne,” he renders the human figure a little more carefully, which allows calmer emotions and quieter reflections from observers of the works.
The majority of Richards’ more than two dozen paintings are small and hung on the right side of the gallery, opposite three large-scale paintings. The large paintings are duplicates of smaller ones, even bearing the same name so as to suggest one is a study and the other the finished painting. The smaller ones, however, seem more powerful. The smaller version of “She Left Hers” is very moving as it utilizes the rough texture, dead eyes, and gaping mouth Richards has used throughout the exhibit to evoke pain and sorrow. This expressive power is lost in the larger version. The textural vibrancy is lost with the use of more paint. The face and hands are more closely rendered, but the feeling is gone. “Seer,” along the back wall, is an exception. This large painting is full of yellows and whites, giving it an ethereal quality — similar to, but not a copy of the smaller “He Thought He Saw God Sitting on His Throne” and “One Descending Out of the Midst of Heaven.” The similarities helps the art be part of the collection, while the uniqueness of subject helps it stand on its own.
These are esthetic quibbles, questions of execution rather than content or concept, but the universal appeal of these works rests on their esthetic qualities. Regardless of their religious background or familiarity with the text the artist has used for this body of work, anyone can enjoy the depth of feeling that is a part of the human experience Richards has poured into his work. Those who have lived will know the profound passion that flows through humankind, the pros and cons, the struggles and moments of bliss that tell the tale of a life lived.
J. Kirk Richards: Carried Away in a Vision, Writ and Vision, Provo, through Sep. 30
Karilee Park is currently studying art education and the impact of an artistic identity. She creates using a variety of mediums such as drawing, poetry, and bursting into random song in public.