J. Kirk Richards is one of a number of talented young figurative painters in the area who, now in their thirties, are beginning to attract large followings, command substantial prices and receive acknowledgment in significant exhibitions. Richards is currently being recognized by the Springville Museum of Art with a one-person exhibition in one of their main floor galleries. All very recent works, Richards paintings explore religious/spiritual themes and display the artist’s adept visual skills employed in differing manners that reveal an aesthetic — if not religious — search for a voice.
Utah has long been known as a haven for representational art, continuing instruction in traditional techniques and forms when other places around the country were abandoning them in favor of more experimental art. Sometimes this tradition was strongest in the illustration departments of our institutions of higher learning, but a new generation of full-time, fine artists — like Jeff Hein, Sean Diediker, and Kirk Richards — has infused this tradition with new blood. These artists excel in the craft of drawing and painting, and are receiving attention for it. Nationally, trends in contemporary art look more favorably on representation, and locally, after years of advancing his collection of 20th-century Russian impressionists/realists, Vern Swanson has developed a strong market for figurative and narrative works. Utah, with its LDS market, has had a long interest in narrative figure painting, and both Hein and Richards produce works dealing with Judeo/Christian/Mormon narratives and themes. Hein splits his time between highly-colored, design-oriented figurative work, and religious works that draw upon a different aesthetic, that of the academic schools of the 19th-century. Richards is more strictly a painter of religious themes, but even within this single genre, as this exhibit demonstrates, the artist is experimenting with different techniques and modulations of style.
Richards’ aesthetic has fed itself on late nineteenth and early twentieth-century styles that hovered on the outside of Modernism’s mainstream. His works are somewhere between the tonalists and Salon painters of the turn-of-the-century, and the more sensual and line-oriented schools represented by Art Nouveau and the German Secessionists.
In the Springville exhibition, a painting of four young girls with instruments stands out for its attention to detail and concentration on realism. The rendering shows that the artist is in command of his manual skills, and compared to the looser nature of most of the works in the exhibit, gives one the impression that it was a commissioned portrait and hence realism was paramount. This piece does share with the rest of the works in the exhibit a palette dominated by rust, mauve, pink, blue and greens. “Cherubim and Flaming Sword” is another work that is tightly rendered. Three floating figures, lit by the glowing sword they surround, hover in front of a tree. The cherubim are angelic, not in the sense of having wings, but in that they are each sweet adolescent figures, hardly the type to frighten off a grown man and woman hungry for immortality.
Religious art is often dismissed as mere illustration. To do so, however, is to ignore many marvelous pieces from art history. An artist engaged with religious and spiritual materials can speak through many voices. These voices can be illustrative, as when they express doctrine or dogma; but they can also speak to the personal and at a pitch that goes beyond the religious to the spiritual. Richard’s “Hosanna Shout” depicts a specific Mormon ritual, but one does not need to be LDS to sense the joy exuded by the jubilant figures or enjoy the formal qualities of the flash of white handkerchiefs against the muted colors of Richards’ palette.
Richards’ voices can be seen in his three depictions of Jesus, each dealing with his role as a Savior figure. In one, he is dressed in blue and red robes, stands in an indeterminate space, raises one hand and points to the wound in his palm with the other. This is the type of work that gets mass-reproduced, to hang in the homes of the pious. It is a declarative statement — “I am your Savior” — that doesn’t say anything particularly interesting. In another, a figure who is obviously Jesus, is shown in a dusk light, in a giant tub, his white skirts raised, their hems a pink hue, his feet pressing grapes. The same basic message is conveyed as the first, but this work has personality — the feminine touch of the pose, the soft quiet easiness of the lighting. Lastly is “Healing III,” a considerable different work in execution and tone. On rough hewn wood, Richards sketches out an architectural setting in which he places an upright figure who reaches his hands out to another kneeling figure. The painting is rough, the details unfinished. Other artists would pay attention to detail, to depicting an exact scene from the gospel, showing Jesus’ outstretched fingers. Richards has given us none of that. He has deflected our gaze from the details of the flesh in the moment to give us the outline of the experience. In fact, the painting is dark, as if through the painting the artist is striving to see or reveal the spiritual experience of healing, but in the words of St. Paul, he sees only through a glass darkly.
By contrast, “Every Knee Shall Bow,” the largest if not the most ambitious piece in the exhibit, is full of light. A central Christ figure, in red, is encircled by innumerable kneeling figures forming a series of rolling hills about him. The whole painting is executed in a soft tone, the figures barely defined, a head and a body achieved with a swoop here and there of the brush. Unfortunately, despite the audacity of its size, the piece is the least successful of the exhibit. There is just not enough of interest in the painting to justify its execution. The undifferentiated figures that form one mass around the central Christ figure makes me assume that the artist is trying to convey the idea of a future paradise of homogenous figures recognizing a common savior. But I think the more compelling point of the scene is that everyone, in their individuality, would come together in the recognition. Unity in diversity is compelling. The scene as it is reminds me of a Talking Heads song: “Heaven is a place/where nothing ever happens.”
Richards’ other large piece, depicting the miracle of the fish and the loaves, is the most compelling of the exhibit. Like Healing III, this work is done on thick, rough, charred wood. The outlines of figures is the quickest of brush strokes, a circle or semicircle to indicate a head or shoulders. It is almost an afterthought to a large work that concentrates on tactile experience. Various collage elements creating textural quality that gives the piece an aesthetic involvement lost in “Every Knee Shall Bow.” Fish are depicted by two basic fish-shaped pieces of wood sticking out from the surface of the painting. The basket containing the loaves is parts of an actual wicker basket, attached to the surface of the painting. In the body of the piece, and the bodies of the crowds, the artist has collaged scraps of newspapers. One reads “A Grand Occassion,” while another is a mundane listing. With these formal, modernist elements, taken from the playbook of Picasso and Braque, Richards is able to get at something of the gospel story he is depicting. Jesus, at the height of his popularity, reveals his power to satisfy the physical wants of his audience and causes a stir among the people. It is a very human, very political, earthy story. But it is not the story Jesus has come to tell, and he is ultimately abandoned when he directs his audience toward a spiritual rather than a physical salvation. The painting points to a conflict of voices between what the people want and what they need.
This exhibit makes me think that there is a similar struggle of voices going on within the artist. He paints defined works that express concrete statements to a receptive religious audience. On the other hand are these darker, undefined and possibly more honest works that struggle at a mature grasping of one’s being in the world and being in the spirit. The two-self portraits in the exhibit may be revealing in this respect. The first, of Richards at 23 (the age when most Mormon med marry, pursue a career and start a family), is a delicately rendered portrait of the artist, palette in hand, ready to face the world. The second, of the artist at 32, is less defined. One eye is rendered in a manner similar to the younger portrait, but the left eye dissolves into a mass of blurred brush strokes. The painting does not reveal a lack of confidence as much as it recognizes that in being in the world one sees sometimes through one vision and sometimes another, and the truth is found at the convergence of the two.
Recent Works by J. Kirk Richards continues at the Springville Museum of Art through October 16. *Because most of the works mentioned in this article are very recent (and some not even completed) images of the works are not yet available.
Tony Watson is originally from Washington State but has lived most of his adult life in Utah. No one occupation has occupied his working hours but his leisure hours are spent either climbing southern Utah’s redrock country or engaging his mind with aesthetic issues.