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  • Enrico Riley:Recent Work
  • Karen Wilkin (bio)

"Art making is interesting and so mysterious," Enrico Riley told an interviewer not long ago. "So interesting and so mysterious" is an apt description of his recent work as well. His bold, emphatic images engage us by seeming extremely specific: a card game, champagne glasses clinking, a dapper gent with a walking stick, a man with bound hands. His paintings hold our attention with their saturated, richly modulated color and their muscular drawing, yet at the same time, they puzzle us. Riley's images are all aggressively cropped. We see only fragments: the hands, manipulating the cards and holding the glasses; the elegant jacket, waistcoat, and boutonniere of the man with the stick; the back of the man with the bound wrists. We are shown no heads, no complete figures. In one of the most enigmatic of his recent paintings, Untitled: Evening, The Night Watchman, a hand holding a bucket intrudes from one corner. In the even more elusive, definitely feminine Untitled: She Brings Fire, rippling trousers, covering legs with fetching purple high-heeled shoes, descend from the heavens against a city skyline and a dramatic, almost lurid pink and purple sunset.

When we study the complexities of the tabletop and its accoutrements in Untitled: Card Players, Riches of the Past, Present, Future, we notice that the slim, muscular man with the bound wrists holds drum sticks and a knife. A small book is in his pocket. We ponder what is going on in the paintings with the airborne figures while simultaneously savoring the warm skin tones—a range of browns, mauves, and purples—that move us into the world of African American culture. But those warm skin tones also resonate with the vibrant, varied hues that [End Page 52] surround them, provoking associations with expressionist painting. When we concentrate on the brilliant interplay of the shapes of cards and markers against the green tabletop in the same painting, we realize that one of those eloquently painted brown hands is female. In The Night Watchman, we focus on the swelling pink shapes against blue sky and are then brought up short by the protruding muzzle of a weapon and the thick rope of the noose wound around the end of a stick. We can find, too, references to music traditions in the near-Cubist structure of Untitled: Rhythmaning, Keeping Time, Time Travelers, so it comes as no surprise to learn that Riley is an accomplished, informed musician himself, whose early work was derived from music scores. And more.

Among the most complex of Riley's recent works is Untitled: Witness, Looking West, Fabric of America. Legs shod in modish, current running shoes dangle from the top of the painting, against a radiant blue sky and above a minimalist rural landscape punctuated with power poles. We feel geographically displaced, but firmly rooted in the present, until we notice the tips of angel wings and a long, golden horn. We can't help drawing comparisons to Giotto's deep blue skies and gesticulating angels in the celebrated frescos of the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, which Riley studied while in Italy for an extended stay on a Prix de Rome. But we also think of gospel music, while the graphic economy of the composition demands that we pay close attention to contours and the spaces between, bringing us back to the realm of modernist painting once again.

That kind of multiple reading, reinforced by Riley's chained, freeassociative titles, is characteristic. The apparent specificity of his imagery is potent but deceptive. Ambiguity coexists with clarity. The formal issues of Western modernist painting coexist with allusions to African American history and experience, and to the diaspora. We recognize particulars, enjoying the casually precise, evocative descriptions of form, clothing, and objects, while realizing that, with few exceptions, there is no specific moment evoked by that clothing and those objects, [End Page 53] which become timeless, vaguely retro. The severe cropping further dislocates us, forcing us to concentrate on the formal aspects of the paintings rather than attempt to tease out a narrative, shifting our thoughts to the history of art. Yet we cannot ignore the insistent reminders of today...


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pp. 52-54
Launched on MUSE
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