To use the parlance of Herman’s Hermits, there was a kind of a hush that pervaded Ridley Howard’s exhibition, aptly titled “Slows.” The work resonates with a palpable silence that’s hard to pinpoint. Divided between figuration and geometric abstraction, the show consisted of 20 small-scale, pristine paintings, all oil on linen from 2011, which, when not completely abstract, emphasize and extract geometry from representational imagery. With their soft, velvety surfaces that seem to glow from within, the figurative paintings depict either people or landscapes. The abstract canvases seem to function as a foil to the other work and, although cleverly interspersed throughout the gallery, are ultimately less interesting when viewed individually.
The representational work focuses on things normally overlooked. In Nudes, which is a partial view of an entwined couple, the dominant elements are the yellow-sheathed legs of the woman and the freckles on the man’s back. Howard’s emphasis on these details allows for sensuality but overrides outright sexuality. His figures have a gentle luminosity that recalls Seurat’s charcoal sketches.
Trattoria, a compelling study in ambiguity, is essentially three planes of differently tinted whites against a dense yellow ground. Is that long rectangle at the bottom a table, and the one to the left a window? Only four upside-down glasses anchor the scene to the restaurant interior referred to by the title. The flatness of Will Barnet’s imagery comes to mind—his screenprint from 1970, Woman Reading, reduces a frontal image of a woman in bed under an orange blanket to four planes of color.
The painting 156 shows a woman’s head and shoulders against a horizontal expanse of light green gridded with thin white lines, but equally important is the enigmatic off-white numeral six that appears in the painting’s upper left-hand corner, coolly balancing the tiled background. A large, pale-blue, diamond-shaped earring reveals as much about the woman as her detached gaze does, and also functions as a counterpoint to the numeral. Similarly, in a painting of Howard’s wife (also an artist), titled Holly, Rose Dress, the bold pattern of the dress is as significant as the neutral affect of the woman, whose head is cropped at the eyes by the top of the canvas. The black dress’s colorful vertical stripes and splashy orange and yellow flowers stand out against the creamy off-white slices of space between her arms.
Harking back to the brushy softness of Howard’s earlier paintings, Track portrays a lush group of trees; at the bottom a horizontal band of watermelon pink and, below it, a strip of solid green asserts the abstract geometries that are a theme of this show. In the current arena, in which so many artists are working with a combination of abstraction and representation, Howard provides a unique and intriguing point of view.
Photo: Ridley Howard: Nudes, 2011, oil on linen, 24 by 30 inches; at Leo Koenig.