Critics’ Picks

Richard Wathen, Llareggub, 2009, oil on linen and aluminum, 74 2/5 x 53".

London

Richard Wathen

Max Wigram Gallery
106 New Bond Street
March 12 - April 22

Richard Wathen smoothly applies oil paint onto linen stretched over aluminum. The English artist’s five new paintings, presented alongside two series of color etchings, feature children wearing historical costumes, posed against single-hued, empty backgrounds; several of the subjects are found cuddling rabbits. The soft, sweet palette and the velvety surfaces of the paintings create a soothing sense of harmony from which tensions embedded in the cryptic images slowly and hauntingly emerge. In fact, these works’ most absorbing mystery is not why the imagined subjects float in space but how passive and uncritical of their vacant surroundings they seem, even while the masterfully rendered animals radiate anxiety and emotional depth far beyond their human counterparts. Wathen perhaps intends his rabbits to represent the children’s vulnerabilities, but they outperform that function and take on emotional awareness and engagement. The people Wathen paints are composite creations culled from snapshots, art history, vintage photographic portraits, and other eclectic sources, but the images’ most compelling aspect evokes the work of Stubbs and his fellow English artists who rendered psychologically sensitive portraits of animals. The soulful look in the rabbits’ eyes disquietingly contrasts with the glazed, gentle expression worn by their human familiars.

In Llareggub, 2009, the people are altogether absent. Instead, Wathen gathers a motley group of creatures including a deer, a frog, three noble breeds of purebred dog, a monkey, and four tropical birds. All appear with rich expressions and elegant carriages. Though some of these animals might find themselves naturally coexisting or brought together by their masters, their calm and dignified dynamic in Wathen’s romantic, misty landscape accentuates the obvious psychological complexity and depth of his paintings’ real protagonists.