Ridley Howard

Miller Yezerski Gallery

New York–based painter Ridley Howard is profoundly attached to the South of his childhood. The six large-scale oil paintings and three drawings in the “Palace Court” series, 1998–2000, on view in his first solo exhibition recently, depict this twenty-six-year-old artist’s neighbors on the suburban Atlanta street where he spent his first thirteen years. In the narrative theater of Howard’s canvas, his characters—Janie Mulaski, Mr. Genn, Hester, Barbara, Kelly, the Domenicos—function as cultural archetypes and autobiographical signifiers. Howard’s settings and figures are drawn from memory where the mundane becomes mythic, and his irreverent, King of the Hill–style realism infuses his scenes with a pop theatricality. Playing out the premise that all memory is fictive, the objects that complement the protagonists—from batons to hoses and gourd birdhouses—serve as attributes and indices of identity.

Janie Mulaski, 1998, the first painting in the series, blends the kind of adolescent eroticism and suburban disaffection dramatized in films like American Beauty. Mulaski, a curvaceous majorette, is scantily dressed in hot pants and a halter that stretches across ample breasts. This sneakered femme fatale holds a baton in her left hand and places the other on her hip as she gazes Olympia-like at the viewer. The color scheme—red cup, white towel and radio, blue outfit—identifies Mulaski as a prototype for an American teenage love goddess. The exquisite details of the cracked pavement on which she practices her routine and the weeds and flowers sprouting among delicate blades of grass in the foreground dramatically contrast with the empty white background. This blank setting and the centrality of the posed figure remind us that Janie Mulaski exists as a puppet frozen forever in Howard’s souvenir theater.

Howard manages to find the fantastic in the literal child in Barbara, 1999. Barbara, with cropped hair, bee-sting breasts, and lanky body, is an innocent foil for Janie Mulaski. Androgynous except for a pink bracelet and pink-painted finger- and toenails, barefoot Barbara has one hand in her jeans pocket and holds a can of Coke with the other. Awkward yet ethereal, she seems to float above the curb in front of her brick house and manicured lawn. Howard situates pubescent, virginal Barbara before a garden of fertile magnolia and dogwood trees, luxuriant honeysuckle and kudzu. The young tomboy’s thin legs mimic the long, scaly pine-tree trunks. As in Kelly’s House, Afternoon Shower, 1999–2000, the pines have neither branches nor tops; they seem to reach endlessly upward like Jack’s legendary beanstalk.

Mr. Genn, 1999, blends academic realism with cartoony animation in Howard’s homage to his nastiest neighbor. In a sleeveless undershirt, this stern, balding, craggy-faced man holds a green garden hose like a gun. An immaculately rendered puddle of water drips below him on the shadowless gray driveway. Mr. Genn is comically grotesque. A fungal condition that turned the real Mr. Genn’s toenails green and frightened the neighborhood children is exaggerated here: The verdant nails match the hose, grass clippings, and lawn. Mr. Genn’s sedan and pink stucco house are rendered as geometric, flat, and mechanical. In this canvas, styles run the gamut from meticulous illusionism to Neo-Geo.

Howard’s deadpan depiction of life on Palace Court tenuously balances between cliché and pop symbolism. Thematic and stylistic elements of high art blend with the idiosyncratic, sentimental, awkward, and goofy. Howard, a master of hyperrealism, introduces his personal experience of the suburbs in a youth-oriented commodity culture. He also offers up his version of Southern regionalism and storytelling in paintings that insist on the existence of fantasy within the literal and familiar.

Francine Koslow Miller