Richard Wright

Richard Wright is fascinated by what he calls the “ghosts” of painting’s history. The idiosyncrasies of a Guston or an Ensor, for instance, place them in awkward relation to tradition and prompt challenging questions as to painting’s potential. Wright’s own wall drawings, destined to live only briefly before being obliterated by the next layer of white emulsion, pose equivalent difficulties. This show’s three seemingly familiar elements—an architectural interior, a landscape, and a text fragment (a borrowed song title)—set up a subtle dialogue between the delicacy and restraint of the works and the architecture and history of the space, but it took time to grasp.

The Kunstverein is very plain: an elongated rectangle with light entering through pitched skylights. At the back of it Wright drew, starting from the floor, alternating rows of squares and parallelograms up the wall. Diminishing in size as they ascended, these elements formed a pattern suggesting a grand staircase rendered in classic single-point perspective. They thus formed a displaced continuation of the broad flight of steps by which one had reached the gallery. Seen close up, the illusionistic steps rose steeply, but as you moved away they appeared to flatten out, and from the far end of the gallery it seemed that the floor merely continued up a gentle slope beyond the room’s confines. Opposite this predominantly red drawing, Wright painted a rectangular area with closely spaced blue horizontal lines. There was something disarmingly simple about this, offering as it did all the inevitable clichés and inescapable truisms of painting. Marks on a surface both obscure the surface and reiterate its presence, and when, as in this instance, they present the image of a veil, they are doubly split in their task of hiding and revealing. The marks simultaneously held the viewer’s gaze within the space and, in a manner quite different from the window-on-theworld trope of the staircase drawing, led it out beyond the wall to the Rhine and the sky above it. The area of blue, moreover, was punctuated by a fairly regular series of circular “holes” whose pattern hinted at the structure of the concrete sections forming the building’s facade, the other side of the wall. One of the holes, ringed in black, was larger than the others and for those with a little local knowledge was a reminder of the occasion in 1981 on which Joseph Beuys drilled through the wall of the adjacent Kunsthalle for real.

The third element of the show provided something like a commentary on the work’s various layers—pattern, image, observation, memory, and sensation—and on the emotional and intellectual resonance of their interconnections. Dotted around the roof beams were gold Gothic letters, which together spelled out the words BASTARD IN LOVE, the title of an old Black Flag song. The song contains the lines, “You keep waiting for the love you wanna feel / But you never believe it when they tell you love is real,” and it was this endless dichotomy between desire and fulfillment that the show worried at. Here as elsewhere Wright’s provisional solution was to point us gently toward our experience of the concrete realities of the space. After all, it was the architecture that physically contained the contrasting styles of the drawings and held them together. Where else to look for a reconciliation of their disparate historical reference points, incommensurable theoretical underpinnings, and divergent pictorial rhetorics, if not here and in this moment?

Michael Archer