New York

James Rielly

Ramis Barquet

Death Makes Living Fun; We See a Darkness; In the Darkness Let Me Dwell: To judge from British painter James Rielly’s self-consciously maudlin titles, the music of downbeat singer-songwriter Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, has been in heavy rotation on his stereo over the past year or so. But just as there is humor (albeit avowedly dark) and even an occasional glimmer of optimism to be found in Oldham’s lyrics, so Rielly’s canvases are not all doom and gloom. In fact, an overdependence on the sight gag ultimately proves to be their undoing, overshadowing the graver aspects of the painter’s chosen subjects.

Part of the problem also lies in Rielly’s handling of paint: a slightly awkward blend of flat color, tentative line, and heavy brushwork of the kind that seems to exist only to illustrate the inimitable qualities of the medium. Even when he makes a concerted effort to exploit the unique textural possibilities of oil on canvas, the results tend to fall somewhere between the halfhearted and the overly slick. The diminutive pair Black Back and Black Boy (both 2004), for example, motion toward a Tuymans-like understatement, but the likeness achieved, while undeniably seductive, never transcends pure style.

Characteristic of Rielly’s full-scale paintings is A Black One, a White One, 2004. Here, two children, each draped in a Halloween ghost sheet, stand side by side and look at us through crudely incised holes. One sports a black sheet and bright blue socks; the other combines a white sheet with red socks. Both cast opaque and vaguely ominous shadows. The intimations of psychodrama—this pair might be rival twins or partners in mischief, future sexual partners or budding political opponents—are present and correct, yet the emotional complexity that one might expect to attend them remains oddly absent. Rielly takes themes characterized by countless potentially fascinating shades of gray and renders them a simplistic monochrome.

Given his indifferent painterly technique and underdeveloped emotional range, it is perhaps unsurprising that Rielly’s images work better when small and clustered than translated into full-scale individual pictures. In multipanel efforts such as Everything Happy, 2003, the cumulative impact is broadly comparable to that of the collaborative “jam sessions” through which the Zap Comix “Magnificent 7” sloughed off the dictates of linear narrative at the end of the 1960s. The six individual paintings in Everything Happy do not function as a sequence but seem to inhabit the same oddly skewed world. In the uppermost panel, a man holds a banana between his teeth like a fat yellow grin. Below him to the left, a man in a suit suffers the indignity of having two balloons tethered to his protruding penis. And in the lowest scene, the head and grinning face of a boy are covered with what look like large spitballs.

Rielly’s shtick is the juxtaposition of childhood and adulthood or, more precisely, the intersection of a childlike playfulness and sweetness with the more complex emotional landscape that accompanies experience and maturity. Introducing visual twists that complicate otherwise straightforward images, he exploits the element of surprise in order to highlight the more bizarre results of this particular culture clash. Yet while this methodology results in pictures with the immediate oddball appeal of classic Surrealism, Rielly lacks the commitment and technique to extend his investigation beyond self-conscious and lighthearted stabs at the uncanny.

Michael Wilson