Richard Aldrich, I(?), 2017, oil and wax on panel, 14 × 10".

Richard Aldrich, I(?), 2017, oil and wax on panel, 14 × 10".

Richard Aldrich

At first, Richard Aldrich’s recent exhibition “Sings” appeared to be a self-contained system indifferent to the outside world. Featuring four small abstract paintings and a work on paper of similar size, along with a sculpture, the show offered no press release with contextual information, no explication of the subjects or the ideas behind the works, and no poetic text that could serve as an entry into the artist’s thinking. The gallery supplied visitors only with the title of the exhibition and those of the individual works (some of them Untitled). Misako & Rosen’s architecture, a single windowless room with a concrete floor and a high ceiling, enhanced the sense of hermeticism. This was an exhibition, one noticed immediately, that demanded a patient engagement.

The paintings were all made with oil and wax on panels measuring fourteen by ten inches. While they could all be described as gestural abstraction, their intensity greatly varied. I(?), 2017, for example, consists only of five bands of subdued color on a pristine white background. It is elegant and delicate, but with just enough awkwardness to preclude any pseudospiritual or faux-Japanese reading such a Minimal piece can otherwise summon. Abstract, 2018, by contrast, features a more heavily painted surface that has then been scratched. Its mood is a little nervous and hesitant, in contrast to the confident sparseness of I(?), but works are also related through the similarity of their low-key, earthy palettes.

The sculpture, Untitled, 2019, initially appears to be completely mute. It is a trapezoid on four legs, painted white. On the back is a small opening with a grating, through which one can see two boxes from a 1980s-era simulation game called Car Wars inside. It was tempting to see this sculpture as containing, literally, the explanation of the works in the show, and to either read the paintings through the sculpture (they reflect the artist’s childhood memories) or regard it as a stand-in for the artist (cold and forbidding outside but harboring an inner child). But that felt too easy and neat. Maybe the sculpture was a decoy, meant to lead viewers into an interpretative cul-de-sac. To encounter an exhibition that seemed so intent on throwing its audience off balance while maintaining the classical format of a painting-and-sculpture show was strangely exciting.

Perhaps a clue to Aldrich’s thinking was to be found in the drawing, Untitled, 2001, an older piece. It contains only a text that says PATTY WATERS “SINGS” LP in cartoonish hand lettering in acrylic paint; the text presumably gave the exhibition its title. Patty Waters is a free-jazz singer who released only one studio album, Sings, in 1965, and one live recording, in 1966, before disappearing from the scene until her comeback in 1996. Sings is known for a radical, nearly fourteen-minute-long rendition of the traditional song “Black Is the Color Of My True Love’s Hair”; Waters’s version is haunting and faint at the beginning and gradually develops into violent wailing and screams. Could it be that Aldrich sees parallels between Waters’s act of musical interpretation and his own model for painting? This version of the song contains a wide variety of vocal techniques and emotional registers, yet it stays within the framework of a traditional tune. Similarly, Aldrich stays within rather rigid parameters in the ensemble of works presented here. He explores the language of painterly abstraction made available by recent art history, much as experimental musicians push jazz standards to their limit without making them unrecognizable. In other words, the artist seems to regard painting as a question of variation. There are countless styles and degrees of intensity available for a painter today, and Aldrich filters and modulates these according to the need of each piece. While the works in this exhibition showed clear affinities to postwar abstraction, his intellectualism and discipline are closer to those of a musician interpreting existing compositions. The artist reads extant painting styles as though they were scores and performs them anew.