James Rieck: Lyons Wier Gallery - New York


James Rieck HIGH QUALITY ASSET, 2004, oil on canvas

In his NY solo debut, photorealist painter James Rieck presents nine paintings based primarily on 1960s-era fashion imagery. Source photographs drawn from middle-class catalog advertisements and corporate annual reports are cropped to edit out the models' faces, then painted at larger-than-life scale. The viewer's focus is drawn to clothing and accessories: conservative suits, once-fashionable skirts, and dated hair styles. By careful editing, Rieck manages to subvert the original intent of the commercial images, revealing instead a threatening landscape of constrictive social roles and repressed desire.

One large painting portrays a woman's mink coat, its arms spread wide so the dark, furry surface looms like a gigantic tarantula. No part of the (presumably female) model is actually visible, so the implied wearer of the coat appears instead to have been consumed by it, a fate which might in a moment also befall the viewer. In another painting, the knees of a schoolgirl poke out from beneath a red skirt with a strategically placed pleat, simultaneously signifying hidden reward and possible snare. Men are not exempted from this treacherous world of cause-and-consequence. A mural-sized painting called THE SHAREHOLDERS features a trio of dark, rigidly-posed suits whose wearers, though clearly successful by some measure, are just as clearly imprisoned within their occupational uniforms. A smaller painting focuses on the emasculating baldness of, as the title informs us, the FOUNDING MEMBER. Both images imply that in the business world (stereotyped as white, male, and corporate), a successful social position will levy a heavy individual price.

Rieck's previous body of work, also based on 1960s fashion photographs, featured women's wear as seen from a kid's -eye view. His new paintings are more democratic, including male, female, older, and younger subjects. They are also full of color, whereas the previous paintings were monochrome. What has stayed the same is the way in which the subjects are entrapped by the symbols of their white-bread, middle-class-American success.

As a portrayer of social insects inhabiting a narrowly-constructed terrain based on social class, Rieck might be seen as following the trail blazed by John Currin. The most obvious difference between the two is stylistic: Rieck is a photorealist, Currin is not; Rieck appropriates his imagery ready-made from consumer sources, Currin does not. More significantly, Rieck's paintings have a very different tone. The characters who populate his world are colder, less optimistic, and more cynical than Currin's. They come off alternatively as tragic victims of repressed individuality or as menacing social manipulators themselves. A better analogy is to Warhol's portrayal of Marilyn Monroe, the ultimate example of an individual who falls victim to a social persona which they willingly created in pursuit of success. However, Rieck's use of banal and dated imagery counteracts a direct association to the subject of mortality. Rather than dying, Rieck's characters seem to live on in a timeless nostalgia, forever trapped in cages they bought for themselves.

Eric LoPresti
New York, New York 2004