CAVA Project: Interview

Willy Bo Richardson: Three Stages #1, oil on canvas
Three Stages #1, oil on canvas

Kathryn Crocker Interview Cava Project

Spring 2011

Consider this statement: the painter is inextricably bound to paint. Although seemingly unarresting, this statement signifies the importance of medium. Imagine the possibilities of paint—the medium’s peculiarities and idiosyncrasies. Paint is mercurial. Color becomes paramount, along with application. In accordance with the range of human experience, paint expresses every possibility. Fittingly, painters who understood paint as expression of something nonrepresentational were dubbed abstract expressionists, including historical icons such as: Hans Hofmann and Josef Albers.

Contemporary artists, like Willy Bo Richardson examine and enrich the abex conversation. Consequently, Richardson’s painting “Three Muses” will be featured alongside several artists, including Hofmann and Albers, for “70 Years of Abstract Painting – Excerpts” at Jason McCoy Gallery in New York. The exhibition provides a platform for the examination of abstract painting throughout several decades.

In order to better understand Richardson’s process, I have asked the artist a few questions about his upcoming exhibition and work.

KC: Josef Albers reflects on “vibrating boundaries,” a term he uses to describe the effect that two near-contrasting colors have when arranged in close proximity. “Three Muses” employs vibrating boundaries, why?

WR: If used with care it’s attractive. Vibrating boundaries pull the viewer into a painting. The eye engages fields and barriers that reverberate throughout the canvas. Vibrating boundaries can also make the viewer dizzy or nauseous if it’s in spirals or hard-edged lines.

KC: Speak more to your “interaction of color,” and the importance of its use in your paintings. What does color signify for you?

There is an industry for forecasting which colors will be in style next fall.  There is a lot of research about color combinations that will excite people to buy products. There are people who know colors’ psychological impact and are using them to make us feel incomplete, afraid and horny- basically to get us to buy things. I am using the influences of colors to help people feel inspired – to want freedom, to feel at home. Color is my first interest. The limitations I embrace in my system of painting elevates the status of color.

KC: Do you have specific reasons for choosing blues and oranges, in the case of “Three Muses”?

WR: I avoided painting with orange until just this year because it’s so specific. You’ll never see orange in a Renaissance painting because it isn’t spatial. It continues to affirm the flat plane, yet it has volume… something the abstract expressionists understood. Also, I tend to avoid using complementary colors in an overt way.  A student of mine from Honduras used these color combinations in a painting and I wanted to try it too.   I had to let go of some of my concepts, and I’m happy with the outcome.

KC: Describe the meaning behind the title, “Three Muses”.

WR: The three muses have transformed over time. They were often invoked at the beginning of a Greek poem. One travels through water, an other through air and the third through memory. I often use titles that relate to powerful female archetypes, like walkyries and dakinis. The female aspect is our wisdom and our intuition. It’s what guides my creative process, and must be handled skillfully and with respect. The last thing you want is one of these ladies angry at you! The surrealists first employed automatic writing and automatic drawing, and the abstract expressionists used these methods. Automatism is central to my process.

Also, right now there are three powerful women that are supporting my work and clearing the way for it to become part of a greater dialogue. Stephanie Simmons, Cyndi Conn and you.

KC: How is automatism central to your process?

WR: I have a set of limitations that I’ve created. My focus is singular. The way I lay out my colors, the brushes I use, and the way I approach the composition are all drifting and uncertain. My thoughts are raw, but the system points them in one direction like a lodestone. Through repetition I sustain my attention with a singular process of inquiry. The more time spent with this, the closer I approximate its source.

KC: How has Hans Hofmann influenced your work?

WR: Without Hans Hofmann, there would be no New York School and no abstract expressionism. If you look at photographs of him teaching or painting it looks like he’s doing martial arts or dancing. He was an incredible force. He laid the foundation for many of the artists represented in the show. I really look forward to seeing all the work in one gallery!

KC: Like Hofmann, how does your process incorporate modernist (belle peinture – the beautiful handling of paint) as well as avant-guard approaches?

Modernism allows artists to use all times and places for sources of inspiration. Nothing is taken off the table. The movement coincides with the appreciation of sociology and psychology – the idea that we have a mind, and play a part in a bigger picture. The aspect of modernism that fails is the idea of universality. I see post-modern ideas as embellishments to modernism, not as cancelling it out or finishing it off. Modernism has just begun, and non-representational painting is historically in its very early stages. So much is new and untested.  How can we say it’s dead when our mainstream culture is only now beginning to embrace it?

I think the idea of belle peinture is that the handling of paint and strokes is more important than the subject matter. I’m totally into that, but I might fit more into the category of minimalist than abstract expressionist. When it comes to the final product I don’t see the “other” or “spiritual” in art objects… only materials and the artist.

KC: You say that you see only “the materials and the artist,” however I see expression in your lines. Although you don’t consider your work “spiritual,” does it carry “meaning” beyond form?

WR: There is meaning and emotion in my paintings. My statement was a bit loaded. Kandinsky, one of my early inspirations, used the word “spiritual” a hundred times in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, but he never once defined it. The abstract expressionists did the same with mythology, emotion and symbolism. The “spiritual” and “the other” has a subtle exclusiveness, because nobody can see it, yet some claim to know it. The minimalists did away with “the other” in reaction to this snobbery. You have materials and you have the artist- we can all see it! We can all agree on what we’re looking at. Minimalism cleared away hidden misconceptions and allowed for artists to march forward. Again, I see this as a development in modernity not its antithesis.

KC: Describe the importance of exhibiting next to Hofmann.

WR: Wow! Does he know about this? This is a foot in the door to a very large hall, filled with incredible light. I can only hope the door does not crush my toes. Hofmann is my heroe.

KC: What books are you reading at the moment?

Lawrence Weschler and Robert Irwin had a 30 year conversation that resulted in “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing Seen”. In the beginning Irwin talks a lot about painting and detailing cars as a teenager. The quality of craft carried through the rest of his life. When I saw his scrim installation at the Dia Center in ’98, I changed my path.  He’s been very influential.