Huddersfield art gallery - Saturday 7 January 2023
Despite the national rail strike and a partial closure of the M60 motorway for emergency repairs, not to mention the weather, I persevered to make the journey from Chester to Huddersfield to meet with fellow OCA students and OCA tutor/artist Richard Baker who was exhibiting at Huddersfield Art Gallery. The event was originally planned as an informal gathering with a small group of OCA North students, where we would walk/talk with Richard about his work, although it evolved to be much more.
Arriving with five minutes to spare I was surprised to see so many people, although as I now understand the event had also been advertised by the gallery. The informal walk/talk had been superseded with thirty or so chairs arranged in a semi-circle in the centre of a partitioned corner of the gallery space. All the chairs were occupied with late(er) arrivals standing on the peripheries. Richard sat front and centre with the painting French Blue Chair (2021) in the background. The event was introduced by curator Grant Scanlan.
Richard spoke without notes, explaining that the exhibition brings together a selection of paintings from a series of 80 works produced over 10 years. The catalyst for this work emanated from the necessity to purchase furniture after moving into an unfurnished house. It evolved into a fascination with mid-century furniture in modern society and how that related to painting. Twenty-three of these paintings were now all that remained and displayed at Richards's first solo exhibition in a public gallery.
Reaching a point where he no longer required any more furniture for his house, and in the process of studying for an MA degree, Richard articulated how he questioned the direction and purpose of his practice. Reflecting on feedback he recognised that his paintings were doing other things than he had intended, leading him to give way to what he thought his practice was about and in doing so, allow viewers to participate and engage with his work on different levels. This inspired him to look at modernism, the value of design, formality (which was important to his work), and different compositions and colours that became much more about painting rather than the objects he was painting.
Many of those in attendance, myself included, had perceived that Richard painted from life. So, it came as a surprise to discover Richard’s source material came from scouring magazines and the internet for images - often for weeks on end. Responding to some tough questioning, Richard acknowledges a discern about what and why he uses a particular image other than for its composition, its structure or a particular palette that talks to him about twentieth-century painting as a greater thing. He went on to explain that being removed from any personal connection or attachment to the objects he paints was an important aspect of his work as this allowed the viewer autonomy to create a personal narrative for themselves.
Many of the images Richard uses were produced for commerce, in that someone wanted to sell something. Thus, these images would have a limited life exposure and only to those searching for such particular objects. By taking the image from the internet, producing it as an oil painting and placing it in a gallery, Richard extends the life, meaning and value of the object. The concept of objects being imbued with value and meaning related strongly to my own work and research of Henri Matisse's use of certain objects in his still-life paintings and Jaye Schlesinger's purging of her household goods. However, Richard’s concept provided a different perspective on the same ideas of the value and meaning we place on inanimate objects.
Richard’s process included working on several paintings at a time. He would use masking tape to ‘draw’ straight edges, that were either overlapping or butting against one another to make interesting geometric shapes. These were painted as separate entities before uniting in a finished painting.
Often working from poor-quality images, he ‘slightly exaggerates’ colours or as he put it ‘tidies’ elements to emphasise the rectangles and lines of the shadows created from different light sources, such as seen in Le Confluence (2018), CO 059 (2015) and French Blue Chair (2021) (see figures 1, 3 and 4). This element of repeating rectangles within the composition remains of interest to Richard which he is considering using in a new more abstract body of work.
Much of the meaning in Richard's paintings comes from what is left unsaid, what is absent from the image but is faintly present, and what is alluded to. This is a deliberate act which Richard summarised by quoting the American art historian David Joselit, ‘Painting has the potential to create many different meanings, all at the same time.’ Listening to the conversations of those discussing different works, I felt that this sentiment captured Richard’s intent to engage the viewer on different levels.
It was really interesting to listen to Richard talk so openly about his work. He was exceptionally generous with his time, making the effort to meet with those attending and spending time with OCA students. On a personal level, the day was also an excellent opportunity to meet and chat with a practising artist and a chance for students to meet up, enjoy each other’s company and build their own peer networks.
About OCA North:
OCA North is an active student cohort from varied disciplines and genres. We are aiming to organise similar events and we would love more students to be involved. If it sounds like something you would like to do or would like further information about upcoming events, please visit the OCA-North Study Group at the OCASA website.
Images: Roger Rowley