Jane Richlovsky: Interior Views and American Dreams
by Jim Demetre
Bourgeois life is never what it used to be. Today, Americans on both the right and left wings of the political spectrum look back upon the order and prosperity of their post-war era with a nostalgic sense of longing, conveniently forgetting that it held its own unique set of fears and anxieties. Painter Jane Richlovsky explores the underlying discord and the implicit ironies of life in this period, and our own, by revisiting the subjects of Edouard Manet – an artist who made history depicting an earlier emancipated bourgeoisie – through the prism of post-war memory and the reappropriation of its used, leftover materials.
Richlovsky integrates the real and imagined worlds of suburban leisure familiar to those of us born into the then-wider middle class of the 1950s and 60s. Her source material is two-fold; she culls tableaux and figures from advertisements found in old magazines and paints updated variations on them over canvases of heavy, brightly-colored, and discarded household print fabrics. These surfaces selectively reassert themselves in her restagings, appearing throughout her compositions again as dresses, drapes, men’s shirts, upholstery, and wall treatments.
What, exactly, do we recall of our own history? Our memories are fluid and transitory, with buried recollections quickly triggered by a pattern hidden within a remodeled wall or a weathered magazine ad that encouraged us to buy a certain product, and, more importantly, instructed us as to the proper way to live. The fulfillment of personal pleasure and the attainment of a destined societal role could both be achieved by smoking, say, Kent Lights. And while we are today daily awash in the infinite digitized archives of search engines and video-sharing websites and rediscovering long-lost friends who materialize electronically on social networking sites, the unexpected presence of an actual archaeological fragment can be both unnerving and a thrill. Before our art historical recognition of Manet’s updated scenarios arise from Richlovsky’s canvases, we experience the ghostly essences of our own (or our parents) past in the discarded cultural ephemera that has been carefully enmeshed in her oils.
While Manet’s depictions of human interaction are sublime and literary, Richlovsky’s treatments pass through the more distorted archetypes of print advertising to create a higher degree of tension. (Her source material, importantly, is not scanned, digitized images from the web but actual found physical paper with original color separations, altered only by the passage of time.) The languorous boredom and easy licentiousness we see in Manet’s figures have been replaced by rigid postures and nervous smiles that signal emotional repression and bodily fatigue. In Richlovsky’s paintings, mass-market decorative arts and Americana socialist realism meet at the crossroads of the satirical and the surreal.
Manet’s women – whether wives, nannies, prostitutes or barmaids – have a plump, sexual earnestness and an air of inquisitiveness that may attest to an internal awareness of some new, emerging social order. Richlovsky’s probable suburban housewives and outwardly-composed single women, by contrast, appear less innocent and haunted by societal expectations and looming threats of failure, even when frolicking alongside handsome, seemingly successful men in secluded, well-appointed homes.
In Richlovsky’s painting Only Suburban Has So Many Wife-Saving Features we see a solitary woman of indeterminate age with a perfect helmet of auburn hair wearing a silken jumpsuit as she floats in a recliner over a spacious and mostly empty living room. The division between the interior and exterior are intentionally indeterminate, as is the hazy horizon between the earth and sky. The realism of the curves and contours of her figure on the exposed striped fabric provides a stark contrast to the geometric background of the material and the corresponding architectural lines of her surrounding Modernist home. Her resolute but pained facial expression reflects an uncomfortable suspension on the taut grids that lie on, beneath and around her, while the well-formed hors d’oeuvres on a nearby table offer little solace.
Her model for this work is Manet’s Young Woman Reclining in Spanish Costume. The softness and comfort of the staged boudoir, with it dark recesses, conveys a very different atmosphere than the sharply-angled home in Richlovsky’s update. Although the girl is modeling at the behest of the male artist, we can imagine her engaged in nascent thoughts of independence through the fantasy and role play of her scene and costume. In Only Suburban, a certain degree of independence has been realized, with disconcerting results. Escaping to the suburbs may have freed this woman from the constraints of history (hers and society’s), but it has left her with new, Space Age sensations of isolation.
Similarly, Richlovsky’s Picnic in Your Own Backyard is a revision and inversion of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. The party has been thrust into the foreground, and the comparatively staid exchange of knowing, sideways glances and the singular shock of female nudity has been replaced by the overenthusiastic laughter of exuberant Americans in matching swimwear. The murky woodland clearing is now the sunlit courtyard pool of an expansive ranch home and the only evidence of nature is the loud floral print that adorns the windows, bathing suits and swimming trunks. While Manet’s pastoral picnickers are surrounded by the wildness of the forest, Richlovsky’s beach blanket party is hemmed in on all sides by stone and glass.
Nature may feel removed and extracted from Richlovsky’s figures. In A Whole String Orchestra at the Flick of a Finger a smiling couple in a living room marvel at a vinyl record while a jungle of palm trees encroach outside their window. Their obliviousness to the exotic tropical flora outside the window is the opposite of Manet’s man and women in The Conservatory, who seem romantically spurred on by its heady scent and immediate presence overhead.
Richlovsky expresses wildness most frequently in the figures of young, unruly children, who are prominently featured in her paintings and often replace Manet’s more sinister or dangerous adults. She deftly translates the explosive drama of The Execution of Maximilian, with all of its Mexican national historical significance, into Better Homes Project Plan 3305-2 (Maxine) – a scene of screaming kids in matching clothes playing with toy guns in a suburban backyard. The well-regulated, overdetermined lives of her adults are upended by these bouts of pre-pubescent mayhem. Are the children setting forth to rebel against the confines of this society they were born into, or are they simply its natural and predictable result?
The answer may be found in her painting Prom Night in Tractland which depicts a shadow-filled children’s party taking place at night inside the sprawling living room of a stylish Modernist home and observed through giant windows from outside. Like many of Richlovsky’s paintings, it is made up of several panels of different shapes that are fastened together as a unified whole to create the effect of three-dimensional architectural space.
In these dimly-lit rooms, we see children in festive party hats conferring amongst themselves in small groups or displaying silly and desperate antics on the sidelines. Outfitted like tiny adults, the boys don black suits, bow ties and white shirts while the girls wear patterned dresses and white gloves. A mysterious clown moves about blurredly in the darkness and in the foreground outside the window a few girls assume strange poses in the fountain and stare out in the direction of the viewer. It is a marvelous scene that richly captures the combined joys and anxieties of a seemingly parentless childhood.
The painting is based upon Manet’s Masked Ball at the Opera with its column of tall, bearded men in shining top hats and black coats standing in the lobby of the theater, mingling with a few ambiguous costumed figures. (An abstract version of the painting can be seen on the wall of the home in Tractland.)
While Richlovsky’s paintings cast doubt upon the benefits of life in the Modern age, here, in the tumult of a children’s party, she reveals the promise, and future fulfillment, of an improved society. These feral and well-attired boys and girls will come to establish new social hierarchies and gender roles in their newly unrestricted environment, as the world suddenly becomes open to a multitude of opportunities and outcomes. It is both an echo and a rejection of the staid society of gray, uniformly dressed men who have gathered in Manet’s grand Paris opera house.
When it comes to reconciling the past with the present – a process that unfolds at the confluence of memory, expectations and disappointment – we are frequently left with narratives of loss. Whether comic or tragic, the resulting nostalgia is a long-established, chronic human condition. And there is perhaps no individual in our society better equipped to dispel the warped historical perspectives that accompany it than the contemporary figurative painter. Richlovsky’s understanding of our collective visual history, with its morphology and recurrence of forms, allows her to employ the powerful seduction of nostalgia while showcasing its inherent falsehoods and complexities.