There are shapes, and there are lovers. In his new series, Ridley Howard paints mostly couples, a few loners, hugging or nuzzling or toweling off after a swim. They embrace among Euclidian forms like rectangles, triangles, and circles rendered in primary colors, sunset pastels, and the odd storm gray. Jewelry pops forward with shapes of its own: two pearl droplets in the earlobe in Vermont, all works 2019, or a perfectly elliptical gold pendant on the breastbone in Hotel Pool. Like John Wesley’s pop ménages drained of come until they’re PG enough for the dining room, or Hajime Sorayama pinups turned down below 1, Howard’s figures are generic to the point of abstraction, and share an almost formless family resemblance. Any signifiers of class are as unreliably abstract as those of race or age or sometimes gender. In Party, Reds and Blues, what look like chunks of semaphore block the kissing couple in a way that suggests a foreground while the overall bruised-peach hues of the figures’ skin flattens their physiques. Men with women, women with women, and women with men hint at the wider range of possible couplings. Yet, as with the sudden violence done to the figures by the paintings’ edges, the series sharpens the absence of other possible details.
One painting of two women necking in front of a mountainous graphic is called Naples Blue—in case you can’t tell they’re in Naples. This title underlines the idea of vacation, or simply leisure, that contextualizes the figures, while also underpinning the real action—the blue. Howard often designs trancelike bands of mountains, lakes, clouds, skies, and reflections with elegant steps between hues. In Naples Blue, for instance, the artist pushes and pulls the overlap of the two figures’ clothes and the distant peaks by shifting through a cycle of steely cornflower and powdered ice, leaping between one figure’s eyeshadow and the circle and triangle sitting on the canvas’s bottom left corner. The two shapes are slightly different hues, although it’s difficult to say how. Indeed, Shapes and Lovers avoids the subtextual tension of, say—the elephant in the pool house—David Hockney’s studies of rippling water prodded by long shapes. The water in Motel Pool doesn’t ripple. Howard’s paintings blend their content and their circulation by so nakedly depicting their target audience in a language they will understand. This empty but fillable posturing, almost a dare to imagine possessing their image, is these paintings’ most contemporary aspect, and riffs on the vogue for graphic, colorful, figure painting that looks good on a phone. The two smaller paintings (Swimsuit and Towel #3, Storm and Swimsuit and Towel #4, Pink Lake) are even Instagram square in aspect ratio. Meanwhile, Howard achieves depth as a colorist. In New Shoes in Yellow the three squares in various yellows (that of the shoes, and two more) that fill the bottom forty percent of the composition recall a photographer’s color chart, a study of a study of yellow. In other cases (Vermont, Swiss Alps), the figures observe inset compositions (windows) similar to the ones we see them occupy, in a kind of soft-edged double voyeurism. These are paintings for shape lovers.
Ridley Howard’s Shapes and Lovers is on view at Night Gallery, Los Angeles from March 16th, 2019 through April 20th, 2019.