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“W.C. Richardson”

At Fusebox to July 12

In my other life, I work on records for a mail-order music repackager. When you see some double-disc compilation advertised on late-night TV, sometimes I’m the guy who transcribed the lyrics, edited the liner notes, or looked up the chart positions. We recently wrapped up a jazz series on which I was responsible for giving player lineups and instrument credits the third degree: Is that string bass or brass bass on that scratchy ’20s side? Is there four-to-the-bar guitar buried beneath the piano in that ’30s big band? How many horns on that speedy bop intro?

When deadline was approaching, nothing was so welcome as a famous small-group Blue Note date: A quick listen through the track to make sure nobody was laying out, and I was done. But some of the most rewarding work came in trying to isolate details from the immense tapestries of sound woven by shakily documented larger ensembles. It required a nimble finger on the CD remote and a different kind of listening. Once I’d grasped the central action, I’d divert my attention to less noticeable features. I’d focus on the interstices, waiting for the flourish that definitively revealed the presence of a player whose task up to that point had been to bolster and blend in with the rhythm section. Or I’d follow one alto line exclusively, checking to see whether the soloist had enough downtime to switch over to clarinet. Once I figured out how the pieces fit together, I’d allow myself the luxury of returning to the whole; it never sounded as it had before.

You look at the geometric abstractions of Washington painter W.C. Richardson in much the same way. First you attempt to accustom yourself to the underlying structure, adjusting to the repeats in the pattern used to tile the square of the picture plane as if learning rhythms and chord changes. Then you begin to follow the melodic phrasing of the bubble-chamber spirals that coil across the tiles, changing color at each border. You take note of the finer points of the arrangement, the spatter of grace notes that delicately alter the eye’s direction through the picture. Suddenly, the whole apparatus throws you: Figure-ground relationships flip. Inside and outside, loud and soft change places. Submerged colors rise to the surface, expanding as though released from great pressure. The diffident sideman steps into the spotlight and starts improvising a whole new tune. Caught off guard, you race to match his speed.

Naturally, all paintings of any depth give themselves up in a variety of ways to the solitary viewer, but the oil-and-alkyd canvases Richardson has been making over the past few years seem to be concerned chiefly with the shifting pleasures that a static image can strike into the eye and mind of a dedicated observer. Persistence is required, and focus. To walk into Fusebox is to observe a handsome gathering of recent Richardsons, but mere graphic bounce isn’t what this painter is after, no matter how skilled he is at it.

His work, like classic jazz, is at once both dance music and art music of great intellectual sophistication. And Richardson knows how to swing smart. The obvious asymmetries in the larger forms of Pale Array (2003), for example, shrewdly mask similar relationships translated to a smaller scale and nested inside. Yet however tautly such structures are conceived, they’re never rigid. And when Richardson paints in the designs he has transferred from sketches, the looseness of his handling prevents the shapes they describe from stiffening into predictability: Flung (2000-2002) reverberates with the varied spacing of adjacent semicircular and bull-nose contours. Amid the boldly clashing blue and red of the 77-inch-square Check Changes (2002), exquisitely pale and brushy purple and green tender the barest suggestion of self-assertion.

You soon learn not to underestimate ostensibly simpler pictures such as the small-format FMLB (2001-2003). And Jerry’s Twine (2002), though less than 3 feet on a side, could hold a wall all by itself. Richardson’s paintings don’t play nice, and they don’t play fair. One of them can muscle around a roomful of strong pictures (as at Fusebox’s “Chromophilia” a year and a half ago), or it can dominate dozens of weaker works (as at last year’s University of Maryland faculty show). When placed in a room together, Richardson’s canvases threaten to pull the brain in 20 different directions. But to fault him for this effect would be as foolish as blaming Hoagy Carmichael for your inability to whistle “Star Dust” while reading the sheet music to “Baltimore Oriole” as “Georgia on My Mind” hovers in the background.

You’re not done with Richardson until he gets in the sucker punch. Something you’ve glossed over and misapprehended while struggling with his jostling formal schemes—something right in front of your face—blindsides you utterly. For me this time out, it was the dark dots that anchor the light-colored vertical switchbacks of Check Changes. I’d seen them as the regular crossings of a grid, when, in fact, they follow no simple layout: dependable ranks of rectangles are syncopated into slinky cascades of trapezoids. There it was: the rush of corrected perception, followed quickly by stunned disbelief that the painting hadn’t somehow physically altered itself while my attention was diverted elsewhere. Once you feel like a sap and are all the more grateful for it, then you can go home.

On a macro level, one Richardson painting works pretty much the same way as the next, but each pictorial organizing system is completely specific to its microcosmic self. Finding your way through one of them in no way gives you a leg up on the next; you take up the challenge afresh. The 50-year-old artist claims to be content to keep doing pretty much the same thing he has always done. But his most recent works far surpass earlier elaborations of his concerns in subtlety, complexity, and force. The painter’s modest self-assessment calls to mind a remark Peter Greenaway made to this paper years ago: “Jean Renoir once suggested that most true creators have only one idea and spend their lives reworking it, but then very rapidly he added that most people don’t have any ideas at all, so one idea is pretty amazing.”

You could describe Richardson’s one idea in purely formal terms: He plays with figure-ground relationships that are defined, reinforced, and undercut by competing applications of color and pattern. To do so, however, is to sell short the achievement of one of the best abstract painters yet produced by Washington, a town that cares deeply for abstract painting. To see his art is to become at once sensualist and skeptic, mistrustful of the charms of first impressions but susceptible just the same. CP