Women and Children First
Shaun Richards
Flanders Art Gallery
Through Nov. 28

The paintings by Shaun Richards now on view at Flanders Art Gallery’s brand new exhibition space on South West Street in downtown Raleigh are rife with edgy juxtapositions that reverberate throughout the show. Just by happenstance, the industrial qualities of the gallery’s new space, still undergoing final construction odds and ends when I visited, lent an enticing ambient grittiness to the work on display.

This effect is to be but a fleeting one, with renovations scheduled to be completed last week. Still, Richards’ work strikes me as an ingenious fit for the rawness of the nascent space. Many of his paintings are constructed utilizing an underlying collage layer of printed pages pulled from reference books, texts from the social sciences and medicine, and newspaper sources. These pages are affixed to the canvas edge-to-edge, providing an underlying grid that is subdued in appearance yet often startling in content. The artist then applies a paint layer, often in dark, somber umbers and other muted earth tones and washes.

This technique provides a broad base from which Richards can explore far-ranging themes while keeping his canvases in check, compositionally and chromatically. The result is work that is bold, complicated and risky both in its broad scope and its gnashing explorations of the human condition.

One of the most powerful paintings on view is a large canvas titled “The Four Horsemen,” which portrays the famed apocalyptic quartet as a group of cowboys. We see the silhouetted figures riding through a flood of subjects seen throughout the show: mass culture and individualism, gender issues and sexuality. The horsemen sit proud and strongone clasping a lasso in a way that would make the Marlboro man proudand floating throughout the painting’s background are quintessential images of American media and culture, such as logos from GMC, Ford, ESPN, Facebook, a Newsweek cover featuring Oprah, and a Playboy bunny.

A series of four canvases titled “Matriarch I-IV” depicts a shrouded Pietà-like figure, affording Richards the opportunity to explore form within a recurring subject. Here his underlying background collages figure more prominently in relation to the series as a whole, varying from a dark, red-light-district color scheme to a cheesecake pinup collage to the stark, clinical sexuality of human anatomy diagrams.

An intriguing but sternly sobering series of four paintings titled “Reflex Testing Series” depicts autistic boys; they’re cradled in the arms of medical personnel as they undergo evaluation testing for stimulus and reaction responses. The testing criteria, written in the background, provide dryly definitive descriptions of acts that are emotionally wrenching. Despite the stark theme of these canvases, their minimal composition and pared-down brushstrokes offers visual relief to a show brimming with so many painterly techniques that it is at times overwhelming.

This show is admirable for its ambition and the vast territory it covers. Each of the artist’s themes could be an entire series of workalthough the broad reach of the canvases made me wonder if Richards might be trying a little too hard. Nonetheless, while the gallery’s interior vibe will have changed after construction is complete, there’s no doubt the visceral feel of Richards’ work will remain.