The Man Whose Head Expanded
Some artists plow the same fields over and over, as it were, working in a given medium for entire careers. That can’t be said of Eric Rippert, whose show The Man Whose Head Expanded was on view June 7 through July 6 at BAYarts.
A lot of people know Rippert for his photographic work, specifically for Cleveland landscape photos featuring out-of-focus toy figures in the foreground. They implied a narrative, or at least made viewers think something was going on in the picture, maybe something about alienation or being an outsider, but what exactly that was remained a mystery. Four of these images are featured as public art on the Innerbelt Bridge, installed in 2014. For a while, it was his signature style.
But then in 2016 Rippert made a dramatic turn for an exhibit called Full of Promise, at Maria Neil Art Project. Some implied narrative was still in place, but the nature of it changed from alienation to nostalgia, and while the works still involved photography as source material, he had expanded it to include other graphic material associated with his family and childhood, such as wallpaper, and also drawings of beloved things, like a guitar, or significant aspects of family life, like a camper. And he had begun to smear the ink of his digital prints, which evoked distortion or decay of memory. Augmenting that show, around the corner In Maria Neil’s “annex” gallery, there was a classic blanket fort, a harkening back to something almost universally recalled with delight.
Not quite three years farther down the road now, he has made an even more significant change, with a show that swings away from photography altogether. These days, Eric Rippert is painting. He’s moved into a space at 78th Street Studios, where he has produced a steady stream of works that are completely different from either of those earlier veins. In some of the paintings with figurative symbols drawn in, it might be possible to recognize something in common between some of the newer works and a previous stage. There’s a similar a quality of line in the drawings, but that is the only similarity I could find. This is dramatic evolution, at least at that level.
I asked in a Facebook message exchange about his transition from one medium to another, and what was going on there.
“Though I do continue to make photographs and work with notions of nostalgia, I have not been showing these images nearly as often as I show my painting. My newest work is an ongoing evolution of materials and ideas where I have discovered a more visceral and intuitive practice as opposed to strictly narrative-driven work.
“When I think about a thread connecting one body of work to the next, I imagine two sides to my creative self. One side is fascinated with the procedures involved with making photographs and the alchemy of the processes and the historical/conceptual methods for creating narratives with images — at least in my case — and how all that structure steered my work for years. Then the other side of my creative self, the one that told me to start painting, is the opposite of the self that follows rules and communicates notions using intellect rather than intuition.”
The Man Whose Head Expanded shows what I can only imagine are early results of this evolution as the artist explores what Douglas Max Utter has called “the possibility of paint.” There’s a range of different styles in the show, which gives the impression of trying out a lot of different things to explore how paint and brushes, and lines, and subject matter all work together. The show also gives the impression that the artist is spending time with paint in order to have something pour out of the subconscious through the liquid drawing and smearing, and then to see what it is. These paintings have that quality.
There are abstract landscapes, and expressive abstraction, and abstraction embellished with symbols; there’s portrait; there’s a matrix of black forms, not with straight edged or consistently curved geometry, but forms more organic than that. The show is stylistically all over the place.
“Many influences are at work here as I experiment with different manners of painting, Rippert says. “My pool of influencers is deep and wide. Lately, certain songs have been a heavy influencer on my work as I feel music shares the same place in me where my paintings come from.”
The portrait (Stoneman Douglas shooting survivor and gun control activist Emma Gonzalez) has a cubist look to it, which Rippert says was at least unintentional. “I didn’t have a specific style in mind — her face was born in my memory and I just showed up, got to work, and Emma appeared.”
The matrix of black forms is one in a series of similar works; he chose to put the one he likes best into the show. “To me, it’s a logical link between some of the other paintings. One might look at my exhibition and imagine seeing different manners of painting and that’s okay. Feeling trapped by a recognizable style is one of the reasons I took a break from showing photography.”
“Head expanded” are the key words in the title of the show.
To my eye the most exciting and successful of these are the abstractions fortified with symbols that evoke different aspects of life. One includes a simple, stick house, and some flower shapes, and a vessel for water, or milk or wine, and a couple of skulls with little, empty speech bubbles floating above and between them, like a spiritual conversation after death. The palate is cheery. The paint drips, yes, like tears. One of the skulls has some tears dripping down.
Another of these also features a skull and a little toy steam engine, like a childhood memory. Again, a cheery palate and the acknowledgement of death and time, and people gone by.
That–more than any technical similarity like the quality of line in the drawings–is a deeper element of continuity between his earlier work and what is on view in this show.
A very similar, also bright palate is used in a more abstract way, with geometric shapes, but without the symbolic use of figures. Even here there is a sense of happiness balanced against sadness, or loss, or inevitable mortality. Here that’s evident in some dark shapes and shadows, and paint running from clouds like rain. It’s a strength that the paint is simultaneously the dripping medium, as itself, reading as rain because of its position under some cloud forms.
It’s an enormous benefit in looking at this collection of work as a representation of this stage in the artist’s output, to see it all accessible at once in a gallery setting like BAYarts. If you did not get there, though, it’s easy enough to catch Rippert in his studio on the Third Friday of the month at 78th Street Studios. Then you can ask him about these things yourself.