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A Conversation with Artist JAMES RIECK

By Meaghan Coffey

Spring 2013

There’s an element of evocative mystery in the cropping of a portrait, and artist James Rieck has mastered this technique. He reveals his subjects in clipped sections of fashion and poses that urge the viewer to fill in the rest of that world themselves. In his newest collection, On Location, Rieck explores a change of scenery, focusing on the interplay between cropped models, showcased clothing, and the natural set of a staged shoot. I spoke with Rieck about this interaction, his twenty years in the art world, and what shaped his vision.

Meaghan Coffey: Do you remember the first painting you ever produced that made you consider pursuing this passion for your life’s work?

James Rieck: When I was in ninth grade I spent an entire semester working on a painting of Krishna taken from a copy of the Bagadavida that I got from a man at Grand Central Station. The next semester I worked solely on copying Raphael’s painting of Saint George and the Dragon from an art history book. I knew from these experiences, as frustrating as they were, that I was hooked and it was something I wanted to do. To this day, I find myself more interested in making my pictures from images I find out in the “real world” rather than something I imagine. That’s not to say I don’t invent a lot in my paintings, but like most young artists, I began by copying. The difference for me now is more what I choose not to copy, but omit or enhance through invention. It’s from these two paintings as a teenager that I can see the beginnings of my interest in iconic imagery that I now find in advertisements.

MC: Who were your early influences? Has your admiration for those artists shifted as you have grown as an artist yourself?

JR: It was two family friends who were artists that had the first influence on me as a kid. One was a portrait painter, and the other an abstract painter. I learned a lot from looking at their work. But it wasn’t really until I went with my parents to Picasso’s retrospective at MoMA in 1980 that I could see what being an artist was. It was an overwhelming amount of work, and I recall being spellbound by some and completely confused by others. Picasso seems to go in and out of fashion in the art world, but he won’t go away. I admire him more for that now.

MC: I moved to Baltimore last fall; I’m still getting a sense of the rhythm and personality of a city that has such a strong stereotype. Do you think your experiences here—and subsequent recognition from Baltimore’s art community—have affected your artistic career or expression?

JR: Baltimore has had a huge influence on me. Not only was it the city to which I escaped to get away from my hometown (to go to MICA in 1983)–as many teenagers do when they go to college–but I returned to Baltimore in 2001 for graduate school and stayed for more than ten years. My work changed a lot when I came back to Baltimore the second time. I had been living in San Francisco for more than twelve years, and I think Baltimore’s character and grit affected the kind of pictures I chose to make, and the colors in my paintings. I love the bohemian atmosphere of Baltimore; it feeds its arts community like no other place I have known. It’s a very creative place to make art.

MC: Has there been a single work of yours that you consider a “game changer”? A piece that attracted the attention of a mentor or one that unearthed a new subject to explore or technique to employ?

JR: That would be “Perfectly Lovely“, which I made in 2003 in my first year in grad school at the Mount Royal School of Art with director Dennis Farber. Prior to this painting, I had been making a lot of complex compositions through collage and juxtaposing images. Also, I had been working for a commercial mural company, painting in multiple styles, and the affect on me was to make it increasingly difficult to find a way to render in my own paintings. When I went to grad school, I made a conscious choice to strip away everything I was doing. I even wiped the color out of my work to start again.

I made a transformation with “Perfectly Lovely” and that series of paintings. I found a way to render again by engaging with a single image and pulling something interesting out of it, eliminating any extraneous stuff. It was also the beginning for me to really use ads as a source for my paintings.  It started me on the path I’m on now.

MC: When you start out a new theme, do you plan it beforehand? For instance, when you started the pieces for your Annual Report exhibit, did you begin with a painting of the mid-section of a suit that expanded into an entire collection, or did you always intend to explore professional fashion and poses?

Usually when I begin a project, I have gone through hundreds or thousands of images, and the group of paintings will come together as a result of the research. Like the Annual Report show, most of the images for that show were worked out before I began painting. But sometimes a series will grow out of one painting like in “Perfectly Lovely”. One leading to another.

What I think is different now with On Location, and some other recent work, is that I am juxtaposing again. I’m composing images together through montaging foreground and background, or in the case of the t-shirt paintings, images on images.

MC: On Location features subjects that are backlit by natural settings—skies, seas, mountains. This focus is a change from your other recent works, which are set within interiors of offices or cars, or posed before neutral backdrops. How did you approach this change of scenery?

JR: Just moving to Los Angeles may have been enough for me to change the scenery in my work. The relocation was partially the impetus for these paintings. These new pieces are created by combining images, foreground and background. I was creating a relationship that both went together in a “natural” way, but also I was seeking to keep them dislocated. One can recognize that the figures are posing for the camera, showing off the garment they’re wearing. This posturing sets the stage for the understanding between the figure and ground. These people are really in a studio being lit artificially, made to appear outside. For me, this parallels a psychological state we can have with the outside world, a feeling of dislocation from one’s environment. We try to fit in and act natural.

MC: After On Location, what is next for you?

JR: To be honest, I’m not sure yet. I’m still doing work in what I think of as this same direction. I’m not done with it. I’m trying to not get ahead of myself. We’ll see where it goes.

James Rieck is an award-winning artist. His newest collection, On Location, is currently exhibiting at the Lyons Weir Gallery.


James Rieck’s Website

Lyons Wier Gallery

Written and Edited by Meaghan Coffey

Photography Courtesy of Lyons Wier Gallery, New York

Design by Marie Havens


Cover/Page 1:

© James Rieck
Ready for Tomorrow
2013, Oil on canvas
60 x 48 in / 152 x 122 cm
Photography Courtesy of Lyons Wier Gallery, New York

Page 2:

© James Rieck
Petite Pleat
2013, Oil on canvas
54 x 54 in / 137.2 x 137.2 cm
Photography Courtesy of Lyons Wier Gallery, New York

Page 3:

© James Rieck
Sun and Swim
2013, Oil on canvas
72 x 44 in / 183 x 112 cm
Photography Courtesy of Lyons Wier Gallery, New York

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