Sunday, May 12, 2013

Richard Stout's Last Home Show

Robert Boyd

In my attempts to understand Houston's art history, I usually see Fresh Paint at the MFAH in 1985 as the turning point--the last gasp of the dominance of expressionist painting in Houston. Richard Stout was in that show, of course. But he has expressed that he sees the inflection point in Houston's art history at the beginning of the Core program. Core brings in new artists to Houston every year, some of whom stay and end up teaching locally, who don't have any history locally. Each batch of new Core artists represents a rupture.

But an older artist like Stout, who has stayed in Houston painting and sculpting for so long, is a continuity. He has had dealers (Meredith Long Gallery and W.A. Graham Gallery both show up frequently in his cv), but for the past few years Stout has been showing art out of his home. It makes sense--if you stay on the scene long enough, and produce work of certain quality, a gallery becomes an unnecessary middleman. (Apparently, Michael Tracy and James Surls also do this now.)

On May 3rd, 4th and 5th, Stout had his last home show. Subsequent shows will be in a gallery. There are personal reasons for this move, but I was a but saddened by it because Stout's house in Montrose is such a beautiful setting for his work The white cube is a good setting for art--relatively neutral and unobtrusive--but there is something about seeing art hung in a home that is quite different.

Of course, it helps if you have a home as distinctive as Stout's. It's filled with simple wood furniture and rich painted walls. It is the ideal setting for his artwork--something he will lose by showing in a gallery.

Richard Stout, Evening, 2011, watercolor, 6 x 18 inches

For example, Evening is beautiful with it's violets and reds floating above a dark green horizon. But put its frame in a dark purple hallway, and it's a different experience. One thing the minimalists were completely correct about is that art inherently has a relationship with architecture. And that is true even if the architecture we're talking about is nothing more than the color of the paint on the walls. A collector acquiring Evening would be well advised to consider purple wall paint.

Richard Stout, About Knowing, 2009-2012, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 36 inches

Also in the purple hallway was About Knowing, a landscape with an unusually philosophical title. Putting this landscape against a dark color makes it pop out quite dramatically. The scene itself strikes me as typical of the Texas coast--vast and flat. When Burke and Kant wrote about the sublime, they imagined paintings of mountains and massive waterfalls. But I think the 20th century has recognized the sublime in the idea of absence or emptiness. Malevich's black squares or Rothko's highly abstracted landscapes. There is something breathtaking about a flat, uninterrupted horizon.

Richard Stout, Shoal, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 60 inches

But if one is going to attempt to capture the sublime in painting--a project fraught with risk for a painter in 2013--seascapes are an obvious choice. They've been doing the trick since J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich. And anyone who has been down in Glaveston or elsewhere on the coast--or offshore on an oil production platform--watching a squall come in from the horizon knows about the terrifying visual power of nature, which I think Stout is trying to convey in Shoal.

Richard Stout, Rollover Bay, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 26 x 60 inches (with several small sculptures in front of it)

Rollover Bay brings the world into the picture even more directly than the other paintings--we see a view of a bay, but this time through windows. The viewer is inside looking out. But despite the presence of the four panes of the window, Stout keeps it fairly abstract. You don't see detail--that is not the point. That would detract. The reason for Rollover Bay is to experience a feeling.

Richard Stout, On Fyn, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 60 inches

At a certain point, a painting can be so abstracted that the only thing in it that suggests a landscape is the horizon line. That's what I sense when I look at certain Mark Rothko paintings, and that is the case with On Fyn. All of Stout's work is painterly, so it feels strange to call out a particular piece as being especially painterly. But for me, the act of painting is more evident on the surface of On Fyn than in many other works in the show.

Richard Stout, Madge, 2012, oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches

Not every painting in the show is a landscape or seascape. There are a group of faces in the exhibit, including Madge. Stout's faces suggest what Jim Nutt's women might look like if he were an expressionist painter. Their structure is influenced by cubism, but the colors are something altogether different. They remind me of the Chicago painters--Nutt, Roger Brown, Ed Pashke, etc.  Madge is a face lit by neon or the TV screen--there is no hint of natural light here.

In addition to the paintings, Stout exhibit several small bronze sculptures, including Ariel.

Richard Stout, Ariel, 2012, bronze unique, 15 x 19 x 7 inches

The sculptures use folded planes to form their shapes--they almost seem like bronze origamis. Some, like Ariel, suggest robed figures but at the same time recall flowers. Sometimes they retain the natural brown colors of the bronze, and sometimes Stout adds white paint. Their expressionism is consistent with his paintings.

I've been at art fairs in New York this weekend, looking at literally thousands of pieces of art--much of it quite clever and thoughtful. But there are few painters doing the kind of work that Stout does represented in these fairs. To see this kind of work now, you have to turn to the large format photographers. They seem to have taken up the challenge and the risks of trying to portray the sublime. Stout is one of the last of a generation of artists for whom these risks and challenges were met with paint on canvas.

I know the phrase "the art history of Houston" sounds slightly absurd, like "the coast of Nebraska." But it does have a history--one that certain people and institutions struggle to record and preserve. Stout is a key figure in that history. And we have the good fortune to be able to tap his memory and see new art from him, for which I'm grateful.


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