“A Fine Line” at Malton Gallery

Richard Allan George might be one of the most remarkable painters that you’ve never heard of. Born in Chicago in 1935, Richard George spent three years at the Art Students League under the tutelage of the legendary Frank Reilly before going on to graduate studies at Miami University. Later an instructor at the Middletown Fine Arts Center, George created an impressive body of unorthodox painting and drawing before his death at age 55. Several of these drawings –many never before shown publicly- are the subject of a new exhibition at Malton Gallery in Hyde Park.

Like his paintings, Richard George’s drawings are as perplexing as they are seductive. The 19 mostly 18”X24” works on paper are immersed in the tradition of nude figuration, but in idiosyncratic ways. Until the advent of Modernism, the erotic subtext of the nude was almost always contextualized by the discrete fantasy of heroic tales, vestal virgins, and mythological scenes.  By pulling the feminine form out of the clouds and plopping it into the real-world of middle-class French sexuality, Manet’s Le dejeuner sur l’herbe (1863) was a cause célèbre in the late nineteenth century. But in an age where female artists casually objectify themselves, nakedness on the canvas hardly seems an issue. Yet in the work of Richard Allan George, it is the issue.

Executed with confident lines, drawings such as Two Figures on a Striped Blanket (no date) and Two Figures Under a Tree (no date) feature protagonists engaged in the minutia of everyday life. The women in the former are drinking cocktails and enjoying a cigarette, while in the latter, they’re relaxing under a tree. These characters are portrayed as either unaware -or unashamed- of their nudity. In Four Figures in Water (no date) and Three Figures Mountain Climbing (no date), George has created a series of images whose nearest analogs are the Polynesian paintings of Paul Gauguin. In those works, Gauguin replaced the reality of a Tahiti dominated by French colonial rule with an idealized paradise of semi-naked, mystic “primitives”, close to nature and free of western inhibitions. In many of his drawings and paintings, Richard George seems to have been after something similar: an alternative reality not defined by Western conventions of social propriety, a place where nudity is synonymous with authenticity. But whereas Gauguin depicts a world charged with mystery and eroticism, the sexual tensions in George’s drawings are subdued, if detectable at all.

Formally, 18 of the pieces on view are composed in much the same manner. The artist probably laid-out each image in graphite and then worked back into the surface with an implement dipped in India ink. For such a straightforward approach, George pushes an extraordinary range of tonality out of the black and white marks. Coupled with a high degree of line sensitivity, George’s touch in the exemplary Figure with Bowl of Fruit (no date) is reminiscent of Bonnard. In Male Figure (no date) and Female Sitting (no date) the artist’s training with Reilly is on full display. Emerging from a flurry of line and gesture, George conjures up two tantalizing torsos from scratch. But by and large, the drawings in the show are simple affairs. At no time do we witness George struggling to find form. There is never a hint of hesitation in his line or pentimenti in the work, suggesting that the bulk of these drawings are photo-referenced. And if this is the case, it provides compelling insight into the nonchalance of the nudity in the work.

Depending on the source of these images, George’s figures may not have been nude at all, but by drawing upon his skills honed during his years at the Art Students League, he rendered them as such. Or, these pictures have been derived from sources such as naturist magazines, magazines that often feature non-sexualized images of nude individuals engaged in the mundane rituals of life: relaxing, smoking, and spending time at the beach.  When asked about the meaning of his work, Richard George was famously evasive, claiming “Whatever you think it is, that’s exactly what it is.” The retort is a typical artist’s feint; designed to deflect attention away from a specific meaning that its creator is either unwilling or uncomfortable discussing. Regardless of his intentions, the artist left behind an unconventional legacy of work. His paintings and drawings do not fit comfortably within established genres, nor are they mere imitations of lens based media. These works are nothing less than the creation of a whole new world, governed only by the passion and creativity of Richard Allen George.

-Alan Pocaro

“A Fine Line: Drawings by Richard Allan George” is on view through October 22nd at Malton Gallery. 3804 Edwards Road, Cincinnati, OH 45209. Hours: 11-5:00pm, Tue-Sat. Mon by appointment. 513 321 8614



One Response

  1. As you surround yourself more and more with the George’s you tend to “forget” the nudes and allow yourself to become immersed in the whole scene. The drenched with color canvas that you can almost walk into really is a feast for the senses.
    An exhibit not to be missed!

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