Prodigious son

Justin Richel, American in Switzerland
By CHRIS THOMPSON  |  August 22, 2007
LOVE OF COUNTRY: By Justin Richel, 2007.

"For the Love of Country" | by Justin Richel | at Wings Projects Art Space in St. Prex, Switzerland | August 31 to October 31
On August 31, Rangeley artist Justin Richel will have his first European solo exhibition at Wings Project Space in St. Prex, Switzerland. Curated by fellow Maine College of Art graduate and classmate Sarah Schuster, an independent curator now based in London, “For the Love of Country: Justin Richel” features three bodies of Richel’s recent work focusing on themes of American history and identity.

His work looks funnier than it is.

In Richel’s experiment with our colonial heritage, we find the great George Washington bent over the iconic architectures of early America; we witness his determined approach to each orifice on either side of her stolid covered bridges, and his pleasureless perfunctory pose.

It’s about as ribald as you can get — but ribaldry, properly handled, produces a unique form of profundity and gravity, and this is true of Richel’s work, in which the humorous literalization of “love of country” produces the antithesis of a visual one-liner, opening instead into the tangles of grandeur and duplicity, rapacity and noble aspiration, that constitute the history of the American experiment and its founding fathers. The fortunes of many of them were made on the trans-Atlantic mercantile relay of slaves and goods called the “triangular trade,” a euphemism without equal; the term suggests that the commerce was in geometry and not, among other things, half a million human beings.

So the logic of Richel’s work is something like an inside-outing of euphemism; rather than produce a cleaned-up term to substitute for and to contain a distasteful state of affairs which the civilized prefer not to mention, Richel’s images invent an unruly and unholy actuality designed to dredge up the volatility of fraternity — its aspirational and its homicidal dimensions — and release it visibly into history.

In images that fuse the visages of Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin, or Ulysses S. Grant and Andrew Jackson; that propose revising Abraham Lincoln’s portrait so that he passes as black man; that depict General Washington with his pants around his ankles, Richel’s work treats the iconography of the American imaginary as a scenery to be manipulated, acted upon, in order to stage a return to the scenes of America’s founding intrigues.

IN LOVE AND WAR (DETAIL): By Justin Richel.
Intrigue does not entail a soap-operatic scheming, conspiring, and dealing, but a more intense and intimate sort of relation among individuals and their ideas, more like the question of fraternity. If we had ever stood a chance of becoming modern, it would have been because we’d been able to make sense of this notion.

We’ve more or less understood how to understand Liberty and Equality, but with Fraternity we’ve never really had a clue where to begin or how to behave. It’s the element of the French republican trinity whose code has yet to be cracked at anything like a collective level, so it remains a term that gives a veneer of civility to the most intimate and volatile modes of social intercourse.

1  |  2  |   next >
Related: Moving forward, 2009: The year in theater, Please, just leave, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln,  More more >
| More

Most Popular
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   THE NEW NOMADOLOGY  |  September 07, 2007
    We tracked Smith down to find out how the first summer unfolded.
  •   PRODIGIOUS SON  |  August 22, 2007
    His work looks funnier than it is.
  •   FACT AND FRICTION  |  August 01, 2007
    As it happened, at the end, the parrot wouldn’t say a word.
  •   ONE OR SEVERAL  |  July 25, 2007
    Ettinger has referred to herself as a painter first, a clinical psychologist second.
  •   DROPPING ANCHOR  |  July 03, 2007
    “Corridor at Sea: the Performative Object” is an ambitious experiment in thinking through the relationship between performance and installation.

 See all articles by: CHRIS THOMPSON