The method and the market

Small work by Harrington


Rick Harrington has been working on twenty-five small paintings simultaneously, all variations on his barn motif. Has the barn graduated to the level of an archetype yet? It has for him, anyway. As the foundation of a method, it’s an endless source of ways to study light and color. Like Monet’s haystacks and cathedrals, or Rothko’s horizon lines. I love what he does with it, working in thin coats, letting a complementary undercoat vibrate against the value of the paint closest to the surface. (Matt Klos, a Baltimore area artist who’s represented by Oxford, here in Rochester, often relies on this technique as well—in an intentionally visible way, as Rick does.) And he really knows how to balance the crisp, angular, geometric shadows of a roof against the soft, hazier treatment of the barn’s terrain. Harrington’s project has yielded a number of benefits. He appears to be working quickly by learning things with one image that he can then immediately apply to the others, on the fly. He’s focusing on method, so that he doesn’t make a fetish of the individual work, a standard  tough to maintain. It’s hard not to play favorites, in terms of technique, with particular paintings. I suspect he’s also better able to see all of the key personal choices that serve as the foundation of his style, and, therefore, his visual world. How to handle the paint; what colors to choose; how many different hues can one image bear without collapsing; how to make both the values and the hues work together; and how far can he take the image into abstraction without losing the sense of his light source, the time of day, the season. Amazingly, his best images convey all those realities, while still maintaining the simplicity of abstraction. It’s all a lesson in how little it can require—how little in terms of “information” imparted by an image—to convey the sense of the actual, as well as the more elusive sense of a particular artist’s stylistic world.

The other side of what he’s doing—the pricing, the marketing, the appeal to buyers—is actually part of what makes his work strong. Dave Hickey maintains that a work of art has to find a home in the market—a central tenet of his thinking about what makes it vital. One need only say “Van Gogh” as a counter-argument. Yet, there’s a lot of truth in his perspective. Hickey’s beef is that art should first of all bring someone enough pleasure  that he or she will want to take it home. He loves to celebrate art that seduces and charms, first and foremost, before it ever gives you anything to think about, which it doesn’t actually need to do. It does need to bring at least a reminder of joy, if not the genuine article. Without this, it’s a matter of asking a viewer to just shut up, take those vitamins and skip the meal. The question, as always, is how far you can focus on what people will pay to see without losing what gives the work its heart. Rick’s work never seems falsified for a sale, though: he finds a way to paint that brings him the deepest satisfaction and, therefore, has a chance of offering someone else the same sense of fulfillment while looking at it. If the amount of time invested in the painting can be reflected in a price that a potential buyer can afford, that’s the sweet spot, I think, Hickey was advocating. Rick’s getting pretty close to that in this small works project—in all of his painting, for that matter.


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