Finding the Major Arcana
CARIN RILEY Linear Figurations
ART 3 GALLERY | JUNE 8 – JULY 15, 2016
The Lovers, the Hanged Man, the Chariot, the Tower: four examples of the twenty-two enigmatic images in Taromancy that seem to have a resonance with a great number of people. In Carin Riley’s understated and demure pastel drawings and oil paintings, a quest for symbols takes place, mimicking the process that generates such vocabularies of signs as the Major Arcana, the constellations, or the beings of the Chinese zodiac. It begins with fascination and transitions into routine. Riley reproduces her subjects again and again—the man with squarish hands, Pallas Athena, the sailboat and the owl, and others—meticulously refining each line and gesture with which she renders her characters and objects. What begins as a process of methodical abstraction achieves fulfillment in a meditative diagramming exercise that dissects the meaning of the subject and translates it into aesthetic variations of line-weight and tonality.
Riley’s means of sourcing her characters is engaging partly because of its intuitive aspect: she recognizes forms that generate interest by their shape, aura, and use, as, one imagines, did the ancient creators of much more universal sets of figures and signs. Some of these she reuses, creating a hybrid set of old and new. Squarish Hands (2016) is a squat and dense tessellated individual—a grossly manipulated silhouette of a suit of armor. The title comes from the clenched fists that the being holds tightly at his sides: he is filled with potential vigor, something that is reinforced by the geometric cells of energy that have crystallized within the parameters of his form. Despite the inhospitable source of the figure, an impermeable steel protective shell made for battle, Riley pushes Squarish Hands in a wittier direction. The big hands are not just chain-mail gloves; they are the hands of her father, a bricklayer. The head, grown to absurd proportions, and the body, shrunk down to a child’s frame, are more of a cartoon. This is a protective deity: fearsome to his enemies but a comfort to those who know him.
The suit of armor is a recurring trope in Riley’s pantheon and defines the characters she depicts more than the actual dimensions of their bodies. Pallas (2016) and Blue Pallas (2016) refer to the goddess Athena, except that in this capacity, the goddess is no longer a woman, but a mutated vestige attached to her protective breastplate, the aegis, (and also the title of an oil painting in the exhibition). Pallas and Blue Pallas exemplify Riley’s fastidious drawing technique: she copies and recopies drawings, varying them only slightly. The aegis in the drawings—which long ago dissolved into six or eight lugubrious forms that might or might not reference the goddess’ abdominal musculature (as classical and Roman breastplates did), but may just as easily be the deconstruction of her entire figure—varies by color and by the thickness and the layering of lines. Blue Pallas is shades of blue pastel and white and gray watercolor, while Pallas is white and gray. Riley’s repetitive method adds a frenetic vibration to the Blue Pallas, while Pallas itself has a calligraphic sparseness.
Riley is an adept practitioner of Chinese astrology, and her pursuit of both symbolic power-figures and complicated diagramming makes sense given this interest. The signs of the Chinese zodiac (rat, monkey, dragon, snake, and so forth) along with its four basic cosmic elements (earth, air, fire, water) represent individual traits while interacting within a larger context.
Riley’s forms oscillate between individuality and synchronicity, as do the images of the Major Arcana in the tarot. In addition to Riley’s suit of armor, her Athena and her aegis and her owl, Schooner (2015) is a creature of her line. This line is most often fluid, but can be sharp, angled, and contained as well. With her practice of drawing a form again and again, the figures become diagrams first and foremost. They navigate between an illusory spontaneity the artist is remarkably able to generate again and again, and a ritualized mark making—much like a monk drawing his thangka again and again as an act of artistic faith. The parallels between Schooner and the Pallas drawings offer a view into the versatility of this practiced mark.
While still dedicated to the process of abstraction, Riley introduces a series of forms that emulate the tightly drawn canvas foresails of an ocean-going vessel. Though still working with a gray-and-white palette, the emotion of the acute angles of the boat and the sharp vector lines at work are situated 180 degrees from the bulbous hard forms of the goddess’ aegis. While functioning in the broader narrative of Riley’s work, each character offers the viewer an assessment, or reading, as disparate as turning over the Fool or the Magician.
WILLIAM CORWIN is a sculptor and curator based in New York City. His work has been reviewed in the Brooklyn Rail, ARTnews, Sculpture Magazine, Artcritical, and Art Monthly. In 2016, he organized I Cyborg at the Gazelli Art House in London. He currently teaches with the Meet the Met program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and hosts a program on Clocktower Radio.