Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Refined Line: Colin Richards

The true image: Veronica, 1996
I don’t write obituaries. It’s hard as a writer to make this choice, because there is always a lot of pressure from a variety of people to do so. I refuse, however, to participate in reducing someone’s life to a superficial journalistic piece relaying their accomplishments or a few anecdotes that are engineered to make me appear humorous, or clever. Whatever you write or how long the piece is, it will always be incomplete. I like to avoid ‘incompleteness’ as often as possible – it’s the worst sensation to haunt a writer, though it is an inevitable working hazard. Colin Richards understood writing. He made art about it. This is perhaps what attracted me to his work. I enjoyed talking to him too. It was a great source of pride to me that he read me frequently and at times enjoyed what I wrote - and told me so. There are many conversations left to be had with his work; here is one, a very incomplete one… 

A Fine Line is not an empty or superficial tribute to the late artist, academic and critic, Colin Richards, who unexpectedly died earlier this year. This may be because it wasn’t conceived as a commemoration of his practice; presented by the Origins Centre, it is associated with Body Knowledge: Medicine and the Humanities in Conversation, a conference hosted by WiSER. Curated by his widow, the renowned artist Penny Siopis, this exhibition traces, to use the title, a refined line from his work as a medical illustrator, to other forms of artistic illustration, to his visual translations of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, to the conceptual games he played as he pursued a fascination for the relationship between texts and images. In so doing the collection exposes (one of) the core concerns that drove his practice, and how it evolved. In other words it captures the heartbeat of his artistic spirit.

It’s easy to see how Richards fell into the illustrative mode; the precision and accuracy of his lines clearly made him an ideal candidate for rendering the interior of the human body into illustrations to accompany medical texts. A collection of some of these works are on display in a glass cabinet; they are unsigned and anonymous but bear the markers of his obsessive eye for detail – and of course, his ability to render impossibly fine lines, though he would push this talent much further when he transitioned to art making.

Another cabinet presents more narrative illustrations for books, demonstrating how Richards began to use his skills in more artistic realms before he became an active artist, where presumably accuracy was no longer necessary and interpretation or translation opened up new possibilities. Central to the exhibition is a display of notebooks and papers that present handwritten notes by Richards, where he meditates on the similarities between words and visuals, debunking the notion that these disciplines occupied antithetical positions. The “cult of immediacy” isn’t particular to the visual arts, he asserts.

“A drawn line can be vulnerable to second thoughts as much as any word or concatenation of words.”
In the same text he goes on to deny the spontaneity thought to be inherent to drawing – “drawing makes a grave of experience”. It’s an idea that resonates with writing, a discipline which similarly can only ever relay lived-reality in retrospect and perhaps through its excavation of it, digs a deeper “grave”.

These musings confirm Richards nuanced understanding of writing, an interest that extended beyond the discipline simply prompting visual expression. For he, too, had a way with words, contributing to books and art historical discourses in which he reversed his gaze, translating or engaging with images via texts. It is a pity that some of this work wasn’t on display, or acknowledged in some way on this show, as it would give a more complete picture of how thoroughly he was immersed in both writing and image production and the relationship between the two.

This fixation might have been rooted in a complex attached to illustration; the belief that it functions as a straight, dispassionate translation of texts or ideas - that it is not art. This would have been further exacerbated by the popularity of conceptualism, where ideas and texts were privileged over technical finesse, and the ability to render such “fine lines” might have been obviated. This might be why Richards argued that local conceptual-driven works evinced an interest in materiality.

In the series Endgame (1984) in which he set out to respond to Samuel Beckett’s eponymous play, it appears as if he aimed to get beyond the purely illustrative, while using its visual rhetoric in conjunction with collage. The works remain illustrative in some ways; it is clear a play is being depicted. This is expressed through the constant backdrop, defined by two high windows. However, the backdrop isn’t just a reference to a stage setting, but the fact that the central characters cannot escape the room they inhabit, which functions as a metaphor for the inescapability of life and death – an elegiac and macabre tone runs through this exhibition, with recurring images of skulls and dead birds.
He is Barehead II (2009)

Richards is able to loosen the text from realistic visual representations, allowing the absurdist, surrealist character of Beckett’s writing to flourish; a body of water extends from the floor, promising a release from this repressive setting, though it lingers as an hallucination. However, Richards may not have been attempting to subvert the illustrative, but embrace it. “Richards saw illustration as ‘a hinge between the visual and the linguistic, which could turn in many ways’,” observes Siopis.

The Biko series, made for the 1996 exhibition Inquiries into Truth and Reconciliation in Cape Town, were conceived after the artist encountered post-mortem photographs of Steve Biko as a medical illustrator in 1977. This seems to have shifted his interest to the accuracy and manipulation of ‘lines’ both textual and visual, which are used to both reveal and conceal the truth and the political or moral implications.

Lines of found text: from Beckett to legal testimony are juxtaposed with altered photographs of Biko’s cell, no doubt used to conceal the true circumstances surrounding his death. The images have been printed on to reproductions of Veronica’s Cloths, a religious relic believed to contain the imprint of “Christ’s face following its use by Veronica to wipe away the suffering man’s blood, sweat and tears as he laboured towards Calvary”. The act of retrieving Biko’s image, removes the state’s responsibility for his death but also perhaps alleviates Richard’s own guilt vis-à-vis the system he is embedded in (and profits from) and his role as an illustrator – creating images under the guise of accuracy. In this way the supposed image of one man’s death paves the way for others to be saved from themselves. As an illustrator he may have also been fascinated too in the transference of images; whether a sort of purity or truth could be retained.

In more recent years the discourse around images and texts manifests via the leitmotif of the parrot, which serves as an analogy for imitation, the mirror image. Illustration could be thought to function as the mirror image of text, like a parrot that unthinkingly imitates what a “speaker” says. The parrot’s speech, which has no meaning to the parrot (is just a series of sounds) is the image. This metaphor extends past collapsing the image with the “text”; where they operate as shadows of each other. References to a scene from Robinson Crusoe featuring a parrot, evokes a postcolonial reading, with the parrot operating as the “colonised other”, who is trained to “speak” like the master but cannot, must not “speak” on his or her terms.

The parrot motif also encompasses a battle with the self; the mirror-image that accurately and dispassionately reflects the truth about the self, bringing about an insufferable and inescapable form of self-reflection that echoes the claustrophobic condition in Endgame. Richards may have struggled to reconcile with this divided self that operated in one way through texts and in another via drawing, image production, but ultimately, whatever lines he followed they all led back to himself. - published in The Sunday Independent, September 1, 2013. 

Colin Richards, A Fine Line shows at Origins Centre, Wits University until September 4.

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