Following a passion brings a prize

Images are clear but messages are subtle in James Rieck's `powerful,' `poignant' paintings

September 10, 2006|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

James Rieck had been painting decorative murals in fancy restaurants and Las Vegas casinos for more than a decade before he decided he'd had enough.

"I realized I had a choice," the 40-year-old Baltimore artist recalls: "Either start my own company doing this sort of thing, or really get into my own work."

Rieck (pronounced "Rick"), who last week won the $10,000 first prize in the prestigious Trawick competition sponsored by the Bethesda Arts and Entertainment District, went with his gut and never looked back.

"Even when I was painting those commercial murals, I would go home at the end of the day and paint my own stuff," he recalls. "I finally realized that was my passion."

In 2001, Rieck decided to return to Baltimore to enter the masters program at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he'd been an undergraduate during the 1980s.

And it was there that he began making the oversized paintings of 1960s- and '70s-style women's clothing ads that would become his signature work.

"I'm interested in figure painting, but trying to make compelling figures in the contemporary context is very difficult," Rieck says, adding that some of the most intriguing images of the body today come from fashion and advertising photography.

"I'm looking for images that convey certain issues about the culture, especially that place where you have an expectation of an appropriated image, but the expectation is not fulfilled," Rieck says.

"Then I leave the interpretation of it to the viewer."

Rieck, a native of Greenwich, Conn., says his experience as a commercial mural painter helped him focus his ideas about the role advertising images play in society -- and also taught him to be a better painter.

"As a mural painter, you had a very limited time to do a perfect job, whatever the task," Rieck recalls. "I learned to paint very difficult places, like ceilings, and I learned to paint very fast. I was struck by how postmodern it was -- the company's designers could pull things from the entire history of art. I learned a lot about different styles, and it was all hands-on -- Tiepolo one day, Bierstadt or Thomas Hart Benton the next. We called it `Dial-a-Style.'"

Rieck's two entries in the Trawick contest are enormous, mural-scale paintings based on photographs that originally appeared in '60s-era fashion magazines or mail-order catalogs.

Rieck altered the compositions by cropping the edges of the pictures and cutting off the models' heads, then blowing up the images to monumental scale and painting them in a hyper-realist style.

The resulting works, which seem at once oddly familiar and vaguely ominous, invite the viewer to consider the calculated artificiality of the commercial images that bombard us daily and how they attempt to seduce us into buying into an ethic of materialistic overconsumption and waste.

"In a way, he's taking the woman as a symbol, which is what consumer ads do, and changing the character of how you look at it by the way he alters the scale of the image," says Jordan Faye Block, exhibitions director at Gallery Imperato in South Baltimore, where Rieck's most recent works are on display.

"They're very powerful paintings, but they're also poignant," Block adds. "They have this underlying meaning that's very subtle, which sometimes you get right away, and sometimes takes a little while."

Rieck thinks he'll probably use his prize money to buy art supplies. "I'll definitely use it in my work," he says.

The four-year-old Trawick Prize is open to artists from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. It is funded by Bethesda businesswoman Carol Trawick and makes awards totaling $14,000.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

Rieck on exhibit

James Rieck's paintings appear in an exhibition of the 14 Trawick Prize finalists that runs through Sept. 29 at Creative Partners Gallery, 4600 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Call 301-951-9441.

In Baltimore, Rieck is part of the group show The Exhibitionists, through Oct. 7 at Gallery Imperato, 921 E. Fort Ave., Suite 120. Call 443-257-4166.

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