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Hyperreality, in Two Dimensions

CFA’s Reddicliffe leads gallery talk about his work


It’s not uncommon for a viewer to look at a painting by Harold Reddicliffe and think, “I can’t believe that’s not a photograph. It looks so real.” It’s a natural first reaction; Reddicliffe, whose work has been shown nationally in solo and group exhibitions, is known for hyperreal still lifes that render lab instruments, machine parts, and objects from the household junk drawer with an obsessive precision.

But the work of the College of Fine Arts associate professor of painting, now on view in the Boston University Art Gallery exhibition Harold Reddicliffe: Paintings from Three Decades, is anything but coolly clinical. On the contrary, his paintings vibrate with startling drama. “My recent paintings explore the transformation that occurs when ordinary objects are subjected to extraordinary scrutiny,” he says. The artist, who has taught painting at BU since 1987, will lead a gallery talk on the exhibition’s 80-plus works today at noon. The retrospective will remain on view until January 16, 2011.

Reddicliffe, 63, remembers being drawn to portraiture as a child, watching sidewalk artists in New Orleans. And he approaches his mechanical objects with the same reverence and intensity as he would a human portrait. Using tight compositions and electrified color fields, he manages to transform castaway engines, projectors, and scales into otherworldly objects that look as alien as they do accurate. The more one looks at these picture-perfect illusions—the relentless linear forms, the color backgrounds with no depth—the more he seems to be calling attention to his flat canvas, aggressively questioning the idea that any “real” object can be completely or truly seen.

BU Today spoke with Reddicliffe recently about his work and his influences.

BU Today: How did you first gravitate to painting still lifes?
When I finished graduate school and started painting on my own, one of the facts that became immediately clear was that being able to afford models was not going to happen. For purely practical reasons, I decided that it was easier to hold down a bunch of part-time jobs and paint still life than it was to figure out a way to get friends to pose or come up with the bucks necessary to hire professional models. As I got into it, it occurred to me that there were a number of overwhelming advantages—probably the most important that still life doesn’t move.

When, and why, did you become interested in mechanical objects?
I guess about 2001 or 2002. I remember one of the very first ones was an old laboratory scale. My wife teaches at LaSalle College, and their chemistry department was updating lab equipment. They were getting rid of a lot of old stuff that had been around. And I thought they were just amazingly beautiful objects. I hadn’t been much of a hard-science person in college, but simply as an object, I thought they would be extremely difficult and maybe very satisfying to make a painting of. I essentially sort of stuck them on a tabletop and tried to treat them as if someone had come in to commission a portrait.

What ideas are you trying to explore with these objects?
You know initially that they have a very specific functional meaning. They were designed to do a particular job, and you know exactly what that job is. And as a consequence, most of us tend to either use those objects, or if they’re not being used, just dismiss them altogether. But if you take one and isolate it and put it on a tabletop and stare at it for four months, it’s sort of like saying the same word over and over and over again. It loses whatever denotative meaning it had. The longer I look and the longer I try to figure out what I’m looking at, a whole bunch of totally different, really new associations begin to evolve.

You like to paint power cables snaking along or suspended in space. They look incredibly rubbery and lifelike, but at the same time highly graphic and abstract.
Right. One issue for me in painting is pretty much exactly that. When you first look at an object, you’re confronted with its literal reality. But you can’t make a painting of a cord, because of course a cord is three-dimensional. Right from the beginning of the process one is aware that on one hand, it ultimately is supposed to be the illusion of a three-dimensional form—but even more aware of the fact that to make the painting itself, what has to be focused on is a series of shapes of a particular size and a particular color in a particular place.

Some of the objects you paint—lenses, projectors, cameras—have a lot to do with looking and seeing. How do they figure in your work?
It started with a series of paintings of cameras, which was partly me just being contrarian, because I don’t use cameras at all. Analog cameras are just such wonderful objects as well. They’re so intricate. But one of the things that it occurred to me I was doing with these—and I’m not sure if this was as conscious—is that a lot of these objects, even though they are designed to function optically, are nonfunctional. Most of the projectors are obviously unplugged. A number of them don’t have their lenses. I actually take them off. So it’s a little bit about the difficulty of seeing clearly. You’d like to think that simply staring at something for hours would allow you to see it as clearly as possible. But of course it’s never right. It can’t be right. And there’s a little bit of that I think that seeps through and informs these paintings as well.

Harold Reddicliffe: Paintings from Three Decades is at the Boston University Art Gallery, 855 Commonwealth Ave., through January 16, 2011. Reddicliffe will lead a gallery talk today, Friday, December 3, at noon, at the gallery. The event is free and open to the public. Gallery hours are Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. (closed Mondays and holidays). More information is available here. The gallery will be closed for intersession from Friday, December 24, 2010, through Sunday, January 2, 2011.

Francie Latour can be reached at comiskey@bu.edu.

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