A monstrous life: Richards spills his guts
Word spread quickly through the art community last year: Russell Richards was in the hospital. The news was sad and worrisome, but I couldn’t say I was surprised. During an interview, Richards had confided he suffered from ulcerative colitis, and in recent months, I had watched the disease waste the vibrant artist into a walking skeleton.
But until he entered the hospital–where he would eventually have his lower intestine removed–Richards could be found in his McGuffey Art Center studio, channeling his dreams and demons into his art, as he has done since childhood. Now Richards has culled this lifetime of work into an illustrated memoir, The Arts and Innards of Russell U. Richards. From autobiographical maps of Charlottesville to sexually graphic cartoons to dinosaurs running amok in an eat-or-be-eaten world, Richards’ physical and emotional truths are laid bare for everyone to see– albeit disguised as intentionally naive compositions often bright with Crayola colors.
To mark the book’s publication, Richards is currently displaying artwork from the volume in McGuffey’s downstairs hall gallery. The exhibition covers only the past five years, but this period is particularly significant for Richards. He fell in love, had his heart broken, was forced to euthanize his treasured cat, and watched his best friend die of leukemia, all while trying to stave off the ravages of his disease.
Figuratively documenting Richards’ responses to these events, the show also provides an introduction to the breadth of his artistic output. He sculpts. He paints. He etches. He makes puppets. He even creates lenticular holograms. In each medium, his aesthetic is consistent: a refined approach to composition and color that purposefully recalls children’s drawings.
But don’t be fooled–this is no show for the kiddies. Despite its cartoon veneer, Richards’ world overflows with blood and guts, sex and violence. Pleasure is never far from death (literally in the case of Richards’ “Gothic,” an etching in which couples copulate in a cemetery). And in the hologram, “The Last Chapter of the Kama Sutra,” Richards’ candy-colored eroticism edges uncomfortably close to snuff pornography as a devil-like creature ejaculates over a woman’s dismembered genitalia.
Richards’ monsters become progressively more intestine-like as time passes. The book’s cover drawing depicts the artist’s guts ripping through his abdomen in an attempt to devour him.
Fortunately, that’s not what happened. In real life, a now-healthy Richards is back in his studio, making art for the next chapter.
Russell U. Richards’ exhibition, “The Arts and Innards of Russell U. Richards,” is on view through March 29 at the McGuffey Art Center. 201 Second St. NW. 295-7973.