Goin' up country: Richards' art becomes cheery

Russell Richards’ new stuff is, in many ways, not much of a departure from his black and wicked City Series. The basic aesthetic is still in place– rubbery, twisted bodies with sharp elbows and teeth, warped and flattened perspectives, a scratchy, cartoon-like drawing style, and the nearly ubiquitous upside-down-and-bent bicycle (an accident for every drawing, eh?).
But as far as subject matter and a general outlook on life is concerned, Richards’ “Isle of the Living” is a completely different place. 
Mostly gone are Richards’ absurd and dark images and his depravity. Entirely gone are the ragged lawns strewn with needles and empty beer bottles, the emaciated dogs, the sagging apartment buildings, and the bullet-shaped heads and sinister/blank smiles of idle, blunt people brimming with a nihilism unleavened with philosophy.
In the “Isle,” children are out playing in bright, grassy, tree-covered spaces. There are horses and sand castles. The sun has risen in Richards’ world, which has suddenly turned bucolic, and it’s just about the most surprising countrification since Ray Charles embraced the twang.
“Lovers, 2002” gets right down to it. Here are Richards’ naked and pose-able, rubber-limbed lovers. He’s arranged them, coupled, in such a way that they look like they’re in a display case, like a butterfly with a pin through the abdomen.
But without the bare light bulbs and dirty environs (they couple in white space), the sex is not nearly as raw, not nearly so animal. It’s actually almost nice. The title piece from the exhibit, “Isle of the Living,” doubles the sunshine, as it depicts an island that looks like a fine place to live. There are orchards (with people copulating in them), giant birds,  animals, more happy naked men, and even a rock wall to climb.
 It’s all arranged in Richards’ familiar stacked and paneled perspective and it’s cluttered as all get out (in a good way). But nobody is being eaten here, and that’s also a bit of a departure.
Not to say that Richards has purged all the bile from his system. There are two pieces hung at the end of the hallway in which a bit of the old, cartoonishly misanthropic Richards survives. “Japanese Monster Movie” packs in almost all the grotesque creatures missing from the rest of the exhibit; they float in this vertiginous arrangement like solar systems in a galaxy. 
And then, in “Monsters, 2002,” the sky is nicely busy with bird and insect-like creatures; one has snagged and is carrying off a naked man. Here’s hoping he gets eaten.

At the McGuffey Art Center, Russell U. Richards’ “The Isle of the Living,” an exhibit of lithographs and etchings, can be seen through October 27. 201 Second St. NW. 295-7973.

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