Richard Wright in relation to the tradition of wall painting

We have become used to considering paintings as moveable and sellable objects. We tend to forget that in the early days of western art, in classical antiquity, during the medieval period, even in the early Renaissance, a lot of painting was done on walls and ceilings. This was often in the form of frescoes, to decorate and give meaning to architectural spaces. The use of moveable supports such as manuscripts, altars and various types of decorative art gradually evolved and at first this sort of painting had a practical purpose.

  • The Trinity Altarpiece The Trinity Altarpiece, by Hugo van der Goes

The idea of painting with a completely non-utilitarian, purely aesthetic raison d’être came later, beginning in the Renaissance and was linked to the rise of private, non-religious patronage – at first by kings and queens and by the aristocracy and later by the wealthy middle classes. This led to the rise of the individual and named painter, and to a growing tension between the power and money of the patrons and buyers of art and the need for autonomy of artists, painting what and how they wanted. This tension was on the whole fruitful for the development of art and of painting in particular, but since painters were usually dependent on the money that patrons and collectors paid for their works, it was the market that had a decisive say in what painters produced.

In the 1980s this power of the marketplace became very obvious. There was almost a feeding frenzy for expressive, largely figurative painting that many artists in Europe and America were eager to produce for.

  • Two Men Two Men, by Lucian Freud
  • Ohne Titel [Untitled (Figure with Raised Arm)] Ohne Titel [Untitled (Figure with Raised Arm)], by Georg Baselitz

Wright was painting on canvas at this time but increasingly he felt alienated by the climate of greed and by the control of the marketplace. He gave up painting for about two years before deciding to go back to art school to study for a master’s degree. It was at this time that he began to revise his view of art and painting. He turned away from considering paintings solely as discrete objects and investigated ways of concentrating on painting as ideas. In an interview in 2000 he said: “About ten years ago I began working in what for me was a new way. This seemed to have something to do with the action of painting and turned out to mean working directly on the wall, which in turn implied thinking about context and architecture as part of the content of the work.”

The reaction against easel painting was partly due to its being traded so nakedly as a commodity. Painting on walls could not be bought and sold and therefore had no commodity value, especially if it was painted out after being shown. Another reason for the move to wall painting was the seemingly arbitrary nature of easel painting. There is no objective reason why a canvas should be any size or shape; why any particular subject matter should be treated; and why any particular style or way of painting should be preferred. When real walls were used in a real building with its own function and history, there was at least something to base one’s decisions on.

  • Composition with Double Line and Yellow, 1932 Composition with Double Line and Yellow, 1932, by Piet Mondrian
  • 1o Kestnermappe Proun [Proun. 1st Kestner Portfolio] 1o Kestnermappe Proun [Proun. 1st Kestner Portfolio], by El Lissitzky

Wright drew particular inspiration from the modernist, utopian tradition of abstract painting. Artists such as Piet Mondrian and El Lissitzky believed that ultimately individual paintings were not needed in a properly conceived and constructed architectural environment. Indeed, Wright has often referred to his works as “constructions”.

  • No title 2007 No title 2007, by Richard Wright
  • No title 2007 No title 2007, by Richard Wright
  • Untitled (1997) Untitled (1997), by Richard Wright

It is no surprise then that Wright often uses abstract shapes and lines to articulate the spaces he paints. But these are not the sole part of his formal vocabulary. He has also used the gothic motifs (especially skulls) of club fliers and record/CD covers and the emblematic, even heraldic forms of medieval manuscripts and room decorations. Indeed this is what Wright has chosen as the repeated shape in The Stairwell Project.

The way Wright orders his motifs over the walls in his different projects varies greatly. Occasionally he will isolate a motif (or a pair of them) and make a focused composition. Sometimes he will work with symmetries or Rorschach-like doublings (although this is more common in his independent drawings). But most commonly, he uses the multiple repetition of forms. The forms can be purely geometrical, such as lines, but they can also be complex, organic shapes.

Repetition is a favourite practice in architecture. It introduces order and structure. But it can be monotonous and, when carried out on a large scale, can even appear overbearing. That is why variations and subtle alterations are so important in architecture – and in painting.

  • Untitled 2006 Untitled 2006, by Richard Wright
  • Untitled 2005 Untitled 2005, by Richard Wright
  • No title 2007 No title 2007, by Richard Wright

Wright’s wall-painting tackles the most fundamental of all issues: light and dark, energy and substance, life and death, the very subject of Genesis in the Bible:

“And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the
Darkness.”

Although Wright would probably hate to be mentioned in this connection - he is very modest - this is also one of the subjects tackled by Michelangelo in his paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Likewise the choice of flower shapes to symbolize nature and matter has a long and illustrious pedigree: not only the flowers in the margins of medieval manuscripts and in the mille-fleur tapestries of medieval courts, but the wind-blown roses that surround Venus in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

The power of Wright’s wall-paintings lies in their fusion of formal directness, which does not mean that they are not complex and subtle, and depth and range of association. He responds to the spaces in which he paints with extraordinary insight and acuity, homing in on its very essence, and then turns this into works of rare beauty.

  • The Stairwell Project The Stairwell Project, by Richard Wright

 

Glossary

Renaissance
A period in European culture from the 14th to the 16th centuries in which the visual arts flourished with advances in the treatment of anatomy and the use of perspective. It is particularly associated with Italy, where it began, though the term applies elsewhere. It is noted for a revival of interest in the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.

Patronage
The support given to artists by an individual or organisation, usually through buying or funding their work.

Figurative Art
A general term for art that refers to the real, visible world, used more specifically for the representation of the human figure.

Modernism
A general term used to describe the various movements in art from the late 19th century to the 1960s, encompassing a broad range of styles.

Abstract Art
Art in which there is no attempt to represent anything existing in the world, particularly used of the 20th century onwards. ‘Abstraction’ refers to the process of making images that may in part derive from the visible world but which are reduced to basic formal elements.

Heraldic
Heraldry is the rules concerning a nobleman's use of patterns on flags, armour and shields.

Motif
A distinctive element in a work of art or design.

Symbolism
The representation of subjects or ideas by use of a device or motif to create underlying meaning. A literary and artistic movement that originated in France and spread through much of Europe in the late 19th century. There was no consistent style but rather an appeal to the idea of the artist as mystic or visionary and the desire to express a world beyond superficial appearances.