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Unraveling Balls of Cheap Twine into Sublime Paintings

In the politically incorrect times of yesteryear, little boys were expected to play with toy trucks and guns, while nice little girls cooed over their lovely Barbie dolls. Growing up, the boys were expected to get dirty playing football, while girls learned to dance, to play the piano, to cook, to paint watercolor landscapes, and let's not forget the ultimate ladies' skill: embroidering and weaving. And then, the world as we knew it came to an end---women burned their bras and started to use blowtorches to weld metal sculptures, while some men achieved fame by stitching together fuzzy stuffed toy animals.

With that in mind, a visit to the Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Bergamot Station can be a total delight in encountering the art of James Richards, who knows a thing or two about weaving and stitching, mixing things up, turning them inside out and then splashing some paint on top. In his third show at the gallery, this L.A.-based artist has come with the most sophisticated and refined paintings of his career, while holding onto the threadbare essence of his rather unique art making. Imagine the raw wooden frame of a rectangular stretcher bar, usually hidden behind the canvas. And now, look at this two-to-three-inch wide lumber frame without the canvas and try to figure out how on earth anyone could make a painting out of it.

James Richards takes a ball of white twine or nylon string, unravels the end and staples it to the side of the frame. Then he stretches it across to the other side and staples again. And then, with a slight angle, he pulls it again across to another side. And he does it again and again, using hundreds of feet of yarn, pulling it side by side and up and down, until the thin white lines form a kind of criss-crossed lace, filling the rectangular field. And so the game begins. The next step might be to add another color of yarn and to really let loose, winding it around as if it were following the twists and turns of a tornado across the Great Plains. In his early works, the artist preferred to leave the wooden frame unadorned. But in this exhibition, most of the frames are painted in a bright, solid color. You may say that calling these works "paintings" is a bit of a stretch. If we need to have a label for them, then "three-dimensional drawing" might be a more accurate description. However, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it surely must be a duck---er---I meant to say "painting." Sometimes the artist pours wide, thick layers of paint over large sections of the criss-crossed lattice of strings. But he also likes to use a tiny brush to alter the color of just a small portion of string here and there. One can say that his paintings are very elaborate but, to his credit, they're never come across as laborious. I wouldn't bet my bottom dollar on the accuracy of my descriptions of his art making, but I hope I've been able to convey a sense of the playfulness, which is so much a part of the attraction of James Richards' work. When I saw his idiosyncratic paintings for the first time a few years ago, I thought about the danger for this young artist in running out of ideas and, subsequently, reducing his art- making to pleasantly decorative and gimmicky weaving. I'm glad to say that the latest show of James Richards' paintings puts these fears to rest. Don't miss the chance to see this show before it closes this Saturday.

James Richards
"Step into Surface"
December 11, 2004-January 22, 2005
Shoshana Wayne Gallery
Bergamot Station
2525 Michigan Avenue
Santa Monica, CA
Tel. 310-453-7535

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