By KATE STONE LOMBARDI
Published: August 6, 2010
Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
MORE than 30 years ago, Richard Deon pulled a book called “Visualized Civics” out of a trash bin. Today, variations on the graphic images in that discarded school textbook — a man standing tall and dapper in a suit with his hands at his sides, an archetypal American Indian, a professorial figure with a pointer — can be found throughout the artist’s work.
Walking through his solo exhibition at the Hudson River Museum here, Mr. Deon referred to these recurring images as his “givens.” It was easy to understand why. They echo consistently in the nearly 50 works on display, which include paintings, prints and two huge banners specially designed for the museum’s atrium. The exhibition, “Paradox and Conformity,” displays the artist’s exploration of these icons, many from the 1950s, which he places in odd contexts, often using false perspective or other visual tricks to create what he calls “a sense of irritation” in the work.
In one enormous banner, “Low Tide,” the suited figure appears lying down. He would look almost funereal if not for the small smile on his lips, his wide-awake stare, and the incongruous ocean horizon at his head. The figure reappears in many paintings throughout the show — his ramrod posture looks military on the bow of a ship in “Weehawken,” a false depiction of a Civil War naval battle. But in “Measure of Success,” he stands as a businessman, with the background text — “Knowing’s Not Enough” — suggesting some disruption of a climb up the corporate ladder.
This ubiquitous figure, along with other characters, has become part of what Mr. Deon calls his “graphic toolbox.” That source material is transformed into something almost surreal in each work. One of the paintings on display, “Burning the Department of Interior,” shows a group of figures sitting cross-legged around what at first appears to be a campfire. But the flames are coming from an office building, where tiny suited figures are at work in cramped spaces. Sitting around the campfire are mostly shirtless men with long hair.
It would have been easy for this painting to be “weaponized,” meaning heavily politicized, Mr. Deon said, so he began to play with the work after he originally thought it was finished. The artist pointed to two men wearing shirts and hats on the outside of the circle, figures he added later. He also noted that smudged text in the painting had initially been very clear.
“When there’s a lot of context with a story being described, I don’t want to take it to a conclusion that real life has,” he said. “I want a dreamlike conclusion where you are not really sure where the story has ended.”
In addition to his iconic figures, Mr. Deon uses a group of symbols repetitively, including a chevron; a flag that doesn’t belong to a country (an image he found on a matchbook in Canada); and an abstract shape the artist simply calls “the object.”
Noting that his paintings have become “a repository for accidents,” Mr. Deon, who also works as an art director and publication designer, said the creation of “the object” began with a stock illustration of a microscope for a graphics job. The day after he had roughly cut out the image, he found its “negative shape” — the paper that he had cut away — in the trash. It is this shape, vague in its outline, that became “the object.”
Mr. Deon’s work occupies two floors of the museum. Among the first works the visitor sees is “Death in the Long Grass,” in which a kneeling man in a loincloth is posed in front of a large cow, which originally appeared in the show “Got Cow? Cattle in American Art” at the museum in 2006.
“Since then Richard’s images, always sophisticated, have matured and deepened, and we are happy to welcome him back this summer for a solo show,” said Bartholomew F. Bland, the curator of exhibitions. “The scale and strength of his graphics are powerful enough to stand up to the architecture of the museum’s large and open galleries, which he has filled with a cast of characters that appear and reappear in his paintings, much like a repertory theater troupe.”
Mr. Deon lives in Dover Plains in Dutchess County, and works in a restored carriage house. His fascination with and manipulation of historical figures began as early as the seventh grade, when he defaced a school textbook. Already playful in his work, the youngster added touches like airplanes to the background of the Boston Tea Party. (He paid for the book, and at the suggestion of an English teacher, started taking art classes, ultimately studying at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.)
Circus posters were also a source of inspiration. Mr. Deon noted that a lithography shop that designed many posters seemed to use the same models repeatedly. The short stocky lion trainer figure was also the acrobat and the horseback rider. The idea of using the same figures over and over again in his paintings took hold.
Despite the recurring images, Mr. Deon’s work is not all that predictable. Abraham Lincolnappears in Roman armor in “Lincoln Ignores the Carbon Compact,” while in “Lincoln Handles the Fragments of a Red Dish,” he is dressed in a toga, pointing to “the object” while an attentive group looks on. Time and perspective are confused.
“The conformity part is the familiar images,” he said. “The paradox is, ‘Why the hell are these things together?’ ”
“Paradox and Conformity,” through Sept. 5 at the Hudson River Museum, 511 Warburton Avenue, Yonkers. Information: hrm.org or (914) 963-4550.