by Renny Pritikin
Gregory Rick’s paintings teem with harried urban masses and a looming sense of threat. Uniformed men herd people through city streets; frightened crowds encounter soldiers everywhere. They appear in 19 works on paper, panel and canvas ranging in size from 11 x 14 inches to 65 x 60 inches. Several in his current show, Running Wild, call to mind how George Grosz, in The Street (1915), depicted the frazzled state of affairs in Berlin amid crowded apartment buildings. Like Grosz, Rick depicts a society under extreme stress, teetering on the brink of chaos. Apartment towers fill the horizon while humans in the foreground enact dramas in tangled knots. In some of his pictures, a small figure appears in an upstairs window. I asked if it represented the artist. Rick laughed and said he thought it was me. Meaning, the viewer observing history unfolding, chronicling it.
This nearly invisible eyewitness is one of several recurring themes. Others include simple star shapes, a holdover from his days as a graffiti artist. In Medal of Honor, they’re superimposed on what looks to be a reclining mummy, replete with Egyptian headgear; they merge into a reductive abstraction of the American flag, each star referencing one of the few Black Americans awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor until the Vietnam era. Unexplained numbers also pop up throughout the exhibition. 54th refers to a Black Civil War battalion that was among the first to fight Confederate troops; 92nd designates Black infantrymen who fought in WWII.
These martial references are autobiographical. The son of a Vietnam veteran, Rick enlisted in the military, served in Iraq and received a Combat Infantry Badge. While growing up in South Minneapolis, close to where George Floyd was murdered, he felt the oppressive force of the police. (His father was incarcerated for murder when he was eight.)
Other reoccurring motifs include African design elements, which the artist uses to clothe his characters; he depicts them in a rigid, mannered style that, in paintings like The Birth, suggests puppets or paper cutouts with realistic faces that convey palpable emotional weight. In ancient Egyptian art, the sky goddess Nut is often shown arched over the earth, her torso supporting the stars. Rick frequently borrows that image to form the outer edges of his paintings, as in Fissure. But the most notable throughline in these paintings is contorted figures, shown bent in half at the waist (45-91) or falling from great heights (Falling), which Rick describes as fate forcing people to suffer impossible situations.
Before the Fall, the most dramatic image in the exhibition, depicts a hapless man in the grasp of a giant tiger with black and green stripes. The title refers to the Biblical homily about pride and its consequences. Operating with primal force, the cat dispenses retribution, signaling the individual’s lack of agency in the face of a savagely controlling state apparatus. Whose pride — the man’s or the tiger’s — is purposely left unclear.
Rick, 41, ultimately extricated himself from the violence his pictures so vividly depict. In 2022 he earned an MFA from Stanford, where he now teaches. That same year, he won an SFMOMA SECA award along with several solo exhibitions: indicators of the degree to which he’s transcended the circumstances that defined his arduous youth.
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Gregory Rick: “Running Wild” @ Johansson Projects through May 27, 2023.
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal.