‘I am still interested in the beauty of language in terms of image and form, or music for that matter, in addition to the many systems by which it exists. Again, I suppose this goes back to this idea of the holistic: understanding that things are so multifaceted and interconnected and trying to engage in all these facets at once, and trying to really understand or flesh out the interconnectivity. Using that almost as a medium, to embody it and not just illustrate it’ (R. Aldrich, quoted in A. Rabottini, ‘Coming from Many Places,’ Mousse Magazine 18, May 2009, p. 66).
Richard Aldrich’s Coward Painting (2007) is a work with a story. The painting ‘memorializes a nickname given to the artist. He and a friend went to see the 2007 film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Despite their dissimilar features, the friend decided that Aldrich resembled Casey Affleck, the actor who played Robert Ford, and gave him the unflattering nickname “Coward.” Aldrich and the friend later happened to find a vaguely western button-down shirt in a thrift store, and although it was a bit too bulky for his frame, they bought it and called it the Coward Shirt. The Coward Shirt became the “C” in Coward Painting shortly thereafter – a simple and obvious manifestation of the key word from the story, the rest of which is inscribed in the interior of the “C”. although there are countless other ways to understand the painting, the referenced narrative provides a clear, nameable “answer” about its derivation. This sort of simple story takes the place of an arrangement for household objects in a still life painting, alluding to life as an anchor for disparate ways of thinking’ (F. Nash, ‘Despite their Dissimilar Features,’ Richard Aldrich and the 19th Century French Painting, exh.cat. Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Missouri 2011, p. 21).
Indeed, disparate ways of thinking form the underpinning of Aldrich’s deeply intelligent painterly practice. What he really gets to the heart of, however, is that our knowledge of an art object’s meaning is never total or fixed. In a wide-ranging body of work that visually echoes everything from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism, he riffs on the conceptual paradox of painting as both vehicle and embodiment of meaning. ‘For me, painting is a way of working out my thoughts. For a viewer, it is a way of understanding different methods of organising information. All information: visual, historical, everything’ (R. Simonini, ‘Richard Aldrich: In The Studio,’ Art In America, February 2015, p. 95). Labels – just like the term ‘coward,’ and the artist’s resemblance in his friend’s eyes to Casey Affleck – are ambiguous. With biographical information we can read Coward Painting as a relic of a particular tale in the artist’s life; without it, this textual bricolage could hint at any number of significances, with its hints of Arte Povera and the playful interplay between the vast, encompassing ‘C’ and the small, uneven text within. Visual signifiers can refer to lived experience as much as to a century of painterly tradition. Rather than the complete and stable work, Aldrich is interested in the interaction of systems and the sidelong power of semiotic mystery. As is inscribed across the canvas of his 2007 work Two Planes (with text), ‘The ideas exist in the roots & the art exists at the tops of the trees. They aren’t related except for, of course / they are the same thing’.