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Kelly Richardson: The Radiant Real

"Kelly Richardson: The Radiant Real" by David Jager, Fall 2009, pp. 94-97

The work of the Canadian artist Kelly Richardson is suffused with the radiant tension of the hyperreal. Richardson’s videos and still photography, which deal almost exclusively in landscape, have evolved over the last ten years from simple single-channel works into elaborate digitally enhanced environments that engulf her viewers in virtual worlds tinged with wonder and anxiety.

It’s work that is at once immersive and disorienting. In her meticulously constructed, CGI-assisted simulacra, it is impossible to know what is fabricated and what is real. Richardson, who has been based in the U.K. since 2003, has mastered computer-generated animation and the creation of composites, often generating elements that are painstaking digital reconstructions of real things and places. Looking at a video piece by Richardson we are in fact looking into a maze of representations and simulations: digitally enhanced landscapes that are more lusciously real than reality, and genre-based send-ups of cultural tropes replete with references that tug at our memories and senses in ways that are often difficult to identify. Even though Richardson presents her scenes in almost obsessive digital clarity, we never stop asking ourselves: “What am I looking at?”

Richardson is fascinated by how our immersion in the virtual has supplanted and altered our response to the world around us, what she refers to as the “fantasy/reality mix.” As she puts it,

I’m quite interested in the idea of multiple realities, particularly with regard to our current media culture, which acts as the interface through which we understand the world: TV, film, media, the Internet and so on. Within that, truth is difficult, if not impossible, to locate, it seems—the line between fantasy and reality becomes further and further obscured. In response to that, over the last few years I’ve been combining real and constructed elements, focusing on creating photographs and video installations that reflect that confusion in some way.

Her attitude is based less in critique than in fascinated awe. Richardson is not about exposing or subverting the media references through which we currently swim; instead, she is interested in exploring this new imaginary realm we’ve created. Rather than attempting to straighten out the boundaries between the actual and the virtual, she views our hybrid condition as a landscape in and of itself.

Richardson is unique in that she treats weighty matters with a light touch. Never didactic, she works with the conceptual tensions between the represented and the real in an almost comically offhand manner. The problems addressed in her work are as old as art, but she remains absolutely contemporary in her approach, especially in her wide-eyed, no-brow embrace of the entirety of pop-media culture. To look at a Richardson video is to be pulled in several directions at once, with genre references and special effects triggering a layered response that is part wonder and part apprehension. Her work feels acutely contemporary: a subtle blend of paranoid, postmodern selfrefl exivity and rich spectacle laced with loopy humour.

The unpeopled landscape, be it forest, housing development or suburban lot, remains the focus of Richardson’s practice. She is attracted to empty landscapes because she wants viewers to insert themselves into her works, to see where they fit. As she states, “There are no people in the works, so viewers can find themselves within a given piece, on a personal level. I want to offer a place for reflection—rather than it being about a character or person represented in the work.”

Landscape is compelling for Richardson because it conflates an idealization of nature’s otherness and our desire to inhabit and conquer it. The rich history of landscape painting has always been underscored by a subtle tug-of-war between nostalgia and desire. She also proposes that landscape can function as an oblique version of the self-portrait: a subtly deferred space in which the viewer (or artist) can reflect on themselves.

In one of her earliest video works, Camp (2001), she presents what appears to be a video still of a reddish full moon, accompanied by the sound of popping popcorn. It highlights her acuity for using materials at hand to create a shabby, lo-fi simulacrum that is also a vaguely uncomfortable joke, underscored by the piece’s double entendre of a title. Yet the piece contains all of the characteristic elements of Richardson’s work. There is the use of virtual media to represent nature, a whimsical attempt to draw on and toy with the viewer’s expectations. In fact, the feature that distinguishes Richardson’s videos from contemporary commercial media is their refusal to deliver the punchline or the pablum we crave, exposing our preprogrammed needs in the process. Our drive for action or some type of narrative movement goes flatly unfulfilled in the early video a car stopped at a stop sign in the middle of nowhere, in front of a landscape, which presents exactly that for 30 minutes while clouds teasingly scroll across the sky. Her later piece Wagons Roll features a car suspended in mid-air off a cliff in a classic Dukes of Hazzard moment. Its wheels continue to spin and smoke flows back into its exhaust pipe, as if it can’t decide whether to move forwards or backwards in time. In The Sequel, a car tire lying flat in the middle of the road suddenly rights itself, and with almost comic grace rolls backward off the screen.

Richardson is also able to pull the unexpected out of the various nooks and crannies of our increasingly diversified subcultures. In her Supernatural series, she presented painterly stills of landscapes found in horror movies that ranged from iconic (Friday the 13th and In the Company of Wolves) to Z-grade (Frogs 2). Horror movies may seem an odd place to go looking for romantic landscapes, yet Richardson manages to pull still after compelling still from these films. Yet we also can’t help but think that without knowing the identity of the source films, we would fail to bring to the work the anxious expectations that give each landscape its sense of eerie and foreboding calm.

Richardson’s means of flouting our expectations are anything but subtle. Sharing in the effects wizardry of today’s multiplex blockbusters, her videos function as huge, blatant visual conceits that force us, through a combination of dexterity and charm, to accept the improbable as actual. Her desire to use ever more involved technical means to create immersive visual spaces reached a saturation point in Forest Park, a room-sized video installation that focused on a suburban housing project located in a cleared area that was formerly a forest. It is near the town of New Hamburg, Ontario, but it could be anywhere. The work consists of two giant, wallsized screens that dominate a darkened room, and Richardson has heightened the tension in the scene by producing the glow of the street lights in post-production, making them flicker ever so slightly in time with the chirping of crickets on the soundtrack. It’s a fairly subtle idea, but combined with the project’s pristine aridity and their placement at the edge of nowhere, the flickering lights lend an ominous air of almost supernatural suspense. We are once again transported to a region of contemporary experience that is both deeply familiar and uncanny.

Richardson has increasingly made use of animation techniques in post-production to amplify the dreamlike calm and giddy otherworldliness that pervade her recent work. Yet the highly polished, digitally buffed results belie the labour that goes into them: adding a single element can require days, if not weeks, of painstaking animation efforts and digital rendering. Her new mastery of digital technology has helped Richardson delve deeper into the mythological and away from the mundane. Correspondingly, her works have started to acquire elements of fantasy. In Exiles of the Shattered Star, a beautifully colour-saturated lake is the backdrop for a slow, majestic rain of fireballs, perhaps fragments of the star of the title. This piece also points to Richardson’s odd penchant for classic romanticism, pitting as it does the sublime beauty of the landscape against the terrifying, tragic certainty of mortality.

Still, it remains hard to know just how much she might be kidding. In probably her best-known work to date, Twilight Avenger, the diverse elements of Richardson’s practice cohere into something unclassifiable. A magnificent stag appears, preens and begins to graze in a forest at dusk. The stag, however, is phosphorescent green and wrapped in a writhing emerald vapour. The forest, a painterly composite of several different natural locations, has been digitally enhanced to a luxurious degree, and the scene is punctuated by a soundtrack replete with crickets’ chirps and animal rustlings.

What is most confounding about this eye-popping paean to pastoral kitsch is how it manages to be remotely believable at all. The piece communicates a dignified grandeur despite all of its attempts to fly in the direction of Harry Potter–style fantastical fluff; it is a landscape in which we feel quite at home. Watching Richardson’s videos, you get into the habit of chuckling in disbelief while feeling something approaching reverence.

Richardson deploys a formidable range of techniques and a broad palette of approaches in her creation of a new aesthetic, one that elicits a euphoric suspension of disbelief, allowing viewers to delve into the increasingly ambiguous and complex juncture between the real and the represented. She has transformed video, once a self-consciously minimal, anti-cinematic, bare-bones practice, into something much richer, and much stranger.

This is an article from the Fall 2009 issue of Canadian Art.

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