Achilles, 2020, Acrylic and ink on canvas, 30” x 40”
Jessica DuPreez: Can you tell us about your work?
Richard Medina: My paintings are layered with references to mythology, history, and pop culture. Most prominent in my work is my impulse to radically collapse epic narratives of mythology and history. This absurdist flattening along with the paintings’ offbeat compositions lends a droll sense of humor to the work.
My most recent work uses the character of Achilles to explore various poetic collisions of genre and mythos inspired by Lewis Carroll’s allegorical dialogue “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles” based on Zeno’s paradoxes of motion. In my Achilles paintings I use the character as a node to connect other rhyming and punning ideas. For example, in the painting “Achilles” the main focus is on a severed leg - complicating the myth of Achilles by literally separating out his idiomatic heel from the rest of his body. The horses, screen printed stills from a Muybridge film experiment, connect the myth of Achilles to the culture of cinema (albeit a primitive version). The crudely drawn arrow pointing to the heel plays a semantic game with the audience (Achilles was killed by an arrow in his heel). In my painting “Achilles’ Disruptor” I directly reference Zeno’s paradox of motion involving Achilles and a tortoise - however this time Achilles is outfitted with the eponymous chunky Fila sneaker giving him an advantage and disrupting the paradox.
Achilles’ Disruptor, 2020, Acrylic and ink on canvas, 24” x 30”
RM: My main focus recently has been on the novel Moby Dick and the 1800s whaling industry. I have also connected this to the ancient sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis from The Odyssey. I see a neat overlap between the real life wreck of the Essex (the event that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick) and archetypal lost at sea narratives like The Odyssey and the historical wreck of The Medusa. I’m interested in conflating all these epic narratives because their similarities end up transcending their original contexts. Stories about survival and leadership and conflict are eternally relevant and the reflections of these tropes in pop culture today fascinates me.
I like playing semantic games with my audience with visual punchlines and punning twists. The trope of drawing lots is really interesting to me because especially in survival scenarios it compresses life and death into a simple game of chance. The survivors of the Essex and many other shipwrecks ended up having to draw lots to determine who would be cannibalized. In my painting “Lots and Crosses” I play with this by connecting the idea of drawing lots to tic-tac-toe (also known as noughts and crosses). Bones and oars become similarly shaped in the same way children’s games overlap with macabre decisions. In my painting “Ahab” the one-legged captain of the Pequod is comically reduced to a synecdoche. Ahab’s peg leg becomes a chair leg and vice-versa. The flat, cartoony sock adds another piece of absurd logic to the puzzle.
Lots and Crosses, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 24” x 30”
RM: Another central theme in my work is the idea of consumption. This is most clearly seen in my painting “Consumption” where I place visual punning front and center. Consumption is the historical name for tuberculosis (known as a romantic and poetic disease in the nineteenth century). The bloody handkerchief in the upper left-hand corner points to this meaning of the word, while the cartoon bite mark taken out of the fleshy appendage references its literal meaning. Shark bites, Moby Dick’s amputation of Ahab’s leg, or cannibalism can be drawn from this simple gesture.
Consumption, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 30” x 40”
RM: In my painting “Apex” an oven mitt doubles as a sperm whale, while fish squirm on an abstract yellow plate. The screen printed toilet in the background connects the idea of consumption to its logical end point of defecation. The word APEX mono-printed onto the oven mitt/sperm whale links sperm whales as apex predators (they are the largest toothed predator) to the devastating whaling trade of the 1800s. The pink fleshy color of the arm is the same as the writhing fish, linking the predator and prey and completing the circle of consumption. Human hunts whale, whale hunts human.
Apex, 2020, Acrylic and ink on canvas, 24” x 24”
RM: The toilet was funny to work with because I think toilet humor is so vulgar and unpleasant. However the circular swirl of the water along with how it fits into my conceptual framework of consumption made it an attractive image to use. In “Toilet Charybdis” and “Scylla and Charybdis” I replace the mythological monsters with a toilet and a water spout. The water spout in “Scylla and Charybdis” is meant to evoke the multiple heads of the serpent Scylla while also connecting to whale spouts. In “Whaleboat” I use the water spout along with the word WHALE in place of an actual pictorial representation of a whale. And the water spout shape returns in “Achilles Overboard” where it resembles gushing blood. While the text in “Achilles Overboard” is mirrored, an arrow (get it?) provides the key to parsing the phrase.
By combining and conflating a wide breadth of imagery, I can fluidly move between vernaculars and develop a new aesthetic language within my paintings.
Toilet Charybdis, 2020, Acrylic and ink on canvas, 24” x 36”
Scylla and Charybdis, 2020, Acrylic and ink on canvas, 26” x 29”
JD: What artists are you currently looking at or inspired by and why?
RM: I’m really into the 1980s German painters like Sigmar Polke, Martin Kippenberger, and Albert Oehlen. The way they appropriate images and deal with the canon of art history feels very relevant to me right now as an emerging artist. Mary Heilmann is also a huge influence on me, the way she flits between styles and modes of painting. She doesn’t care in a way that’s cool and chic. Jasper Johns is also there, I love how his work is totally hermetic. The way that images and motifs travel and recur throughout his work is something I’m very interested in.
Recently I’ve become enamored with Moby Dick and some of Melville’s other short stories. The way that he weaves language together is astounding. His way of writing is crazy - like he combines Shakespearean monologues with these weird specific details about ships and rope making and the whaling industry. It’s beautiful to read and so uniquely American. Kind of related is The Lighthouse, that movie that came out last year. It’s similar in story and themes but it also references and quotes mythology, history, folklore, etc in the same way Melville does.
Achilles Overboard, 2020, Acrylic and ink on canvas, 24” x 36”
RM: I’m also inspired by Kate Bush. I love her music and lyrics - I actually see a lot of similarities between Kate Bush’s songs and my goals for my work. The way she grounds a lot of her lyrics in deep references to a huge variety of sources is awesome. And she also makes the stuff she references super accessible. Like turning Wuthering Heights into a floaty bubble gum pop song. I think a lot about the accessibility of my work. How do you take a painting that’s deeply rooted in some dusty literature or myth and make it fun and irreverent? That’s one of the reasons I rely so heavily on humor and bright garish colors. It undercuts the perceived stuffiness of what I’m referencing and allows viewers to get closer to the painting as a result.
Whaleboat, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 24” x 30”
JD: Do you have an Instagram page you would like us to share?
RM: richard_medina_ on Instagram and www.richardmedina.com
JD: How has the transition to a home studio affected your practice?
RM: During the quarantine I’ve been making a ton of collages and works on paper, trying to replicate the same level of layering and textures from my paintings.
Ahab, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 24” x 30”
JD: How long have you been in Advanced Painting?
RM: This is my first semester in Advanced Painting.
JD: What has been your favorite part of being in Advanced Painting?
RM: I love the community and the studio space. Working for 20-30 hours a week in my studio surrounded by other dedicated painters pushed me to increase the amount of work and the quality of the work I was making. Not having my studio space because of the quarantine has been a huge bummer but I hope that next semester I’ll be able to take more advantage of it.