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Sitting pretty

Ridley Howard's feminine mystique

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The women in Ridley Howard's portraits are quixotic creatures. They wear enigmatic expressions, partly amused, partly anxious, suggesting the Mona Lisa or that hipster art chick who pulls your latte every morning with an air of gravitas.

Portraiture is supposed to give us access, via the artist's magical skill, to the interior life of the subject, allowing us to divine the depths of a soul. But all is impenetrable in Howard's oblique paintings. His subjects wear those hard-to-read expressions like armor and clothe themselves in neutral garb and gestures, such as the young woman in "Greenpoint," wearing a headband to contain her curls, her lipstick unmarred as she sucks on her drink and strolls the streets of Brooklyn. In both the outward expressions worn by his subjects and in his minimalist style, Howard's subjects remain aloof and unreadable, though the painter's obvious affection for them (many culled from his own friends) makes his work endearing nevertheless.

Somewhere between the work of graphic artist Daniel Clowes and painter Alex Katz, Howard's paintings are populated by a cast of young, stylish urbanites. His paintings, he says, reference the history of painting. His subjects thus occupy a strange liminal place, somewhere between a very Now, often cinematic-feeling sensibility and the world of classical oil painting. The off-kilter angles and the oddball approach seen in Howard's painting "Auto Parts" of a cool, confident woman with a hand placed authoritatively on her hip, but whose face is almost completely obscured by the vintage camera she holds to her eye, feel utterly modern. His work is steeped in a city life of weekends spent culling footage for a student film, gallery hopping or thrifting. But there are more backward-glancing references, too, seen in the portrait "Virtue." The 72-by-90-inch oil-on-linen painting features a beautiful, melancholy black woman wearing simple jewelry and reclining in the painting's foreground against a perfect blue sky. The woman's supine position recalls Edouard Manet's famous painting "Olympia," while her skin color recalls the dark-skinned lovelies of Paul Gauguin.

There is something charming, though a little artificial and idealized, in Howard's work, veering as it does toward a graphic, almost cartoon style. Howard's skin tones are warm and inviting, and there is something captivating about the odd, ambiguous expressions worn by Howard's subjects -- such as the woman in "The Room," a painting Howard describes as "sort of a pop version of Raphael."

Howard's work shows painting's ability not to give us reality, but a better version -- a more idealized take on the world, while also existing within another closed and coded world of oil painting. The skies are always blue, and there is a crisp, clean perfection to Howard's landscapes and people whose serene faces are only occasionally interrupted with a mole to remind us of their humanity.

These works -- both the beguilingly tiny portraits in the Solomon Projects front room and the enormous works in the rear of the gallery -- have a deadpan serenity that feels different from the mildly wacky, oddball scenes Howard's paintings have often featured in the past. In Howard's previous work, seemingly innocuous scenes -- such as one of a woman in a Chinese restaurant or a naked couple in an uneasy embrace during a moonlight swim -- are complicated by their neutral, unreadable expressions and the often huge rooms and blank landscapes that devour Howard's puny subjects. There often has been a pleasing psychological uneasiness and cockeyed sensibility to Howard's work that is missing from this emotionally even-keel collection of his latest paintings. The furnishings, the weird setups that gave Howard's work its slightly surreal quality and a disturbance buzz, are qualities replaced with a more academic investigation of portraiture. These portraits are focused more intently on female beauty and women as a perennial artistic subject. But while such an investigation is valid, the outcome of all that context and uncanny read on urban life gone missing is that some of the wacky appeal of the work is lost.

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