His Eye for the Odd Brings the Work Alive

For 28 years, Los Angeles-based artist Ron Rizk has taught painting at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles, where he is the chairman of the department of fine arts. For almost that long, he has been actively exhibiting in major Los Angeles galleries.

Since as far back as the late 1970s, Rizk has been painting compositions that arrange odd, resonant objects in strange still lifes painted with such precision that they look real enough to hold, turn, or toy with. These odd objects are depicted as if they are sitting in shallow niches, perching on stage-like platforms, or hanging on walls complete with peeling paint.

The amazing part is that every last detail of the bizarre gizmos or the strange tableaux in which they sit is nothing more than Rizk's expertly wielded, perfectly flat oil paint moving over smooth wood. He paints with the precision found in illuminated manuscripts or Netherlandish altar panels.

The main characters in these remarkable visual tropes are odd, once-functional objects found by Rizk in Massachusetts junk stores or L.A. antique shops.

A contraption will capture Rizk's imagination for its sheer integrity of design, its contours and textures, or, says the artist, he'll be drawn to the suggestion of a mysterious personal history: Who made the contraption, and to what end? Who used it and finally decided to stop using it?

For example, streamlined vintage 1950s hair dryers form the space-age centerpieces of one of Rizk's best new works, titled "Hot Air."

In another excellent work called "Off Season," Rizk exhumes and revamps two early 20th-century duck decoys. The two duck heads were whittled from wood almost a century ago, and placed on long wooden shafts intended for burying in reeds. Rizk places these two strange, once-utilitarian duck heads face to face, as if in dialogue, and adds an ominous rust-red marsh and bright searing light for an effect both silly and sinister.

RIZK has been called a trompe l'oeil (trick the eye) painter, in the spirit of William Harnett, whose 19th-century still lifes of dead fowl, silver hunting horns, and faux textures insisted on absolute veristic technique. But Rizk says that exacting technique is not his message. He sees paint-wielding as a vehicle that allows him to play freely with subtler dimensions like mystery, irony, humor. It allows him to ruminate on the dignity of the well-tooled, honest object in an age of disposability.

In this, Rizk's vision is probably closest to 14th- and 15th-century Flemish painters who took perfect finish for granted and were more concerned with the complex symbolism of common objects. (Mousetraps, white towels, and burning candles, for example, were fraught with religious meaning for them.)

Like those paintings, Rizk's works seem both laborious and effortless; like those artists, he is interested in simple objects in unlikely pairings that sing with meaning. Rizk's allusions are not necessarily spiritual (though some can be), but eccentric and open-ended enough that all our contemporary psyches can find food for thought.

There's an undeniable touch of romantic nostalgia here in an artist/poet appropriating machines out of sync with the present to suggest the loss of simpler times: Technology and ingenuity created these once-remarkable inventions, and that same ingenuity has rendered them pointless.

There's also that romantic escape to fantasy and weirdness. Like the carnival fun house or sideshow, Rizk's painted niches jostle what's real; their illusion dazzles, and you are invited to suspend disbelief, wonder, laugh, and even recoil.

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