The mind can proceed only so far upon what it knows and can prove. There comes a point where the mind takes a higher plane of knowledge, but can never prove how it got there.
-- A. Einstein
Chip Richardson's paintings contemplate the nature of things. If you've ever gazed in fascination at the seemingly infinite, twining strands of stars in the Milky Way or at the intricate lacings of DNA helixes, then you will have some idea of how Richardson's large diptychs affect both the eye and mind. But these paintings are not imitations of such things -- they grow naturally under his hand, emerging through a process of intuitive abstraction.
On one wall of his large studio, Richardson keeps colorful notes on ideas and questions that come to mind while he is painting: "Like memory, only a picture now"; "Ruled by signs, ruled by science"; "Radiant Witness." These observations are worth examination, as they give valuable clues to his work.
"The reason I paint abstract paintings is because I've always wanted to paint what is real -- but what you cannot see," says the 31-year-old Washington artist. "What I'm getting at is a sense of time." He indicates a large double-painting, an amalgam of striped flying wedges and subtly shifting colored dots against a neutral ground, the various components tied by deceptively rigid concentric circles composed of dots and dashes -- like a chain of molecules or the pattern formed by the regeneration of microbes.
"I called this painting 'Bounded by Solids' because it struck me that that was what it was about when I'd finished it," Richardson explains. "A two-dimensional object is bounded by solids. It may be impossible to conceive of a four-dimensional object, but somewhere between these two paintings is that impossible four-dimensional object. But it's more than that."
As you walk around Richardson's studio, you become aware that his paintings are a continuum -- almost like the arcane equations of Max Planck or Albert Einstein, both of whom play an important part in his life and art. For Richardson is one of an increasingly strong group of American abstractionists who are reintroducing the concept of intellectualism and art as one and the same. The concept of artistic and scientific investigation of the "truth" is something that came dangerously close to extinction with the advent of minimalism and reductionism in the early '60s.
The influence of abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky, too, is readily apparent in Richardson's work, and the artist acknowledges this. "I love Kandinsky," he says. "He was a pure abstractionist. I was always attracted to his later work that was absolutely abstract, rather than his transitional stuff. And Paul Klee, too . . .
"My own work is an additive process -- a process of layers. I don't consider the actual process to be analytical, but felt. You have to feel it through. In the layering, all these little marks add up to something. I try to keep my paint kind of dumb -- to keep it as a component of the picture idea, rather than letting it be paint for its own sake. I start the picture with a little drawing, improvising. When I draw on the canvas I just loop these elements around, really freely. Then I go back in and find them . . . There's a certain aspect of retrieval.
"I always keep some space between the two paintings in the diptychs. I don't want them to connect absolutely, or to be mirror images. They're always different. They function like one and two, like particles and waves -- different aspects of the same concept."
Richardson began to move from the more conventional New York School-influenced abstractionism into his current approach in the mid-'70s, when, as a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis, he took over a chemistry laboratory for a studio.
"The laboratory was full of old Motorola circuit drafting paper, and I began drawing on it for fun -- sort of Jasper Johns-like targets and stuff. Then in 1976 I came across some old circuit boards. That was really where the present pictures began."
Impressed by the many possibilities presented by the intricate, many-colored wiring, transformers and other circuitry components, Richardson began to zero in on the details of his pictures, treating the entire canvas with equal attention. Isolate virtually any section of one of his paintings today and you can find a near-perfect microcosm of the whole.
Chip Richardson is assistant professor of painting, drawing and design at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is represented by the Osuna Gallery (406 Seventh St. NW), where an exhibition of his recent paintings opens today.