“We had all these strange things in that exhibit. We had forms that people fill out—like birth certificates—and fake sushi, every kind of faux food product,” reminisces Richard Roth.
It was 2003 and Roth, who served as professor emeritus at VCU from 1999-2015, was holding his first solo show at the Reynolds Gallery. “Bev Reynolds in her wisdom saw that maybe this was a serious practice.”
Twenty years later and Reynolds’ daughter, Alice Livingston, along with gallery co-director Julia Monroe, are hosting another Roth solo show in conjunction with Richmond newcomer Nick McPhail.
“It’s exciting,” says Monroe. “We have a balance of Richard, who is so established, and then we have someone new.” California-based McPhail has participated in Reynolds gallery group shows before, but this will be his first solo show at the gallery, and his first ever in-person visit to the River City.
The pairing of the two artists was more intuitive than anything, says Livingston. But the dialogue among the disparate works is palpable.
“There’s a visual difference between the two artists,” admits Livingston—Roth works with 3-D painted panels and McPhail works in the realm of ceramic sculptures and oil paintings. “But I think for both viewership is so important. The person coming to see this is part of the whole experience.”
Intrigued? Mark your calendars—you kind of have to be there.
Roth took a creative departure from painting for about a decade in the late ‘90s. “I painted all my life,” says Roth. “And then I sort of had a midlife crisis and I admired other things so much—fashion and cars, a woven basket is beautiful to me—and so I stopped painting and started collecting things. I felt like I needed to learn more from the world, I felt I had nothing to teach anyone.”
That collection of beautiful things—from women’s compact cases to Japanese candy boxes—is what first caught the late Reynolds’ attention back in the early 2000s. At the time, Roth was chair of VCU’s painting and printmaking department. “It was a little controversial,” laughs Roth. “I applied during a time when I wasn’t painting but collecting.”
Roth had no friends or family in the city, but he knew it was “a great place for art.” So, he came, and he stayed until retiring to the West Coast a few years ago.
“My formative years I spent in New York,” says the Brooklyn native. “But I would say being in Richmond for my adult years was so important. I was at the height of what I was going to achieve in my life, and I made so many friends. I’m excited to be back.”
Roth started to produce his “new paintings” in 2006 and continues in this style of three-dimensional polychrome. “Everything is 3-D polychrome,” says Roth. “Butterflies, all of nature. Everything.”
His upcoming solo show at Reynolds Gallery, “Conejo Grade,” consists of his most recent acrylic on wood panel works. The three-dimensional boxes are all 12 x 8 x 4 inches, something that Roth admits feels a bit “counterintuitive.”
- Courtesy of Reynolds Gallery
- Richard Roth's "Goodness Gracious Great Balls of Fire." (2023) Acrylic on wood panel. 12 x 8 x 4 inches
“There’s this grown man dealing with a painting this size and you’d think ‘Oh, you’re going to run out of possibilities.” Quite the opposite, says Roth. “The interplay between the surface and the 3-D form is everything for me. I’ve done these smaller box paintings for so long; they speak to me as soon as I put something down.”
Arriving at the final box—is there ever any ‘final’ form? —is a beautiful and laborious process for Roth. All his trial-and-error take place on prototype boxes, painting a “zillion iterations” until he arrives at the painting. And then he does the “crazy thing of repainting it on a clean surface.”
So many darlings potentially murdered in his studio, but Roth says he keeps all his prototypes—he’s quite protective of them, like lost children moored on his own creative island. “That is the part I love, arriving at the configuration,” says Roth. Some of his prototypes are so “heavy with work they’ve become rounded.” But still he holds on.
“The other part—repainting the work on a clean surface—is more my responsibility to the painting. I feel I owe it to the painting to do it right,” says Roth. “I don’t actually enjoy that part.”
Will Roth ever display these much-loved prototypes? Maybe, one day. For now, the world can still revel in the complexity of Roth’s ready-for-display boxes, flush with monochrome and sharp edges and mind-altering shadows.
“Sometimes you see the work from the side first and think ‘What are these?’ and then you’ll see them from the front—and then the other side—and that changes everything you knew about the front,” says Roth.
This will be Roth’s eighth solo show at the gallery, and yet he’s still able to conjure a sense of wonder for the directors. “It’s like an optical illusion,” says Monroe. “With the color play and the push and pull of dimension he’s creating. Every time we get a new piece, it’s like opening a jewel box.”
- Courtesy of Reynolds Gallery
- Nick McPhail "Wall" (2023). Oil on paper. 30 x 22 inches
McPhail, like Roth, plays with perspective. The placement of his work within any space—in this case, the Reynolds Gallery on West Main Street—is critical to the experience.
The Michigan native worked part time as a landscape architect and uses this experience to create 3-D renderings of the spaces where he will be exhibiting.
“It’s helpful for me to imagine how things fit,” says McPhail. Because the artist has never actually been to Richmond in-person, “We did a lot of Facetiming, they [Livingston and Monroe] have had a lot of input on what would work well.”
“There’s a good dose of leap of faith in trusting us,” says Monroe.
McPhail has also recently taken a leap of faith in his work. “Shifting” will include all brand-new pieces from 2023, including ceramic work that he hasn’t dabbled in since college and paintings that feature a figure.
“I felt like I couldn’t do figures, like I was the ‘landscape guy,’” says McPhail, whose landscapes capture snippets of the profound mundane—parked cars, stairways, windowpanes reflecting dusk. Or is it dawn?
But after an illuminating residency in France where McPhail says he couldn’t help but be influenced by “so many great masterpieces,” he decided there was no reason to stay rooted to one subject matter.
Plus, he got married. “It was coming into my work in an unplanned way,” says McPhail. “I was just spending so much time with someone, having someone there in my life.”
McPhail’s new work is not so much a departure from his previous oeuvre, but an expansion. “I think there has always been a suggestion of a person in his work,” says Monroe. “Whether he’s painting a path or a banister—they aren’t isolated, lonely landscapes. There is a human there, even if it’s imagined.”
McPhail’s work, whether it features landscapes or figures interacting with landscapes, grapples with the idea of memory versus reality.
“The subject matter of the work never stays close to the source,” says McPhail. “I’ll take a photograph, then spend time in the studio digesting that. And then when you look back at something everything influences it, from the media you’ve consumed, to what emotional state you’re in.”
In “Wall,” we have a female form wearing a one-piece bathing suit and floppy hat, eyes shaded, hips slung, hair long, cellphone casually held in both hands.
“Since I started making art when I was 19, I’ve thought about ‘How do we interpret the world?’” says McPhail. In his new work, McPhail keeps coming back to a female form—she’s made with oil but exists as a living breathing human on his canvas. You know her, you’ve seen her, out of the corner of your eye. Maybe you are her. “She’s looking at her phone and there are two realities happening at once,” says McPhail. “She’s present. She’s also in another realm.”
There will be an opening reception for both solo shows Fri. Sept. 8 from 5-7 p.m. and a combined artist talk Sat. Sept. 9 at 10:30 a.m. “Conejo Grade” and “Shifting” will run through Oct. 27 at the gallery’s 1514 W. Main St. location.