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The Art of Joe Rizzo by Geoffrey Jacques


PERHAPS THE MOST striking aspect of the imagination of the New York painter Joe Rizzo is his humor. This is not as rare a thing in contemporary art as one might suppose, but there is very often a certain immaturity about the humor one finds in today's art that suggests that humor is a sign of a lack of seriousness. That's not the case with Rizzo, who draws from the finest of satirical traditions to infuse his work with the sly jest that one appreciates in a body of work that derives from considerable life experience.

Rizzo came to be a painter after a long career in other fields, and there is, at first glance, something of the naïf suggested by the work. However, the wisdom that also comes through here offsets any reaction that might dismiss the painter with allusions to those “primitivist,” or “outsider” labels that can allow us to miss just what is at stake in the art of this painter.

“Color is often what gets me started,” says the painter, and, indeed, the attention the artist pays to color is distinctive. In some sense, one can say that the figures he paints are secondary to his concerns with color. Rizzo resembles abstract painters in the way that his paintings are concerned, largely, with the relationship between colors in the picture plane. He points to Blinky Palermo as a painter with whom he is in something like an artistic dialogue. Rizzo shares the German painter's bold, playful sense of color, and his creation of rough, tactile surfaces. Both also share a seemingly deliberate obscurity. The difference is that Rizzo prefers to work with the figure, and because of the way he handles the figure—ranging widely and provocatively from a diversity of women and men to iconoclastic depictions of Jesus Christ in various guises—Rizzo is able to present us with a body of work that appears lighthearted, but which at the same time harbors an almost biting seriousness.

A painting like Man in a Tub can serve as a useful illustration of these points. On one level, here is a tableau consisting of just a few colors: a blue background supports a green tub with yellowish trim, standing on four red legs. In the tub is a figure, a man with pinkish skin and lips, brown hair and nipples. The man is sitting in the tub, and is seen from the waist up.

These are, at first glance, simple enough elements. Yet if we look closely at the painting, it is the richness of what I called earlier the painting's “background” that strikes the eye with particular force. The blue emphasizes the flatness of the painting, indeed, of the whole composition. >>>



Cousin, 2001
Oil on canvas
24 x 24

Mother & Daughter

Man in a Tub, 1999
Oil on canvas
24 x 24 inches

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