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Making Mountains: Sean Riley, February Featured Artist

One of 52 O Street's newest tenants, Sean Riley creates abstracted landscapes through a delicate process of layering, rubbing, and scraping oil paint. We discussed his artistic process and the origins of his current body of work, which is showcased at an upcoming solo show at IA&A at Hillyer.

Sean Riley in his 2nd floor studio at 52 O Street Studios

Sean Riley received his BFA from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in painting, and his MFA in sculpture at the University of Pennsylvania. At the time, his work was devoid of color. He was focused on line, space, and mark-making, not concerned about mixing up colors. “I made giant paintings of white dots on black ground or large drawings of composites using just ink on paper; very intense, repetitive line qualities and line drawings,” he reflects. While his work has changed a lot over the years, two things have remained constant: purity and directness.

Even though Riley’s use of color now is a stark contrast to his early work, many of his formal concerns still shine through. “These large forms were very important to me. And this idea of challenging the use of space, too.” Whether he is working with monochromatic dots or the large abstracted landscape forms present in his work now, Riley is presenting a sense of directness, of undeniable presence. 

His paintings now embrace directness both in appearance and technique. He spreads oil paint very thinly on his surface, often scraping and rubbing away areas to reveal the white ground underneath to provide a sense of illumination from behind. “It’s kind of just pure color, directly spread on the canvas without a lot of trompe l'oeil effects or modeling or anything like that,” he explains. This subtractive process allows him to engage with the ground - whether it’s canvas or paper - as a vital element of his palette.  

Sean Riley's palette in his studio

Riley’s first serious foray into color was after he finished graduate school. Inspired by geometric abstraction and the quilts from Gee’s Bend, he began to make his own quilts, and the exploration of color spilled into his painting work - now, it’s the driving force. His hues are so brightly saturated they almost glow, taken from nature but heightened to an almost surreal level. 

Mountains started emerging in his work around the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Riley was living in the Turano valley in Italy with his wife, where he was exposed the to landscape in a way he never had been before. “I’ve never experienced the landscape as so present. That’s kind of what the latest work from this past year is really highlighting: the mountain. Trying to emphasize the mass of the mountain, how present it is, how large it is, within a picture plane. Even within a small painting, how do you get across this idea of mass and scale, and to try to capture that feeling of what it's like to be in relation to a real life mountain?” 

Riley had long been committed to abstraction, so the emergence of landscape forms in his work took him by surprise. “For a while, I resisted it,” he admitted. “But I couldn’t hold it back while still being honest about my work. So I eventually just let it come into the work wholeheartedly.” 

Full Moon Mist, 2023. Oil on canvas, 33.5" x 39.25"

So, why the resistance to making traditional landscape paintings? For Riley, the traditional landscape has a very clear composition with a foreground, middleground, and background. He wants more from his compositions - as always, to challenge the idea of space. In Full Moon Mist, for instance, the lack of dramatic shadows or traditional perspective denies any chance of determining a clear figure / ground relationship. Instead, subtle gradations of ochre hint at a rounded edge of a mountain or a small foothill at the bottom. Rather than leaving one or two thirds of the picture plane for the sky, as is traditional, Riley extends his mountain all the way to the top, just barely leaving room for the blue to skirt around the edges. The result is at once soothing and slightly foreboding, like a dream where everything feels normal but is cast in a strange light.

The push-and-pull between landscape and abstraction also seems to emerge between Riley’s subject matter - large masses - and his technique of laying oil paint thinly to allow the ground to emerge. Consequently, his forms feel imposing and massive while also weightless and airy. “I’m not painting from nature, and I’m not trying to replicate any scene or place, but I’m definitely taking inspiration from the landscape and certain natural phenomena,” He explains. “Forms like mountains, lakes, sky, clouds, moons, reflections and different lighting scenarios.” 

View of completed & works in progress on Riley's studio wall

The natural features that he lists serve as elemental building blocks that can be expressed with simple forms- a single circle as a moon or sun, or an inverted form as a reflection. “I can’t even think about a tree,” he laughs. “There’s just too much going on.” The basic elements allow him to focus on the aesthetic requirements of the painting, like form, line, and space. When he needs to add a circle to the painting, he adds a circle to the painting, which becomes a moon later through association.

Since Riley works intuitively, he is sometimes surprised by the result. “It’s like a puzzle I’m trying to solve. It’s very fascinating for me right now," he shares, intimating that his forms will shift in the future as necessary.

Now back from Italy permanently, Riley is excited to reintroduce DC to his work with an upcoming solo show with IA&A at Hillyer Gallery. Viewers expecting to see typical mountainscapes will find themselves caught off guard by the heightened colors, unusual composition, and abstracted forms. The show, titled Making Mountains, is on view from February 3-25th, 2024 at Hillyer Gallery, with an opening reception on February 2nd at 6pm.

Click to read more about Riley's upcoming show, visit his website, and see his Instagram.

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