Paintings and Works on Paper

Catalogue Essays
From the Exhibition Catalogue:

New Paintings
Sonia Zaks Gallery, Chicago
September 1998

Since his exhibition debut nearly twenty years ago in an "Emerging Artists" exhibition at the Renaissance Society in Chicago with a large figure painting, Portrait of Gilda Buchbinder (1982 Buchbinder Collection, Chicago) Richard Willenbrink's painting has centered on the issues which are the creative focus of that impressive early painting. These are the life size human figure (nude and not, singly or in groups) and interior spaces of intricate and often illogical complexity which are developed with rich still life elements.

Enhancing these three central concerns have been the expressive issues of the portrait – especially the self-portrait, of which Willenbrink is a great master – the psychological dimensions of myth and allegory, the symbolic possibilities of objects and still life and ambitious blendings of many or all of these elements.

All of this is undertaken with a vigorous and dynamic working of the paint which, however energized, does not lose control of the forms, spaces, and their relationships which make up the visual architecture of Willenbrink's paintings. In his way Willenbrink's lineage can be seen as that of Titian, Rubens, Tiepolo, Goya, Manet, Ensor, and Corinth, to mention but a few of the principal Grand Manner painters who are our artist's heroes.

More recent connections might be noticed in the paintings of Jack Beal, Paul Georges, Alice Neel, Philip Pearlstein, Sylvia Sleigh and in very special ways, Robert Barnes, that painter who functions for so many important figures as their "artist's artist".

Willenbrink's color requires special mention because of the unusual intensity he attains in his palette, which is often quite high: such hot colors can be difficult to harmonize or even contrast effectively and Willenbrink seems to have cottoned on to some of the secrets of Rubens, Van Dyck and Delacroix in this regard.

The themes of Willenbrink's works (whatever their ostensible subjects) have metaphysical weight and usually have to do with manifesting some of the mysterious properties and functions of art itself. Often at the same time they present views of things that are reality taken through an artistic temperament of subtlety and psychological, even spiritual depth. This latter consideration inevitably involves a sharp and deep sense of irony as we are shown the splendid absurdity and paradoxical aspects of whatever we perceive to be "the real", including art itself.
This involved kind of awareness and his wonderful sense of color form some of his principal links to Robert Barnes whose metaphysical complexity, especially about the nature of art and of being an artist, is perhaps unequalled today.

When Willenbrink's works combine most or all of his artistic concerns, the results can be very dense and meaty: such pictures often present a variety of aspects, color, composition, subject, theme, associational connections with other artistic works and traditions which can be explored one at a time before they begin to function in the layered, chordlike experiences of the works in full. Willenbrink's 1998 show at the Sonia Zaks Gallery in Chicago is an unusually rich group of such complex works. A number of these employ images of butchers' carcasses of lambs or goats, shellfish, crustaceans and fish, along with flowers in pots and Czech and Viennese glass vessels. These mixtures, which can include game birds, vegetables, and various other kinds of objects, clearly reflect upon and refract many aspects of the relationships of images of natural, living things with forms derived from or related to them, of the nature of representation, metaphysical aspects of the beautiful (how cut flowers may be compared to a skinned carcass - which is more sumptuous visually, the iridescent fell of the lamb or pig or the luxuriant fleshiness of orchid blooms?) and in what ways these things and their images may be apposite and appropriate for the artist to subject to his own creative process.

Some of the symbolic elements Willenbrink manipulates in these compositions such as the Pigs, Orchids, and Czech Vases, 1997, are the references to the inevitability of death in the carcasses and even in the living flowers and to the artistic function to arrest this process to some extent in the fixing or creating of the forms of art (the vases based on organic forms) and in the painted images themselves. These are traditional reflections upon mortality in the history of still life and allegory but the vivid intensity of Willenbrink's treatments of them imbue them with a trenchant pertinacity. The meat is not yet in edible form but only a certain way along the process of becoming sustenance: art itself cannot be truly eternal, but its ability to triumph over time for relatively long periods gives art its potential for pathos and heroic intensity, even in still life, as Gericault, Goya and Soutine demonstrate.

The pieces of art glass are of great interest in the way that they not only refer to or recapitulate natural forms, but by their nature having "grown" by processes of molding and expansion analogous to natural processes - perhaps one should say other natural processes. The fragility of glass and the fact that technically it is an extremely viscous liquid are clearly additional expressive features of the materials which, in the case in Willenbrink's paintings, are doubly art (that of the glassmaker, that of the painter). This serves to emphasize Willenbrink's conviction that the fullest experience of the nature of nature, including our own perceptions, is a full understanding of the necessary interconnection between what is art and what is the nature of being human. Because this kind of comprehension of things has such strong elements of irony, absurdity and mystery, these artistic functions can have moral overtones through the ways we explore and experience what it means to be a human being.

This and other kinds of moral points seem to be dealt with in the Self portrait With Goat Carcass, 1997, where the figure of the artist, standing behind a display of Czech and Viennese glass and a brace of pheasants in their plumage, holds with one hand and points with the other at the suspended carcass of a skinned goat. The artist's expression and pose invites a comparison of his own nature with that of the comical, lecherous, omnivorous, satyrical goat, now hung up to be aged and eaten. There is a further pathos in the gleaming patinas of the fragile glass and the sheen of the goat's flesh, almost iridescent in its sinews and tendons. The artist's costume of a blood red jump suit suggests the commitment or dedication to some technical practice or craft – firefighter? hospital attendant? An exploration of the placement of different colors such as the red interior of the bowl below the goat's head and the wonderful modulation of various intense greens in the background leads the eye in a serpentine path throughout the composition, a kind of movement made explicit in the abstract curls and scrolls of the strange trellis-work framing the upper corners of the picture.

The perplexities of the experiences of art and the things to which it may refer are presented most vividly in Nine Lamb Heads, 1997, where the severed and skinned heads are piled together in an assemblage that seems all blears of terrified eyes and lolling tongues. The vision created is alarming and ecstatic at once in a way that is at the heart of Baroque sensibility. This frightening richness we find also in Pollock, Soutine, and Corinth, and Willenbrink's invigorating command of it is a welcome if rare element in the sensibilities of contemporary painting.

Dennis Adrian
Chicago, Illinois

From the Exhibition Catalogue:

Seeing The Figure Now
The Betty Rymer Gallery,
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago
October 1995

Richard Willenbrink’s paintings have a very forthright engagement with the Grand Manner through their handling, high-key color, life-size figure scale, and the dynamic compositional roles given to the nude singly and in groups. He also tackles themes from myth, legend, and even religious history which have long been core grand-manner subjects. In keeping with many of his forebears, Willenbrink takes up such themes not only because the subjects or stories are interesting, curious, or provocative in themselves but also principally because they can be used to frame a variety of metaphysical points of view, ranging from moralistic reflections to considerations of the nature and function of art.

The narrative represented in The Flaying of Marsyas traditionally warns against art’s competition with divine creation, admonishing that the artist’s function is to manifest and acknowledge the nature of reality, not to rival it. The cruel punishment of the satyr who presumed to challenge Apollo to a contest of musical skill refers to the inescapable consequences of exalting one’s own powers over those of the universal realities of which they are but products. Also, of course, the subject offers a wonderful opportunity to show two male nudes in action other than a battle, sporting, or bathing scene. Both the actions and poses of the figures are in opposition, allowing for contrasts of form and feeling: the captive satyr writhes and winces, while the god coolly begins the flaying with the calm deliberation of a taxidermist. Apollo reveals in the most vivid and horrific way that we are flesh and cannot escape our imprisonment within its envelope except by death. That this subject is also the theme of Titian’s last great painting, a masterwork recently shown in this country and well known to Willenbrink, is relevant here: does Willenbrink risk playing Marsyas to Titian’s Apollo?

There are further traditional meanings in the subject: Marsyas’s pipe-playing is considered inferior to the harmonic, geometrically linked, and chordal structures of Apollo’s instrument, the lyre; the lyre player, moreover, can accompany his music with song while the wind performer cannot. The forms of music have long been regarded as paradigmatic of relationships within various kinds of artistic compositions – partly because music is not physical but relational and while it can be notated, there remains the question whether and in what sense musical notation is music itself. Just as the visual arts may be a kind of notation of another connected reality, their precise relationship to that reality is an involved question.

Willenbrink’s Salomé is concerned with an equally complicated series of issues. Salomé is the subject of many important works of art form Donatello’s bronze relief of The Feast of Herod (1433-35) to Richard Strauss’s 1905 opera and to a number of films. Strauss’s Salomé itself is based closely on Oscar Wilde’s play of 1893, which was a succès de scandale in its time (as was the opera). Salomé is a vexing subject: its problematic aspect has been focused on anew by feminist criticism. Is she a classic example of the adolescent female as an exploitee of the predatory male gaze, that is, as a femme fatale whose seemingly unbridled erotic interest in the Baptist is both attractive and monstrous?

In both Wilde’s play and Strauss’s opera, Herodias’s daughter, Salomé, has been perverted by her mother, abused in fact, in order to provide an object of libidinous desire for Herod (her brother-in-law and husband and thus Salomé’s uncle) for the purposes of consolidating and maintaining Herodias’s own influential position at the Judaean court. The depravity of Herod’s rather incestuous appetite is horrible, balanced by the ruination of Salomé’s potential as a woman by the precocious awakening and cultivation of her sexuality by others for their own ends. She has been grossly victimized in a dysfunctional family; and her tragedy is that despite her attraction to a figure holding the promise of spiritual healing (the Baptist), as still a child of about fifteen she is able to approach him only through her forced, hot-house sexuality – which the Baptist must reject. (He is onto her unknowing role as her mother’s cat’s paw.) Because Salomé’s most important human aspect, her capacity for a spiritual (not necessarily religious) life, is deformed or stifled, she has been robbed of even the ability to save herself through what the Baptist represents. She has been cheated of the possibility of a life, and the wings of the shadow of death, mentioned in Wilde’s text and Strauss’s libretto, darken one of the walls in Willenbrink’s interior.

Willenbrink’s employment of the mirror in this subject introduces the note of mental reflection on the significance of the subject – after all, Salomé cannot see this reflection, but we can. Her attention is on the head of the Baptist and the loss of the possibility of redeeming her own integrity as a human being. The cautionary content for the artist is not to permit the sensual to stunt or prevent the development of the spiritual, philosophical, and metaphysical, that is, to ensure that the aim of art is compassionate wisdom and pleasure in it and not sensual gratification alone.

Dennis Adrian
Chicago, Illinois

From the Exhibition Catalogue:

New Still Life
Evanston Art Center, Chicago
September 1989

Richard Willenbrink’s reputation as perhaps Chicago’s leading figure painter has been established for some years now on the bases of a series of large multi-figure compositions (so far eight) featuring splendid nudes often twined together in complex baroque poses. Rather than being simply figure compositions with a minimum of setting of accessories as in an artist such as Philip Pearlstein, Willenbrink’s large figure paintings are all greatly enriched with elaborate still lifes of flowers, fruit, objects, other works of art, textiles, ceramics and jewelry. Besides acting as enrichments in the gloriously prodigal compositions, these still lifes also function to enlarge upon the several allegorical themes and metaphysical concerns which are woven throughout them.

More recently, Willenbrink has begun to produce smaller works that are pure still lifes along with the ongoing series of big figure paintings. Some of these are frankly studies in which the artist hones and refines his command to form, paint handling and color, but the majority of them have come to operate as even deeper artistic undertakings in which possibilities of allegorical suggestion, symbolic meanings, and currents of specific ideas and feelings are set forth.

Also, in these more ambitious still lifes, Willenbrink has consciously explored not only the traditional range in which still life has functioned at various times in western art of the past, but also has endeavored to extend the limits of these possibilities by exploring elements such as action and drama, actual and psychological, in the genre.

Willenbrink’s painting stems, more than from any other source or inspiration, from what is still called the Grand Manner of painting, best know in the works of Rubens (along with a host of other seventeenth-century Northern and Italian painters) and Velazquez through Boucher, Fragonard, Tiepolo, Goya, Delacroix, Gericault, Manet, Ensor, Lovis Corinth, and to Robert Barnes, Jack Beale and Paul Georges in our own day. In this kind of painting, a rich and supple technique in which absolute control over the form is combined with a sophisticated and energetic paint handling, joins the use of very rich and high color, and is oven extremely idiosyncratic. Underneath all is a very secure foundation in drawing, usually with the broad drawing media such as charcoal, chalk, pastels, or watercolor and wash.

Of all the artists in the present exhibition, Willenbrink alone does a considerable amount of drawing, most often from the nude figure or from animal still life subjects. It is the artist’s understanding that the command of form provided by this sustained commitment to drawing that allow him to paint landscape and still life directly, with no preparatory studies or drawings or underdrawing on the canvas. (In the large figure paintings, the figures but not the still lifes or settings, may be studied in drawings for the purpose of establishing the poses and therefore, important elements of the composition. However, Willenbrink does not make highly developed drawings of an entire projected composition. At most, rather broad pastels or gouaches in small scale occasionally explore options for the large arrangement of masses and of color schemes.)

Accordingly, Willenbrink’s still life paintings can be regarded as among the fullest display of his painterly abilities: in them the products and contrasts of nature and art are the elements which he uses to frame reflections upon the sometimes fearful splendor of flowers, animals, and fish and the states of feeling elicited by them. The artist is extremely interested in underlining the analogies between our feelings about these kinds of things, about our images of them and other feelings we have about ourselves. In our relationships with others and the word at large and directing our attention to the role of art, even an rather formal art such as still life functions as a linking experience between what we know about the visual world and, as well, the more obscure world of inner feeling and awareness.

Simply as paintings, Willenbrink’s still lifes offer dazzling displays of fresh and sure brushwork, strong and resonating colors, and manipulations of light and tone which further energize his conceptions. These felicities are often in forceful contrast to the flayed animal heads, gutted fish, or unexpected objects in them, though many add the further contrast of sumptuous groups of flowers set against the horrific and gorgeous products of the butcher of fishmonger. This excitement and drama of execution, color and subject recall similar qualities in the works of Anne Abrons and, in the case of each artist, offer the highest painterly and artistic satisfactions.

Dennis Adrian
Chicago, Illinois

From the Exhibition Catalogue:

Richard Willenbrink
Hite Art Institute,
Louisville, Kentucky
March 2010

Since leaving Louisville more than thirty years ago to earn a B.F.A. from the University of Notre Dame, Willenbrink has lived a life for which the word “odyssey” does not seem like an overstatement. After a subsequent move to attend graduate school at the Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, he moved to Chicago. There he secured a reputation as one of the city’s most prominent artists of his generation working with the figure and from life. That status led to inclusions of his work in significant collections and exhibitions, including the exhibition “Art in Chicago: 1945-1995” at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. In the 1990s, moved once again, this time to Prague in the Czech Republic, where he now lives and works.

For all the dramatic distance Willenbrink has travelled, a remarkable consistency of both purpose and practice marks his body of work. It reveals rigorous discipline and a mind immersed in art, literary and cultural history. The relationship between his tireless practice of life drawing and the more literary and allegorical meanings infused in his figure compositions is the exhibition’s central point of interest. But also clearly present, and especially visible in the still lifes, is Willenbrink’s fascination with depictions of the carnal nature of human experience. However cultivated our minds, or elevated our thoughts, there is no escaping the fact that life is experienced in the flesh.

Comparing the painting “ The Persecution of the Icon Painters” to the studies for it, drawn in chalk on paper, reveals the core of Willenbrink’s creative process. These drawings, if seen on their own, highlight Willenbrink’s engagement with life studies, where observation and accurate rendering of the subject reign supreme. The painting, which employs the figures from the studies, reveals interests that cannot be seen n the studies: compositions created with an almost theatrical appearance, and content alluding to cultural history in which we are meant to look for symbolic meaning(s).

In “Persecution of the Icon Painters,” the title and inclusion of a Byzantine Icon painting near the upper-left corner refer to the often violent ideological religious conflicts that occurred during the Byzantine period over the propriety of displaying images of Jesus, his disciples and other religious figures. During these struggles many icon paintings were destroyed.

But, one suspects, Willenbrink’s knowledge of cultural history is employed, here, to also comment on the predicament of living artists, especially those who share Willenbrink’s interests. The contemporary art world is defined in the wake of a non-literal form of “iconoclasm” that propels much of modern art. It caused a dramatic break form tradition by pioneering new approaches, styles and forms, such as cubism, Dada and Abstract expressionism. In this cultural landscape, choosing to pursue an authentic interest in working form life and painting the figure can place one, like the icon painters of the Byzantine period, outside some of the blunter edges and narrower confines of the current dominant aesthetic.
Yet, one does not sense a reactionary approach, or tone of grievance, in Willenbrink’s work. Instead allusions to the catastrophes brought on by the hard lines of intolerant ideologies act more as a form of contrast to a world the artist luxuriates in. A world made all that much sweeter when liberated form the prohibitions imposed by strict adherence to prevailing dogmas.

The variation of the ancient Greek myth of Apollo and Marsyas depicted here, and most often in Western art from various periods over the centuries, begins with a challenge by the satyr Marsyas to the god Apollo to a contest of musical ability. The judge are the muses, and the winner chooses the punishment to be inflicted on the loser. When the muses deem Apollo’s lyre-playing superior to Marsyas’s pipe-playing, the god repays the satyr’s hubris by flaying him and hanging his flayed flesh to a pine tree.

The myth has been an enduring subject for artists, since it implies there are challenges, perils and a level of audacity inherent in choosing to work as an artist. It also allows Willenbrink to combine figure painting with his interest in depicting meat and carcasses.

Bruce Linn
Louisville, Kentucky

From the Exhibition Catalogue:

Ahh Decadence!
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Sullivan Galleries
Chicago, Illinois
September 2008

Rearticulating still life plays a major role in “Ahh Decadence!,” as this genre so succinctly fulfills the vanitas theme. Several beautiful still lifes by Richard Willenbrink reveal lavish displays of fish and carcasses of meet, slit up the middle to reveal their abject innards. These heavy, dead-weight objects are juxtaposed with fully blooming flowers whose petals, stamens, and seeds oddly recall the skeletal intricacies of their fleshy companions. Willenbrink’s slippery thick strokes of paint reinforce the viscerally erotic quality of the flesh and flowers. Lushness pervades the scene but it is nonetheless redolent of death – a romantic coupling that decadence often imagines.

Lisa Wainwright
Chicago, Illinois

The Wondrous Heads (Bozzetti)
Thurn - Taxis Palace
Prague, Czech Republic
June 2017

The title "The Wondrous Heads" comes from the Grail literature, where the Grail is described as a salver containing a man’s head. In the arts a cut-off head is then connected with a search for the essence and for the meaning of things in general. Caravaggio in the last painting before his death, while asking questions about the ‘true essence of things’ – because of which he is sometimes compared to Shakespeare, his contemporary – offers us his own cut-off head to meditate on, instead of a skull as Hamlet did. 

In the context of Richard Willenbrink’s paintings we can perhaps see the floating heads as an emblem of a search for what a painting is in itself. What is realistic or real today when it comes to painting? In terms of both style and subject. This is a serious question. And to lighten up the metaphysical weight of the whole artistic tradition that Richard is working with, together with the biblical and mythological stories and other literary sources, Richard, in his perfect and completely coherent painterly style, uses bizarre and unexpected moments and motives as if to wake us up to the presence.

So among the heads of John the Baptist and Orpheus, and the heads of poets and prophets “capable of communicating wisdom,” either “poetical or spiritual,” in Richard’s own words, we get stuck with a pig head looking us straight in the eye. This head, lively and cheerful in its death as it was in life, turns the seriousness of Hamlet’s eternal meditation on life and death into something light and humorous, and makes us feel the very present moment of our own life and to realize – in the presence of Richard’s paintings – that this moment is actually ok; colorful, and joyful.

Karolina Dolanská
Prague, Czech Republic