LIFE ACCORDING TO ARTIST GREGORY WILLIAM RICK
“It’s like walking on a tightrope sometimes, being in-between so many things,” Gregory Rick tells me on the phone from Stanford University in California, where he’s in the final weeks of his MFA program, “and that is definitely in my work, this cognitive dissonance between oppressor and oppressed.
Rick has spent much of his life in this state of in-between, an insider-outsider: When he was 7, his father shot and killed a man in a fight and was sentenced to 10 years in jail. Rick and his brother were raised by their mother, who was often the only white person in their community; they were the only biracial kids at services at the Black church they attended and Rick would look on as the congregation succumbed to the Holy Ghost while he wondered why he didn’t feel anything and why the preacher was so rich. Rick later joined the military and fought in the Iraq War, but describes himself as a pacificist. In his paintings—often unfurling scroll-like, 10 feet long—all of these contra- dictions collide in a beautiful, cacophonous disharmony. There’s bloodshed and violence, parachuting soldiers and tears, children and animals, a barrage of heady figures from fiction and history, memory and invention.
Gregory William Rick, The Weeping Time, 2022.
After his father was imprisoned, Rick connected to him through the books he’d left behind at home. He says, “Pretty cheesy encyclopedia-type history books on subjects like World War II, with pictures of Churchill and Hitler.” At the same time his mother brought home office supplies from work, including printer paper, “that you could fold like an accordion,” he says. Between the books and drawing never-ending scenes on these coveted materials, Rick tried to reconcile the immensity of the history of global male violence with his own personal, domestic experience of it. “I found a certain kind of peace and agency in drawing where I didn’t have any as a kid. It was a way to deal with those feelings of anxiety and uncertainty in the absence of my dad,” Rick reflects. In one poignant work by the artist, a book cover— starkly different from the intense, fervent detail of most of his drawings and paintings— bears the title A Boy and His Father, which hovers above two loosely daubed, impressionistic yellow and gray figures that face one another but are separated by a fold in the paper.
Rick was bullied at school, in part for his fondness of art. “You couldn’t be sensitive, you were either strong or weak, predator or prey,” he recalls. As a young adult he discovered graffiti and in it the convergence of both a rebellious kind of masculine bravado and the need to paint and create. “I saw graffiti as this mystical, cryptic language I didn’t understand but I was really attracted to,” he tells me, remembering the early tags he did using a red spray can he’d found. “I didn’t have a solid sense of culture, looking back— the way I saw Ethiopians, Somalian and Native friends did—I wanted to find some- thing more authentic to me, to connect to something ancient, to my ancestors; some- thing that had been severed.”
Sculpture by Gregory Rick
As a young adult, Rick also spent time at Native ceremonies with his friend Wolf Bellecourt, son of Clyde Bellecourt, the legendary founder of the American Indian Movement and civil rights activist who passed away in January of this year. Although Rick participated in the ceremonies, he was still an onlooker. “It wasn’t my culture,” he says. “I was initiated into tribal society, but it allowed me to gain a deeper insight into spirituality.”
That has transmuted now into Rick’s meditative painting process: “There’s a stillness that happens when I’m making something that I’m addicted to, when everything else just falls away,” he says. Ideas come to him often when he’s walking, trying to make sense of whatever he’s reading about—the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, cannibalism during the siege of Leningrad, the Weeping Time auction of Georgia in the 19th century, the war in Ukraine, the war with the police in the U.S., the dystopian worlds of Octavia Butler—and piece it together with his own past and experiences.
Influenced by African folk art, Moghul-era miniature painting, religious art and European illuminated manuscripts, Rick’s unique aesthetic also shares an affinity with the collaged compositions of Romare Bearden or the narrative paintings of Cecilia Vicuña. “I’ve always been keen to tell stories,” the artist explains of his highly evocative scenes.
A visit inside the Gregory Rick Studio
Rick is one of the five recipients of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s 2022 SECA Art Award, whose previous winners include Barry McGee and Alicia McCarthy. He is currently preparing works for an exhibition that will be presented at SFMOMA in December as part of the prize, as well as creating new works for Beyond the Streets. He describes himself as at a juncture, a time of transition after three years of training at Stanford. And once again, he soon pans out, finding an analogy between his own situation and the world: “It feels like there’s going to be some kind of cataclysm,” he says, “American supremacy is ending.”
It may not sound optimistic, but Rick sees art as a way of healing, making sense of all the chaos—painting as a positive act of creation in the face of destruction. As he puts it, “There is power in the mind, there’s power in art, I like to think. I’ve cried in front of paintings—and I hope someone will have that kind of response to my work, to make a difference to someone, if only for a second. I feel compelled to make art because I’m alive and I’ve got to do something.”
Keep up with the latest from Gregory Rick on Instagram (@gregoryrick2017).
This story was originally published in the first issue of BEYOND CONTROL. BEYOND CONTROL is available, free of charge, at CONTROL Gallery and BEYOND THE STREETS Flagship Los Angeles.