In the midst of Covid fears and restrictions, when we were all despairing of ever seeing our friends again, there was finally cause for celebration. On the weekend of November 5, 2021, long-time London artist Maureen Riley mounted a studio exhibition of her artwork after a three-year hiatus. Friends, artists, collectors, gathered over the three days (observing Covid restrictions, of course) to enjoy the many recent works filled with new ideas and brilliant colours of this ‘Red Dot’ show. It was the perfect time to mark the artist’s survival, long recovery, and return to work in her studio, after a difficult struggle with cancer and surgery. There was a sense of the miraculous emphasized by the vivid colours of the paintings, but also a touch of Riley’s humour, with the very pointed notice of the Red Dot: a traditional sign of ‘sold’ works, but here also appearing in the paintings as a reference to the physical rewiring of her body with its new ‘stoma’. Red dots were everywhere!
Riley has been working as an artist in London, Ontario, for over forty years. Raised in Hamilton, she moved to London in 1970 to study at Brescia College, Western University, earning a BA in English Literature. She reminisces about growing up in Hamilton and having a sense from the early age of five that she would be an artist. She credits her mother for giving her blank paper and telling her to use her own imagination for ideas, rather than trying to copy figures from her colouring book. She describes a home steeped in the Roman Catholic faith, with religious icons on the walls and small black-and-white reproductions of famous paintings that fascinated her. Once she started school she discovered a talent for writing both prose and poetry, along with her drawing, that impressed her teachers.
At Western University, she took first-year courses in the Department of Fine Art (now Visual Arts), but found the Department and professors “too patriarchal” and moved on to English Literature as her major. Her goal after graduation was to write and illustrate children’s books and she continued in this vein but eventually designed works geared toward adults. One such example is the book A is for Albatross, An Alphabet of Murder and Mayhem with the Koktail Kids (2016), reflecting not only Riley’s fascination with words, but also her sense of humour: ‘J is for Jacent, the beginning of rest’ illustrated with a burial site marker for artist Edward Gorey (the 20th-century artist whose illustrations are described as vaguely ominous). Plus, the Koktail Kids reference suggests friends having fun times.
The decade of the 70s was personally significant for Riley. In 1975, she came out fully as a Lesbian and met the local Lesbian community. She describes these as ‘heady times’ when she was fully supported by the community right from the start. Just two years later she became aware of the growing feminist movement that was happening at that time, immersing herself in the literature of feminism, especially Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, which remained a most important text for Riley. Millett was later to become a significant figure in her life and for her artwork, as well.
The culmination of this decade was her first invitation, in 1981, to exhibit some work at the new Womanspirit Gallery in London, Ontario. Womanspirit opened in 1980 on the main street in town (Dundas Street), and for its six years of existence was the only gallery to focus on exhibitions of women’s art. It was also identified as an Art Research and Resource Centre, supporting projects to identify and document women artists who worked in Ontario. Often featuring talks by women artists and art historians, it became a valued gathering place for many women.
For this first opportunity to exhibit work, Riley constructed sculptures representing what would be her favoured subject matter: woman as angel, goddess, friend. Experimenting with new materials that were developed mainly for decorative works (a combination of salt and flour), she created large-scale sculptures that in later years began to crumble. However, her main interest had been painting, and this became her focus. Two influences stand out for her approach to painting, her studies in mediaeval literature and art, and her discovery of the work and life of Frida Kahlo.
The figures she paints tend to be close to the surface and flat, with strong outlines and bright colours. The Angel I Paint (2008) is a fine example both for subject matter and surface treatment, recalling similar ideas in medieval art. The smiling Angel floats, the circle of her arms drawing attention to her decorative earrings and lush hair that streams along her side (is that a snake floating in her hair?). Her wings, the edges of her gown and of the banderole below her, are embossed, or enhanced with sparkling collaged materials, adding to the decorative quality of the whole. The artist signs her work with an image of her hand and palette of paints at the banderole, all the edges glittering. The Moon Goddess is present in the sky behind her, the whole becoming a constellation of the feminine.
Her stylized, iconic images are also frequently rich with plant life that seems to flourish on the page. Riley talks about getting to know Frida Kahlo’s art in a way that deepened after she was diagnosed with dystonia in 1991. It was a frightening time for her, dealing with this distressing disease causing loss of muscle control and an uncertain future. Learning about what Kahlo went through with her own suffering due to accidents and illness, all the while painting works that continue to speak to us, was inspirational for Riley. (Fortunately, there is a treatment for the dystonia that has helped control the muscles, allowing her to continue her production.)
Her admiration for Kahlo is evident in a number of works, including A Little House for Frida Kahlo (2008), an installation in her home that has the sensibility of a shrine. Within the painted ‘box’ is a cutout figure of Kahlo set in a decorated room; atop this room is a suggestion of a garden of flowers and plants; on a small ledge below it is a collection of photos of Frida and other related objects.
Riley was working on A Little House for Frida Kahlo in this photo (below) taken in 2008, with a finished work on the wall in front of her, Kissing the Moon.
Kissing the Moon is an excellent example of the ways the artist uses feminine mythologies, in this case around fecundity and the idea of the Moon Goddess (common to many cultures). There is so much to see in this work – from the woman’s body itself, filled with pink and yellow flowers, to the vines and flowers that surround her, mixed with birds, fish, butterflies. Just above her bent knee is the artist’s hand and palette of paints, asserting her presence. In the top right corner, the sun appears to speak. And ranged across the bottom edge of the painting is a kind of calendar of the artist’s six decades on earth as, she says, full of symbols and memories. This testifies to the powerful nature of the images Riley creates, and the strength she draws from them. It is not surprising that they speak to so many women who acquire them to install in their homes and offices.
There have been many sources important for Riley’s work. Beyond the mythologies, and the life and work of Frida Kahlo, one that surfaces frequently in conversation is the friendship she developed with Kate Millett. Sexual Politics made her a fan of the author, and in 1988 she read an article in MS Magazine on the art colony Millett had founded in upstate New York. She learned that women could apply to spend time in the summer there, working on the farm and on their art. Riley sent Millett a letter with images of her work, and soon had the reply to ‘come on over’. It was the first of several visits to the farm, times she describes with great enthusiasm. It helped that Millett liked her artwork and was always encouraging, including offering her an apartment to rent in New York’s Bowery area in 1989. Riley’s memories of that time are compelling—the train trip from the art colony near Poughkeepsie when she listened to Laurie Anderson’s Strange Animals, and how appropriate that seemed; the New York artist who invited her to join a breakfast group for art conversations; the variety of art shows she saw, some of them brilliant; times she spent with Kate and friends in the City, loving the feel of it.
Recently, Riley was invited to send a work from her time at the Art Colony for an exhibition documenting and honoring Millett and the colony she founded. Life After The Revolution: Kate Millett’s Art Colony for Women, at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz (September 11—December 12, 2021) included her painting, First Light/The Cottage/Millett Farm (1996). It is a peaceful view of a sleeping woman, her foot visible near a pad and pen, with a cup and coffee maker nearby, and a view of greenery out a window. It feels like a safe place where a woman can be free to sleep, to dream new ideas.
Through her career, Riley has experimented with formats (light boxes, for instance), and with materials. Collage has been a favourite, and most recently she used antique papers to create a series of birds in small formats. Cheeky Bird (2021) is colourful example of the possibilities of this technique, one of a series created for her recent studio show. It’s noteworthy that this ‘Red Dot’ exhibition took place forty years after her first. Over the years, she, and her work, have been a significant nuclei for the women’s community in the region – for LBGTQ and straight women. It’s fitting, then, that we take note of one of her paintings of a group of friends enjoying cocktails: Cocktails with Jesse Tait (2016), where they celebrate the artist’s favourite ceramicist.
Since that happy time of her show last November, we have faced the spread of Covid variants, the need to avoid close contacts, and brief returns to lockdown situations. As the studio show ended last November, Riley was already busy with new work. Here we see her with a work in progress, Love in the Time of Covid – looking forward to the next show of her work, with all its power and jubilant colour, hopefully at a time after Covid.
Madeline Lennon has been writing art reviews and artists’ profiles for Centred for the past three years. Professor Emerita, Visual Arts, Western University
Images are courtesy of the artist.
To read future Art Reviews, Artists’ Profiles, and Current Art Exhibition Events subscribe to Centred.ca