Jeff Riley, Good Times


I wrote this when Jeff Riley was showing at EOS Wine Bar in San Francisco in the Fall of 2006. It was featured in the first issue of Swee(t)Art, the zine. I haven’t had a chance to have studio visit in a while and he is in the Living City 2 show at Manifesto next Saturday, 08.22.09 so I thought I would republish this.-Obi.

If you know Jeff, you know Jeff’s attitude. Jeff is a kind of heavy metal gentleman: A seemingly clean cut boy with a brood of lizards thriving in his gut. A new-modernist painter, all the way: loud laugh that gets louder with successive beers. He has got a bit of the zen master in him too…I asked him if he still smokes cigarettes and he said “Not really, I figure I got away with the vice for long enough.”
I got a chance to sit down with him a couple of weeks back. He is showing a series of over 30 paintings in a solo show at the EOS wine bar on the corner of Carl and Cole in San Francisco. The show just opened in August and when I asked him how long it was going to be up he said he has no idea. I made it to the opening too, it was packed. Jeff is a local. On the day we talked, they opened the wine bar early because they knew Jeff was coming by. We got a couple of pints at three thirty on a Monday afternoon and talked about Anselm Kiefer more than anything really.


I have been following Jeff’s career for over ten years now and his work is a guilty pleasure of mine. Not guilty because I am ashamed to stand up and say I like it, it is just it so goddamn simple and colorful…I wonder if I am being deceived. Like my guard was let down and where normally the art I like is clever. They’re not blatantly decorative either, thank god. Which is probably why some fuck at Genentech hasn’t yet tried to rape Jeff of the whole show for a greasy buck. Not that all bucks are greasy. Jeff is totally collectable. He is deeply lost in the savage garden, you can tell. If Jeff goes down path A instead of Path B, C or D he will adopt a firm palette and style morphing then into a very successful, corporate artist. Fortunately for us (maybe unfortunately for him) Jeff is way too into possibility and experiment to lock his nimble hands into that bear-trap. He is an idealist and this will lead him into greater and weirder art. For now Jeff’s plateau is all about unlocking this great matrix of form and code about where somehow genetics meets beauty. He says it’s probably just all caveman grunts but I don’t believe that.

Jeff is always thinking about the future. “It is like when you hold too much sand in your hands, it slips between your fingers.” What am I going to do next? “Do you know how is having a fucking show? Anselm Kiefer!” Leaded sunflowers in a plexiglass prison in a labyrinth under Berlin. The aesthetics are what appeals to Jeff, not the symbolism, not the politics. You don’t get any of that in Jeff’s paintings, only the emotional code: the secret key he is so sure he will unlock.

“I want to paint with gunpowder. Not guns. It is an olfactory thing. I was just down with my parents in New Mexico and I walked by a painter with his little set of oils and the smell! Oh god that is the real reason painters paint. The sexy Smell. They love it. I love it.” Jeff’s new paintings actually include illustrations. “I haven’t ever really tried to draw anything, until now.” Representation has little relevance to him. You get the sense that he paints like composers must compose: attendant to an inner rhythm that may be inscrutable to those of us deaf and left searching for pattern, image and reference. Jeff has always liked only to build a tiny bridge to a frail lattice of color and stasis where gods draw must draw existence. I don’t mean to blow hard but Jeff may be one of those veiled gods that is just waiting for his own revelation. I hope it doesn’t happen soon. The experiments of the future promise to be too interesting. In the new work, Forms begin to emerge. He told me that the only thing he brought back from New Mexico was a ziplock bag of tiny pinecones. “I like to steal the babies.” He giggles sipping his beer. “Future primitive architecture. That is the reference.” When I ask him what the hell that means he says it’s about “…being a nerd and a goofball for sunsets and stuff like that.” I ask him to elaborate and he says it is like the title of one painting: Tlaromhet. An invented word that means “a long awaited release from emotional turmoil.”

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