Bondo Wyszpolski

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Lance Richlin is an Old Master for modern times.

Lance Richlin in his studio. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

An early morning talk with Lance Richlin has continued into the middle of the afternoon, full-steam, and virtually without a break. Richlin chooses his words carefully, speaks slowly, and is always concise. When he paints, in a realist style that fraternalizes well with the Old Masters of centuries past, it is the same way – carefully and concise.

We are in his Torrance studio, and have just been talking about his commissioned portrait of Randol Schoenberg, the Los Angeles attorney who navigated the return of several paintings by Gustav Klimt to their rightful heirs. The pictures had been hanging for decades in Austria’s Belvedere Palace.

Klimt’s 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was one of the Viennese master’s prominent works. Richlin not only included it in his portrait of Schoenberg, he reinterpreted the original figure in such a manner that it bears his own stamp of originality – without compromising the essential integrity of the original. (Well, some critics thought otherwise; see below)

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It is at this point in our discussion that Richlin says, “The thing that I think is most important is the spiritual nature of my work that these pieces are my contribution to the collective philosophy of the world, and I try to view them with a spiritual vision.”

To make his example, he indicates specific pictures on the walls around us.

“That’s what I was put on this earth for. The funny thing is, nobody every talks about those things with me. But what’s most important is the meaning of the work, and I’ve tried to paint it in such a way that it does honor to the things I believe in. In other words, the quality of the paintings should be commensurate with the importance of the idea, that you really feel like it deserves it.”

On one wall of his skylighted studio is a large narrative painting that contains several diverse objects, one or two of which seem incongruent until Richlin offers an explanation. “It deals with the subject of animism, which is the Shinto belief that all things in the world have a living spirit – and that includes physical objects.”

The work was a gift to his Zen master.

“The purpose of my art is to show that there is a spiritual dimension underlying our existence.”

He elaborates: “A mystic is somebody that sees a mystical significance, a spiritual side, to everything that occurs, and that’s what I’d like my work to be about. I would like to continuously show people realism – reality, beautifully painted figures – but allude to the other dimension that is invisible. In the same way that life presents us with concrete experiences and people that themselves have a spiritual dimension that is invisible.”

In a way, this is the fundamental backbone, tangible or intangible, of Richlin’s artistic credo. But how did he arrive there? Let’s go back in time.

“Henrietta,” life-size oil, by Lance Richlin

Influences, at home and abroad

Initially, Lance Richlin is reluctant to speak of his immediate family and the background from which he emerged, or possibly sprang like Athena, except to state that his father was a writer, a very cultured man, and that, at home, as a boy in this environment, “I was always encouraged to be expressive… We talked about books, we saw films, and really talked about them.”

Ten minutes go by, and all I’ve learned is that Richlin’s father had a few moments of glory, but as his son is quick to note, “They’re his achievements; they’re not my achievements.”

I begin to ask him what his mother’s influence was on his artistic growth.

“I’ll tell you what he wrote rather than dance around it,” Richlin suddenly says. “He invented the Pink Panther and wrote the first film; and he won an Academy Award for a film called ‘Pillow Talk.’ He wrote five or six other hits that were less well known.”

Although it’s a stretch to see the resemblance of “Pillow Talk” to Richlin’s many portraits of Erl van Aken, in many respects – creative aptitude or aesthetic sensibility perhaps? – the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say, even though Richlin adds that none of his siblings pursued a career in the arts.

Despite the cultural milieu at home, Richlin’s parents didn’t urge him to become another Raphael or Michelangelo.

“They said, You can never make a living as an artist. Right up until the minute that I met a college teacher that said I could. So, as soon as I heard those magic words at 17, I said: Oh, well if I can, then I will. And I automatically felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”

In case you’re wondering if he started out doing abstracts or highly stylized work, the answer is no.

“I always wanted to do realism,” Richlin says, “because as a child I developed a certain amount of skill and pride in my craftsmanship, and as a result I never wanted to let that go. And by pride and craftsmanship I mean the ability to draw realistically.”

When asked about historic artists who have had an impact or influence upon his work, Richlin doesn’t hesitate:

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about the Spanish artist, the Spanish follower of Caravaggio, named José de Ribera. Every time I pick up a brush I think of him.

“My sensibility is closest to his,” Richlin continues. “I feel in my work two things. I feel the gravitas and religiosity of Ribera, and I feel the love of beautiful women that Paul Delvaux obviously had. Delvaux had a Romantic vision but it was also a slightly surreal vision. They’re children’s illustrations for adults.

“So, when I’m working I’m always aware that sometimes I do pieces in the tradition, i.e., where there’s hopefully some profundity and some gravitas. And sometimes I work with a feeling of Delvaux where there’s some fantasy and there’s some Romantic love – usually a beautiful woman. These are two different things, and they come out in their own way in my work.”

I know quite a bit about Delvaux, I tell Richlin, having once traveled to Brussels for a retrospective of his work, but my familiarity with Ribera is much, much less.

“Ribera was famous for his martyrdoms, where people literally give their lives for religious ideas. There’s nothing more consequential than to sacrifice one’s life for one’s beliefs.”

Which leads us to examine why an artist makes art, and where his or her convictions really lie.

When art is meaningful

“You have a choice when you’re an artist,” Richlin says. “You can paint about things that are important or you can paint about things that are pleasant. But you do have to be aware: Is what I’m doing interesting because I like [what I’m painting], it just turns me on, and I want to share with people this fun little thing? Or am I doing art that is dealing with the great issues that everybody is affected by?

“These are two different things. Sometimes they can be combined, and sometimes people are charmed because the artist has successfully brought the viewer into that little world he’s interested in.”

However, what is meaningful art is open to interpretation. Richlin points to an exquisite work-in-progress, the head-and-shoulders sculpture of a young woman.

“It’s a portrait,” he says. “When I saw this woman I thought she should be reproduced in marble. Now,” he concedes, “there is no profound meaning. In the arena of deifying some woman’s beauty that’s as far as I think you can go – and that’s a good thing, even though it doesn’t tell a story or offer any new insight into life. It’s just a portrait of a woman, but that’s okay; I’m allowed to do things like that.”

Ultimately, this is Richlin’s homage to an attractive woman, and a marble sculpture that preserves the impression of her beauty while conveying the impression it made upon the artist. It is a noble gesture, at its purest, an aesthetic offering to the ages. Artists are not saints, of course, and while there may be other motives in the mix, works of art inspired by an alluring human being are a celebration of something we find extra special in this temporal, ephemeral world. Beauty fades, but artists like Lance Richlin have the ability to fix it in our collective memories.

Because they have to

While an artist will make decisions over whether to do personal art or universal art, both significant in their own way, of course, the choice of actually becoming an artist, and staying in for the long haul, is another thing altogether.

Or, as Richlin puts it, “At a certain point you don’t have a choice. I’ve been at this so long, I don’t know any other way. There’s nothing else I can do.

“It’s not like at the age of 20 somebody said, ‘Look, you’re gonna sacrifice everything to do this.’ Because, no, you don’t think at the age of 20 that you’ll sacrifice everything to do your art; it just works out that way.”

Meanwhile, the years roll by, and during that time one is refining his or her skills and sensibilities.

“When you do your art,” Richlin says, “your subject matter is continuously being whittled down by an inner critic. Your tastes are continuously determining what you will or won’t write or paint about. It gets to the point where you can learn a lot about a person by looking at their work. In the end, we really are choosing not just the art, we’re choosing the artist. You’re saying: That artist and his thousands of choices is the artist that resonates with me.”

In this way, an artist like Richlin finds his or her kindred spirits, his Ribera and his Delvaux. At the same time, whether realizing it or not, an artist finds a shell that fits, a certain métier, mode, or milieu, and sticks by it. “In the end you are the main proponent of your own philosophy,” Richlin says. “This is what I can support, this is what I think life is like, and this is how I think that should all be depicted.”

Even so, Richlin is under no illusions about the power of art to change the world.

“What I’m doing is very important to me, but it’s not going to cure cancer, it’s not going to defend our country against Al Qaida. What it is, is something I’m very interested in, that makes life somewhat more interesting for people. But for the vast majority, art museums and galleries are a place to go instead of the movies or instead of an amusement park. It’s just something to do because you’re bored.

“I don’t expect more than that,” he continues. “A small percentage of people will derive spiritual enrichment from my work, and because I think there’s intrinsic [value] in my work it may have a longer lifespan than work that’s of no value.”

That, of course, is up to posterity, to publicists, curators, critics, and art dealers in the here-and-now, as well as publicists, curators, critics, and art dealers in the hereafter. One needs allies to champion the work.

So how well known is Lance Richlin? We don’t see him hanging around Cannery Row in Redondo or the Creative Arts Center in Manhattan Beach.

“I’ve been a finalist in six out of ten international contests that I’ve entered,” he says, “so that means, according to the results of these competitions I’ve been in in the past two years, I am apparently a top realist.” His portrait of Randol Schoenberg is among these acknowledged works. “But being a top realist is sort of like being a great ping-pong player. I’d be better known if I was a great basketball player. And even in the art world there are different streams. The realist art world is very small compared to the mainstream art world, which is basically abstract and modernist. So, in the ghetto of traditional art, I’m well known.”

Portrait of Randol Schoenberg (detail), by Lance Richlin

Because it’s a fascinating portrait, because it’s an award-winner, and because Gustav Klimt is currently the one must-see artist in Los Angeles – via an exhibition of his drawings at the Getty – it seems timely and appropriate to discuss how this commission came to be.

“Randy is actually my attorney,” Richlin says. “His grandfather was Arnold Schoenberg, the composer. In his family they always have their portraits painted, so it was perfectly natural for him, having reached his maturity, to have a portrait done, just as his father and grandfather [had done]. And because Randy Schoenberg had won the Klimt case, where the famous Klimt (of Adele Bloch-Bauer) was returned to its original owners right out of an Austrian museum, that was significant in the history of art acquisition because it raised all kinds of questions: Are we now going to de-acquisition paintings from museums all over the world because maybe they’ve been stolen? In the case of the Klimt, it was by the Nazis.

“And so I said, ‘Well, we’ve got to put the Klimt in the painting of you, Randy. Because, when possible, where there’s a budget to do something more than just a portrait, I like the portrait to tell a little bit of a story.’ I realized this was going to be a significant portrait, so it was worth the time and effort to put in a back-story – and naturally the back-story became the Klimt.”

In this case, besides Schoenberg and the Klimt, there are burning buildings (the Warsaw ghetto) in the background to represent the Holocaust.

“The thing I’d like to point out,” Richlin points out, “is that the Klimt isn’t really the Klimt; it’s a completely altered and subtle – a few critics have said a ‘ruined’ – version of the Klimt that I did so that it would balance better with Randy.” He pauses. “I painted the Klimt as if it was completely three-dimensional and in a classical manner, whereas the original is sort of art nouveau in the manner of late Klimt, which is completely flat.”

“Earl” (detail), life-size oil, by Lance Richlin

Narrative painting, such as the Schoenberg commission, is what Richlin would love to do more of, but what has sustained him when the cash flow is lean are two things, painting portraits (of the head-and-shoulders type, mostly) and teaching. He doesn’t look askance at either one, and in fact declares teaching “an honorable profession,” but he knows it’s not savvy thinking to undertake a “Raft of the Medusa” when bills are coming due and there’s nothing in the till.

“They’re a very bad financial use of your time. But to give my life meaning, I would like to express the ideas I think are important.

“Very few artists get that opportunity,” Richlin says. “We’re encouraged to do good decorations for people’s walls, in a way that we were not in the ‘70s, for example. There was a point when artists, painters, were encouraged to express things that are very important and personal to us. With the coarsening of humanity’s tastes, and possibly the recession, we’re being encouraged to do things that are more commercial.

“I have people who think I’m a good teacher,” Richlin says. “I take pride in my teaching. But no matter how good a teacher you are, your responsibility is to your art. The teaching must be second; otherwise you’re not really fulfilling your role in society.

“It’s actually kind of selfish,” he confesses, “but it should be. That’s where you should draw the line. You should never let anything be ahead of your art.”

Lance Richlin’s portraits can be viewed online at lancerichlin.com. He can also be reached by phone, (310) 686-8856, or by e-mail, lance@lancerichlin.com.

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