When I think watercolor, I typically envision ethereal washes of half-uttered colors, fading in and out of boundaries with a weightless indifference. The paint equivalent of a butterfly, watercolor tends to retain the receptive, free-flowing qualities of its primary ingredient.
Deveron Richard's watercolors, however, are of a different breed entirely. Sharp, bright and decisive, the notoriously difficult paints take on the personality of colored pencils in the artist's masterful grip. In Richard's painted world, anthropomorphized femme animals roam free and mighty. Winged horses dressed as showgirls patrol his cities like dragons on duty, while cows in jewel-toned cocktail dresses shoot the milk of their udders into the lucky mouth of a crescent moon.
If Lisa Frank's characters matured into adulthood, these might just be the forms they'd take.
I wandered through Richard's show at The Good Luck Gallery with owner Paige Wery, who curated the exhibition and the artist's first solo show. She discovered his work at a nonprofit in San Pedro, Calif., called the Exceptional Children’s Foundation, which offers a diverse range of services to adults and children with developmental disabilities and special needs. One such program centers around art.
Wery described entering the Foundation's art studio, a chaotic blur of voices, hands and art supplies, and seeing Richard, sitting quietly, hard at work. The artist, who Wery describes as "very shy," has been creating art nearly every day at the Exceptional Children's Foundation since he graduated high school. He's now in his mid-40s.
Richard, who lives with his mother, enjoys watching television and reading comic books. For the most part, however, he's removed from the institutional art world; he doesn't visit museums or have much of an interest in art history. Both his methodical technique and fantastical content are brewed primarily in Richard's mind's eye.
"His imagination is so full of joy and fun, all disco unicorns and lactating cows," Wery said. Each densely packed painting doesn't just conjure a character but an entire alternate universe, complete with its own weather phenomena, laws of gravity and dress code.
Although Richard remains quiet when discussing his work, occasional snippets of text woven into the painting help illuminate his thought process. One such work, titled "Poler Bears in Aurora," features polar bears dressed as cabaret singers, in fab floor-length gowns with garter belts peeking through, belting a number with accompanying choreography amidst a Jolly Rancher-colored snowstorm. One has a cotton candy bob, another a lime green mohawk. They are the most diva polar bears imaginable.
In case the viewer is disoriented by the flattened landscape of a polar bear concert, or distracted by their polar bear cleavage, Richard provides a snippet of text at the base of the painting. "They are walking gracefully in spectra dresses on the icy steps," he writes, "on the bottom are different colors, but high above are round snowballs of pink, green, red, blue and yellow." The text, just as wonderfully odd as the images themselves, doesn't quite inform the viewer, but entrenches her deeper into a strange logic.
You won't nod your head with sudden understanding -- "Oh, those are snowballs after all!" Instead, you'll relinquish the desire to understand and just enjoy. There is no link back to reality, only more strange and polychromatic details.
Each image, Wery tells me, takes Richard about three months to complete. Before he embarks on his final version, Richard maps every detail of his vision out onto a three-by-five notecard, rendering an exact, miniature replica of the resulting piece. He then translates the image, without the use of any rulers or measurement devices, onto the larger paper canvas. Every painting is labeled clearly with a start and end date, like the artist is logging in and out of his work.
One of the striking elements of Richard's world is that all of its inhabitants, whether bird or bear or cow, are women. Their bodies are feminine yet brawny, bulging with power that's both sensual and pure muscle. Unlike most of art history's framed muses, the figures embody active postures, a stark change from the reclining nudes that occupy so much space on museum walls. No, these colorful babes are too busy dancing or soaring or shooting out milk to meet the viewer's gaze.
When Wery asked about the women, Richard's response was succinct. "They are powerful" was the gist. Although it's impossible to know with certainty why the artist's world is dominated entirely by lady beasts, Wery hypothesizes his experience being raised by a single mother had an influence.
Another unusual element of the exhibition was just how contemporary the work appeared. Richard would typically be classified as an outsider artist, a self-taught creative working outside the mainstream art institution. But while work made by outsider artists is generally described as raw, obsessive, and naive -- either wildly chaotic or hyper orderly -- Richard's work breaks the mold a bit.
"It feels radically contemporary," Wery agreed, adding that many gallery goers had commented similarly. This may, in part, be a reflection on how many emerging artists cite outsider art, folk art, children's art and underground comics as an influence. Or, of course, it could simply reflect the inadequacy of artistic categories to accurately archive artists as real people who work outside such unnecessary distinctions.
Through the power of his visionary imagination, Richard creates an alternate reality that's alive with power, color, feminine energy and otherworldly forces. Regardless of categories like insider and outsider, Richard is an artist in the most essential sense: creating and sharing worlds beyond many of our wildest dreams.
Deveron Richard's work is on view at The Good Luck Gallery in Los Angeles until May 21, 2016.