Richard Neal’s show at Wellfleet Preservation Hall, running through March 29, takes its title from an English colloquialism and album by The Who.
“Odds and Sods” are 20 small works — bits and pieces that the painter says don’t fit in with his larger oeuvre. The show is curated by Michelle Law, exhibitions specialist at the Cotuit Center for the Arts.
“They’re these little mish-moshy things,” says Neal from the space that he shares with John Cira in the Old Schoolhouse Art Studios in Barnstable Village. “They’re almost like sketches. I learn from them.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Neil has been a mainstay of contemporary art on the Cape since he arrived here 40 years ago, the last 12 working out of the Old Schoolhouse building. Before that, he earned a B.F.A from UMass Dartmouth and an M.F.A from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.
When he’s not busy designing and building theater sets at the Cotuit Center for the Arts, Neal works on large mixed-media paintings that take advantage of his studio’s tall ceilings and north-facing windows, from which one can catch a glimpse of Cape Cod Bay.
Lining the studio walls are some of his large “burning house” paintings — a series depicting the skeletal frame of a house engulfed in flames — including a massive canvas covered in repurposed blue jeans. “Almost everybody you know, nice guy or not, wears blue jeans. It’s this universal currency,” he says, pointing to the ripped and faded patchwork of blue.
Neal, who calls himself an “accumulation guy,” often builds his paintings over a ground of dense material such as clothing, books, or Perspex engineered plastic. The process took a while to arrive at, but now it’s “part of me,” says Neal.
The smaller paintings in the “Odds and Sods” show also often use a dense ground. “When I’m working on a bigger one, something I learned over there might come into play,” he says, pointing to an accumulation of canvases in the corner.
But the smaller paintings retain their singular status. “They’re their own little thing,” says Neal. “I start thinking about them individually. I think artists tend to have pieces that we like but other people don’t care about. For me, this is almost like a show for me to put out some stuff that nobody would like. They’re so unlike the ‘burning house’ paintings.
“Sometimes I pull between abstract and real,” he says. The small paintings err on the side of playful abstraction. “Often, it’s a concept for me. For the small ones, whatever happens, happens,” says Neal. The formal play of color, shape, texture, and line doesn’t require an armature of reality. “The other ones are more planned out.”
It’s the antithesis of the precision required for his set design work. “I like the fact, when you get to the studio, you can make it wrong if you want to,” says Neal. The perspective doesn’t have to be right, and the sense of space can be ambiguous. It fulfills Neal’s interests in duality and flux, reality and illusion. It’s the “wrong” that Neal plays to — formally, metaphorically — in his “Odds and Sods” paintings with their off-the-cuff quality.
Looking at a small mock-up of a fire collaged over a sunset sky, Neal says, “I was interested in the idea of making a painting that immediately looks like, ‘Oh, that’s gorgeous!’ It’s a beautiful sunset, but the more you look at it, you see there’s an actual fire there. It’s conceptual. It’s just something I’d like to try.”
The work at Preservation Hall is full of those “something I’d like to try,” moments. But the role of the viewer is important, says Neal. Ultimately, “It’s just an idea until you make it real.”
Odd Man Out
The event: “Richard Neal: Odds and Sods”
The time: Thursday, March 3 through March 29
The place: Wellfleet Preservation Hall, 335 Main St.
The cost: Free