Derrick Riley vs. the Machine

By Justin T. E. Smith

Derrick Riley’s pre-historic world of robots-run-mad conjures contemporary social commentary and brings to it a comical, cinematic present tense. His woodblock print exhibit at MetroLex proves to be an enjoyable walking tour through the artist’s head.

Woodblock prints are a strenuous art form. Riley uses a Japanese cutting tool 1.5 millimeters thick to make prints up to 4 feet wide. Each piece takes an average of about one month.The first and largest of his 15 pieces was also shown at the University of Kentucky Open Studios in December, and the artist has new pieces to be revealed at NUDE International 2005 this week at Loudoun House.

All of these fantastic narratives that Riley refers to as “children’s stories” include personal subject matter, responses to popular culture, and Biblical interpretation. “Adam and Eve” are geometric, futuristic robots, resembling the Jetson’s mechanical maid, Rosie. Three dominant figures expel the automaton—the most noticeable being that of the artist himself. The garden from which the robots are being cast out references a fifteenth century painting of the same subject by Massaccio. A serpent coils and dangles in its mouth the fruit of knowledge, or in this case, an Energizer battery. A sign centered in the middleground boldly reads: RADIOSHACK.

Riley merges self and society with delightfully dark, comedic results. The carvings of his young mind speak of an industrial revolution that has spun out of control. The are set against the background of a primitive Mount Fuji, where the perils of ex-girlfriends and twenty-something angst run rampant. The things you own will one day own you.

“Modern Implants” is one of his larger, more commanding pieces in the exhibit. A standard home PC configures the contents of a robot and a man, who lies unconscious on parallel operating tables. Coin-operated arcade games machines connect the to the centered computer.

Riley explores the contrasts of man vs. machine and dark vs. light through the nature of his craft. Woodcut is a relief printmaking process in which an image in carved on the surface of a wooden block by cutting away those parts that are not be printed. One side of “Modern Implants” is light, the other is dark. One side is man; one side is machine.

Upon viewing this piece, local artist Lucinda Chapman compared Riley’s content to “flushed toilets and automobiles, the most detrimental inventions of mankind.”

Three woodblock prints stand together by virture of their colors, which are deep reds and greens. With color comes a more defined sense of Riley’s specific satire. “Robots First Sears Portrait,” also featured on the exhibit’s flyer, closes in on ideas of consumerism and progress. A carved wooden block is printed onto past issues of Science and Technology and decades-old classified ads. A robot similar to the one in Lost In Space smiles awkwardly in the foreground. Behind him are advertisements for How-To books and job opportunities. Diagrams illustrate how to put your home appliance together. The ads speak of making money and developing technology. An editorial describes how to make a very fine drinking fountain for chickens.

His choice and placement of a self-portrait is intriguing. Riley’s face can be found hiding from spear-toting robots in “Hunters and the Hunted.” “Robots in Purgatory” depicts a devilish individual prodding deceased robots into the mouth of a dog-like giant. The self-portrait here glares out of the buttocks of the devil, a nod toward Riley’s interest in classical reference.

His knowledge of classic artistic reference is clear in “Creation of Destruction.” The traditional symbolism of danger is represented through a looming raven and a hissing black cat. In the foreground the artist paints himself again, now piecing together a small army of robot dogs, unlike man’s best friend.

One viewing this exhibit cannot ignore the trials and tribulations of love. In “Headhunters,” Riley’s head is the trophy piece for a robot symbolizing lost love. Like love itself, the piece is brutal. “The Tease” is a robot offering flowers in exchange for tools from another self-portrait. These subjects, love and the women who have inspired the art, are not something Riley was willing to discuss.

“She’s supposed to come see the show,” Riley said of one piece, “so I can’t tell you who she is. But she’s real.” That’s exactly what one could say of Riley’s science-fiction sociology study—it’s real. n

Derrick Riley: Woodcuts is featured at MetroLex Gallery at 301 East Main Street, through February 11th.