Photos by Gus Brunsman
May 2002 Cover Story
A High Ground Underground: Rick Borg
By Elizabeth Ann James
Rick Borg's work has been exhibited in many venues, including the Contemporary Arts Center Cincinnati, the Ohio Gallery, Leaves of Grass, ROY G BIV, and ACME. He has ongoing one-man exhibitions at Alana's restaurant and at DooWac Barber Salon in Columbus.
His audacious dream-like paintings and mixed media installations have been exhibited in, and purchased by, galleries in Seattle, Santa Fe, Atlanta, and other cities throughout the United States. He has a strong following and often acts as his own agent selling directly to the purchaser.
When the artist was asked to produce an artist's statement and a list of exhibits, he responded with characteristic honesty: "You know what makes me happy? It's not the galleries and their names, even though that's fine, it's the show in peoples' homes, the paintings on their walls that they can enjoy daily, the hundreds of paintings spread sparsely across the globe. Sometimes people tell me that they still enjoy a painting they have and that feels good."
Rick Borg's paintings and three-dimensional pieces fall loosely into the broad categories "folk" or "outsider." Each circus performer, each human or animal "portrait," including the more recent abstracts, vibrates with spontaneity. Yet, intention, spirituality, and practice undergird his modus operandi: a fast-track repetitive brushwork that enables him to render objects, animals, and people in a childlike or naive way.
The artist is in love with colors, bold and bright, sometimes deliberately sullied. He often uses recycled oil-based enamels, and sometimes allows his paint to drip and run. In most cases, he draws with a wide brush, occasionally with a magic marker. He is the master of learning and unlearning technique and aesthetic pedagogy. How can we tell the archer from the bow?
A Rick Borg Alligator is probably purple or red and appears to come straight out of a seasick pirate's dream. A found object such as a bottle cap may form the gator's eyes, but it is doubtful that both eyes will be exactly the same. There is always something weird and fun and authentically Jungian, dream-inspired, about a Borg. (Although Borg himself does not frequently base his paintings on actual dreams, the source being his center of imagination.)
Riding a Striped Monster
In The Studio
Rick Borg spends a lot of time painting. It's what he does and what he's been doing since childhood while growing up in Columbus, although he did spend several years on the pro golf circuit and plays golf occasionally now.
"If I don't paint for awhile sometimes," he says, "I wonder, 'What's all this about?' But when I start painting, it feels so fulfilling that I understand why I'm doing it. It may be an ecstatic experience that goes on for hours and feels very meaningful. Sometimes I'll work on a lot of paintings with the same color. I toss them out the window to dry and look at them the next day."
Borg's third-floor studio and its adjacent alcove are jammed with paintings. Can Man, arms and legs askew, an amazing yet simple construction of tin cans, guards the hallway door. Inside his apartment, an ancient refrigerator and the edge of a table are visible, but the space is so marvelously crammed with art that a visitor wonders if Borg ever has enough time or space in which to eat or sleep. "I usually paint here," he says, pointing to a space where light streams in from a back window.
Bamoco, an orange and ancient alley cat who had followed us up the fire escape, meow's with a gutteral "murk" which should emanate from Can Man! Borg vanishes in search of something and I am left alone to contemplate Circo, Circo, a circus tent in which dusty blues and soft greens form a tenty sky, and performers, (geometric shapes) whirl on a thick wire if you snap it. Like a second-grade drawing, only at the Corcoran!
Everywhere I look: alligators, bears, dogs, elephants. Most of Borg's paintings are three-dimensional, painted on board, yet having applied objects, as does the Martian in a green frame on a green board. The ears are found objects, crumpled green. He's a found Three-D Martian! Borg considers the painting to be one of his favorites:
"I had a dream one night that I was watching the TV and there was a newscaster on the east side of town reporting that there were some found paintings in a dumpster. Among them was my Martian painting that I had been working on. I got up to see if it was where I'd left it, but it was gone, so I drove to get it. When I woke up, I had a new fondness for the painting; and since I finished it, it's been one of my favorites."
The Big Yellow House with People Inside is one of my favorites. Borg says he began the painting in one mood and ended in another.
"I was listening to Brian Wilson music when I started it," he explains. "I had that sunny harmonious feeling, but I finished it weeks later with black after the 9-11 attack and was expressing some bolder feeling and the contrast worked out. I like the painting. The people in the windows are from magazines."
At Alana's Food and Wine, 2333 N. High Street, there are about thirty-five Rick Borg paintings in the beautiful main dining room with vintage oak tables. Borg's paintings are perfect against the dull orange walls. The diners can feel as if they are actually in a fine gallery.
Good Girl, Bad Girl is a favorite at Alana's. The two painted-board girls lie toe to head on a yard-long board. Their faces are the heels and soles of shoes! Their faces are found-shoes bottom side up. Bad Girl wears a burnt red tube dress and evil stockings in little three-quarter heels. Good Girl's face is pink; she wears a powder blue dress, and once-shiny patent leather Mary Annes. Unlike Bad Girl, whose face is lily white, Good Girl's mouth turns up as sweet as honey on her pink face.
Perfect for Alana's, the large board paintings, French Toast and Trucker's Special. The hash browns, scrambled eggs, mugs and white crockery plus the plaid shirt of the Truck Stop diner and the figured dress of the waitress, all these are painted (and affixed) in a mode that suggests vintage comic strips.
"I like French toast," says Borg, "and I think these Trucker's Specials are kind of funny. I guess there is something timeless about truck stops, and I do like a simple meal!
Borg at DooWac
At DooWac Barber Salon, 1355 N. High Street, Rick Borg's art has been a perennial favorite for co-owner/stylist/ cutter Brad Sutton for over fifteen years.
"I never tire of being around him, his work. It has been a privilege. Painting has chosen him, flows through him. He's the real thing. His art enhances the mood in the shop, and it sells. He lives like a painter and he's real. Honest, authentic. Look, even his khakis are paint-spattered and that's not a pose."
At DooWac, I saw Travelin' Down Route 66 painted on wagon slats and board. Borg recently visited the Grand Canyon. Travelin' Down contains high reds, yellows, whites, deliberately flaking paint. Magic marker was employed. The composition is held together with royal blue and black lines. The artist painted with the board upright, allowing the paint and the natural expression to flow, much like the evolutionary process of the Grand Canyon.
"The Grand Canyon is so profound," he says thoughtfully, "but it was created by what might logically appear to be random. Little by little, the immediate weight and flow of the water expressed itself; the profound creation followed as a result. My painting has become more like that, where the subject matter follows the expression instead of remaining within the confines of the subject. And if there is an apparent subject, the expression of the moment is more important than maintain-ing that subject."
Snake in the Sky is another gambit. Wide, flat, dark, non-lustrous. Full of Borg's "marks," perhaps the symbols of Apocalypse. And yes, at DooWac, we see Oil Can Man! (Oil Can Man and Can Man remind me of illustrations from The Borrowers. There's often a pleasing clumsiness to a Borg.)
DooWac's Brad Sutton always plays great now music and is a cutter supreme. His patrons can look at art and sit on individualized chairs painted by Borg. The blue-and-white tin roof of the Salon makes an aesthetic apertif! There's a funky ambiance at DooWac that is inimitable. And Brad is always up on what cuts are new and classic and does it par excellence. He "cuts your hair not your throat!"
Howard Chenfeld is one of Rick Borg's major fans. The art history buff and man of letters owns at least twelve of Borg's paintings. He has purchased extra works as gifts for his children "who are delighted with them!"
Chenfeld notes, "Rick's favorite artists are Van Gogh and Hawkins. For direct-ness, intensity. But he is his own man. Truly original. I love the pachyderms, crocodiles, circuses, clowns, Martians, purple bullfighters. When he is at his best; no one is better.
"He's unassuming and honest. Without affectation. Instead of destroying his mistakes, he sells them as bargains! He has a direct and superior way of seeing. With a child's spirit. Yes that's right, like Blake's "Songs of Innocence." He's just marvelous."
In conclusion: For Rick Borg the "inner child" has become outer. Readers can find his mixed media paintings at DooWac and Alana's. Contact the proprietors or the artist himself at 294-8700.
Notice/Postscript: Since this article was written, Rick Borg has re-arranged paintings at DooWac and Alana's, but the characteristics of his works, their motifs and esprit, remain evident. An original Borg is immediately identifiable!
What a delight to meet Rick. He lives inside of his creations which remind me of molas from a little island off the coast of Panama. And what an amazing treasury: room after room overflowing with paintings/sculptures, overlooking High Street and Woodruff, three fire-escape stories above Larry's. Straight shot down Woodruff out his window, blossoms on the trees, college students lazing in the sun. Fascinating to see his toy room closet reminiscent of my childhood only it was filled with games like in the Royal Tenenbaum's home! Rick flowers above Larry's. He's found a safe place to be! He even paints the hallways and stairwells as well as his bike. There's a coffee table book above Larry's - what with the colorful bounty of his soul.
Difficult to get to know. Serious. Beautiful comfortable smile. Gentle man. Close to his paintings. Foster parent to a cat. Wonder what sculpture he'll build with all the empty paint cans he's saved?
- Gus Brunsmann Impressions from a photographic session, April 2002