'Paintings are about experience:' Artist Russell Ritell's psychedelic realism on display in New Canaan

Growing up, Russell Ritell was fascinated with vivid illustrations in books, from classics like “One Thousand and One Nights” to fantasy books — and even a children’s illustrated bible. His family wasn’t into art so he fostered an appreciation of, and passion for, art on his own.

Now, at age 51, Ritell is still the only artist in his family. He creates dramatic, moving paintings that pay homage to classical paintings he admires but are rooted in the contemporary world. The narrative thread between past and present is omnipresent in his artworks.

Painting in his Cold Spring, N.Y. studio, Ritell has adopted a figurative realism style that embraces chiaroscuro, the high contrast interplay of light and dark in art that makes the shadows a featured element of the artwork. He has always found the use of light and shadows in artworks striking. “I found them interesting and I don’t know why ... it was interesting to see how certain things dropped off into shadow,” he said.

Through April 23, the Silvermine Arts Center in New Canaan presents “Divine Frequent See,” a solo exhibition of just over a dozen of Ritell’s artworks.

Ritell is renowned for painting contemporary scenes with dramatic illumination in the style of the tenebrist painters. As part of his receiving the Silvermine’s Board Chair Grand Prize award at its 69th annual A•ONE exhibition in 2019, this show is an outgrowth of that recognition.

“His photorealistic figurative works are infused with spirituality and rendered with skillful adaptations of classical techniques,” said gallery director Roger Mudre.

The paintings on view offer up intimate scenes that are clearly historically influenced but have a definite contemporary feel. Using a dramatic contrast of light and dark to focus attention on a gesture or a face, he creates art that is relevant. The rich blackness and stark light areas lure viewers in and amp up the mood and drama in the scene.

In the process, Ritell tells a story in his paintings. “I want to do things that have not been done,” he said. “I contemporize them by playing up the day-in-the-life feel of them.”

Taking Caravaggio’s painting of David and Goliath, for example, Ritell will instantly just see a more contemporary version of that artwork such as a mixed martial arts fight. He references Caravaggio’s work in his painting, “Victorious,” but gives it a modern feel.

“It is very similar in composition and movement, because when I look at it, I see something that kind of relates to my experience,” Ritell said. “Paintings are about experience and relationships, not only the relationship between myself and the classic painters but the relationship between my experience and what I want to impart.”

Explaining the meaning of the exhibition’s title, Ritell said ideas often come to him through meditations and his spiritual practices. “I have come to realize... that most ideas come from somewhere else,” he said. “Maybe they are just waiting for us to find them? When I construct these paintings and compose them, the vision just pops into my head.”

Echoing his spiritual journey is the painting, “Grandma Medicine,” in which Ritell tells the story of a shamanic healing ritual or taking ayahuasca, a South American tea or brew used to foster healing and spiritual growth, similar to peyote.

“You do have a psychedelic journey, but it’s not a party,” Ritell said. “It’s definitely deep work. A lot of people who come out of [an ayahuasca experience] do paintings from what they saw inside. It comes off as a lot of times as colorful, psychedelic and meaningful, but for me what I wanted to represent — and what nobody has really — is the ceremony itself, which I found very compelling.”

The Silvermine Galleries are at 1037 Silvermine Road in New Canaan. For information, silvermineart.org or 203-966-9700 ext. 3.

Andrea Valluzzo is a freelance writer.