Joshua Rizer waves his arm at the upper-right section of a large oil painting called "Mangst: Down, Down and Away."
"Well, this brickwork is too literal," he says. "So I need to make it more suggested. And this is just embarrassing," he adds, pointing to the half-formed face of a background figure, a bar patron whose head — still just undifferentiated blobs of paint — resembles the extruded pod-person whom Donald Sutherland smushes with a rake in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake. Rizer goes on, pointing out unfinished details in some of the other paintings. It's a straightforward to-do list and it's not short. The paint on these canvases is still wet, and in five days the paintings will be in the First Friday opening of Mangst, his exhibit of new work at the Late Show Gallery.
Anyone else might regard "Mangst: Down, Down and Away" as a satisfying finished piece. But Rizer, who can stand in front of an easel for 14-hour stretches, is extremely particular about what constitutes completion. The painting depicts a middle-aged Superman, apparently unable to fully embody his Kryptonian identity, sobbing and drunk at a bar as he's comforted by a goggles-wearing fellow superhero. Society has a lot of expectations for men, Rizer says, and sometimes they can't fill their own supersuits.
The bar in the painting is Gilhouly's, closely rendered from photos that Rizer took to work from. Even in its unfinished state, the painting captures the light and atmosphere of a familiar interior. But it's Rizer's vivid figures that make this work so striking and so unexpectedly rich in feeling.
Wedding incongruity with perfectly realized detail, "Down, Down and Away" might be the work of a man who has spent a lifetime studying painting. But Rizer first picked up a paintbrush just three years ago.
Like most kids, he drew. "When I was 5, I'd do pictures of superheroes and assemble them into books," he says. "There was something about having that finished object to look at." Before submitting to what he says was a compulsion to paint, Rizer spent his life moving from one creative preoccupation to the next, writing books and making films with little regard for career or income potential. It's a drive he seems to have inherited. His great-grandparents, whom he never met, were vaudeville performers. His grandfather was a jazz musician, as is his father.
"I knew about 10 years ago that I'd have to start painting," he says. But only in 2007 did he finally attack the steep learning curve of oil paints. He started with one outsized trait: his almost superhuman hyperfocus. He'd stand in front of a canvas for whole days, comparing his work with his reference photos and doggedly painting until the two looked enough alike to satisfy him.
"Making things is almost a fixation," he says. "I've been this way my whole life, often to the detriment of my finances and personal life." It's a frustrating truth for him to confront, he says, because the stereotype of the work-tortured artist annoys him. "But I can't stop making things," he says. Rizer sounds like someone explaining a palsy or a predilection for stealing. And he really does paint like a man on fire.
"Obviously the bullet is missing in this one," Rizer says, indicating "Manguish: Invulnerable." Here, another middle-aged man in a Superman costume attempts to blow his brains out with a revolver. (The model is Kansas City poet and Blunt Trauma co-author Jason Ryberg.) Liquor bottles and prescription pills, gorgeously depicted, litter the table. The bullet will ricochet off the man's head in the finished painting, and the attempt to silence the voices and end the pain will be fruitless. "Men often feel they have to be superheroes," Rizer says, "but privately you feel very differently, often much more vulnerable. It's that condition of being male that society imposes."
Rizer had planned to spend this final week before the exhibit's opening completing these unfinished pieces, but halfway through a hurried stretch of last-minute work, he got a cold. The virus left him sick enough that he had to stop painting. "I wanted nine pieces," he says. "I got seven." By Friday night, he has resigned himself to this temporary compromise of ambition. "Now they're on the wall," he says. "It is what it is."
But if "Mangst: Down, Down and Away" still looks unfinished, the surprising result is that two other pieces emerge as the exhibit's focus. "The Version Mary" is an arch bit of Madonna-and-child iconography, one in which Mary gazes with hushed maternal affection at a leather briefcase that she holds in her arms. The satchel's combination lock and brass hardware are as lovingly wrought as the delicate face of the model. It's as close to a perfect painting as the artist has ever produced. (The unfinished detail: Rizer wanted to add a crackly leather finish to the case.)
The other central work, "Undeniable" (a vibrant, sensitive portrait of Rizer's girlfriend, Marguerite Rappold), ultimately sells at the exhibit's opening. It's a small success, but the First Friday in March is thinly attended despite the warm weather.
"I don't know if it's Kansas City or the economy or what," Rizer says. "But I seldom sell anything. It's not why I do it, but it's kind of frustrating." He pauses. "I don't do it for that. It's just, after you have five or six shows and you're in the same place, it's kind of frustrating. You have the postpartum depression after the show, and you don't always see things clearly."
He wants to be understood. The works in Mangst are about empathy, apprehending the disappointment and sadness of others. After all, in the photo reference for "Down, Down and Away," Rizer himself is the goggled sidekick trying to alleviate his buddy's pain.