It used to be you needed a reason to paint—the word of God, one's inner demons, cash. Now it is more like an excuse.
I mean that painting has become fun again, maybe even too much fun. A retrospective of David Reed shows how to let one's guard down happily indeed in a postmodern world. It makes a nice centerpiece to the bustling creativity at P.S. 1 in Queens, alongside shows on the themes of nature and exile.
Neo-Expressionism or Neo-Geo comes with that cute little prefix. It puts the work at one remove from the artist's own expectations. One can still find excuses to paint, just so long as the painted gesture disowns itself. You and I know it is all about the brute artificiality of culture.
Irony can be sharp or dull, but at least it liberates art. Once, long before Peter Halley set out his art alongside a book explaining it all, artists took care with hidden symbols. They pursued for long, lonely years their academic training in the master's workshop, even using their inheritance to forge a style. Modernism made them go through all that agony, too, with splatters and blips. Now they can project a style on impulse. When Damien Hirst lets paint fall at random onto a spinning disk, even he turns social critique into carnival.
Irony like this covers a multitude of sins, or at least it tries. With a properly ironic stance, one can distance oneself even from irony, just as formalism once separated the artist from form. Now one can have it both ways, mechanical patterns and carefree color. One can always take the artist seriously, if not exactly the work. Surely someone has to be more thoughtful.
No one has it both ways as thoughtfully and deliriously as David Reed. For nearly two decades Reed's intense color has swirled across a painting. The horizontal canvas and the sheer scale of each stroke throw one back. He can control a squeegee packed with paint the way others handle a fine brush. The lush oil and alkyd throw one back, too. They let glowing primary colors interpenetrate with dark shadows, like layers of light.
And it is all okay, honest. It is only painting, and you know what that means. The plastic media, neon tones, scale of the brush, and horizontal format suggest strips of acetate. No human being really painted these, they say. Someone must have blown up the old film strips of Jackson Pollock at work. Someone is studying them in artificial lights that Pollock never knew.
With film, of course, Reed has pushed all the right buttons. Film studies has entered the postmodern canon, while video art has entered the museum. Formalist painting was supposed to reflect on the process of making it. Film, in contrast, calls attention to the viewer. That all-seeing eye, the camera, can never turn away. It may scare the daylights out of a moviegoer, but hey, it should: in modern culture, someone is always watching.
So Reed could not have painted those garish things now, could he? He could, and he did. And they dazzle me afresh every time.
Yet from the moment I first saw them, at Max Protech's defunct Soho space, I have been half ashamed of myself for liking them. Why, only a hypocrite like Hirst gets it both ways like this, no? Fans of modernist painting or academic feminism can both have fun, not to mention the fans of both at once like me. But wait. That must make me a hypocrite, too!
My fears did not stop me from grabbing a subway to Queens as fast as I could. At P.S. 1 Contemporary Arts Center, Reed has a modest, sadly unheralded retrospective.
For all the pleasure of his color, it turns out, Reed started to linger over paint in black and white. Around 1974 he found his signature—fat strokes roughly at right angles to a large, narrow canvas and repeated irregularly along its length. Back then Reed preferred a vertical canvas and oil alone. He laid on the black horizontals most densely near the top and wet enough to run down into the white ground.
One can already see the idea of something mechanical, a painting that makes itself. One can already see through that idea, too—as a proper postmodern illusion. Reed had the control to pretend that he took white as only a ground layer for the black strokes, even as he wove his deep, seamless surface. Its deft texture rolled out like icing. He had his delightfully caked surface and ate it, too.
Starting in 1981 alkyds entered the picture, and the panel flipped ninety degrees. Those works remain the ones that I cannot put out of my head. I see them in today's best cake eaters, from horizontal scrolls by Mark Sheinkman to explorations by Christian Haub in plastic and oil of the very notion of transparency.
Reed's more recent paintings work best against a background of his signature style. Otherwise, they can seem too careless to matter after all.
The swirls have grown more playful. They move toward the center of the panel, and they leave more white space. The film has stopped running through the projector, to become a puzzle in its own right. A bit of paint has detached itself from its own self-making, to become an image. Only time will tell whether Reed has fatally upset the balance of ardor and irony. Maybe the image reminds me way too much of a lava lamp, but retro is in, after all.
I can see one sign, though, that he might be trying too hard. Against a wall, at the center of each room in his retrospective, he sets an ordinary bed. A panel hangs over it, like a bedroom mirror reflecting nothing but itself. In front sits a TV, as if tempting one to forget fine art, climb into bed, and veg out.
On the tube runs a scene from Vertigo, the film by Alfred Hitchcock. Like Rear Window, it puts its star through the trauma of looking around. It asks the star to see clearly and to control the mystery, just when her senses have spun out of control. And yes, Reed picks out the movie's bedroom scene. In fact, he doctors the tape to place that very painting over the scene's bed.
Imagine: the world has become a film set. There the viewer becomes an actor watching a film set, in which.... You get it. On top of that, the artist asserts control of sight just when the movie insists on the treachery and ordeal of seeing. Reed has altered the movie cell by cell, just as his art resembles a film strip painstakingly reinvented.
The bedroom feels like a clever trick and no more, but by contrast it shows how much he has accomplished in his art. As Hitchcock classics go, I would just as soon leave this one to film schools anyhow.
At least Reed still thinks that virtuosity matters, even as he reflects so intensely on his craft and a viewer's stratagems. The curator, Elizabeth Armstrong of San Diego's MOCA, names the show "Motion Pictures," and for all their obsession with film as subject matter, paint sure continues to move. I guess I truly am a hypocrite, but that may well be the point of his art.
After Reed's meditation on artificial delights, it is only fitting that the next largest show at P.S. 1 tackles art's slippery connection to nature. Called "Animal.Anima.Animus," it picks up a theme of at least one studio artist at P.S. 1 earlier this year. It sprawls over two floors, while a floor below the museum looks at another kind of alienation from one's physical roots. There a show gathers Irish artists living in England.
Even after its acquisition by New York's Museum of Modern Art, P.S. 1 still overflows with surprises. I hardly know which artists to mention. I wish I could surrender to art like this every day. Shall I interpret fox masks with inflatable cows in their mouths, by Dennis Oppenheim? Maybe if I could stop laughing. So with profuse apologies for postmodern arbitrariness, I want to mention just one furniture dealer—and three women among the glorious nature lovers and Irish refugees.
Per Manning catches one by surprise twice. In one hallway she hangs eight spooky self-portrait photos, as alike as successive frames from flip cards. One knows they are the same, but the differences get under one's skin, like the permutations of Lucas Samaras self-exposures, until one stops dead. One knows they are static and poorly composed, but they start to move. Then, rooms away but symmetrically placed in the grand old schoolhouse, another eight photos give the same dry, frontal treatment to a baboon.
Structuralists say that the differences between sounds give meaning to different words. Jacques Lacan, the French psychologist, claimed that small differences forge one's very identity, especially when finding oneself in the mirror. Jacques Derrida turned the possibility of endless difference into the central theme of art and life. But then artists have filled screams and the sound of bells will the eternal lightness of meaning.
For Manning the effort to stare at herself and pin down differences seems as vain as it is inevitable. The images refuse to become natural, even they describe human nature.
Kathy Prendergast manages to evoke Meret Oppenheim's delicacy and shock. In her contribution to the nature show, she winds her own hair around a spool. She also curls it like Cy Twombly's automatic writing, into a rich abstraction on paper. Like Manning, she has let her body become unnatural. She has let it unfold where she can never recall it.
Elsewhere, P.S. 1 goes as far from nature as can be, and it bored me silly. "Furniture & Objects" makes a bad enough title, from the department of redundancy department. It sounds all too trendy, from the department-store look to the academic sound of the word object. Maybe it could include Reed's bed.
In practice, it features Philippe Starck's designs. Born in 1949, he stays fashionably retro from the first. The curator calls him a maudit, France's version of angry young man as celebrity. I felt only the celebrity. His style has a touch of Modernism's spareness, a touch of 1930s biomorphism. He could be recreating the Museum of Modern Art's furniture wing. As postmodern spectacle goes, I prefer Reed's reflections—or Manning's and Prendergast's small fears.
One last call before I finish. The theme of nature can seem a catch-all, but the Irish show lacks a core entirely. Only its title holds it together—0044, the area code for telephone to the old country.
Is Ireland still the land from which one must go into exile and can never escape? How quaint in Modernism's decline, so long after literature from Swift to Beckett. Here the creators escape their roots all too well. Most everything resembles overly familiar gallery art, in forms from sculpture to video.
The show works best when the artist cannot escape for trying. Daphne Merkin turns her softly lit corner room into an imaginary seascape. Above the sculpture, an invisible voice recites a single verse over and over. Lilting, worn, and tragic, like the prototypical Irish uncle, it speaks of Dublin and death. As one steps around Merkin's seven-foot cliffs of bright, shining foil, one's imagination climbs her mountains and falls with the poet to pieces.
David Reed's paintings ran at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Arts Center through August 29, 1999. "Animal.Anima.Animus," Philippe Starck, and "0044" ran through September 5.