Little Things

John Haber
in New York City

Jennifer Wynne Reeves, E. E. Smith, and Anne Geoffroy

Such little things. A glove, a toy, a child's bed or dress. The aroma of coffee or the glimpse of a bird against a darkening sky.

Painting is still a very big deal, as it plainly is for Jennifer Wynne Reeves, but artists now and then can still start with the little things in life. Since abstraction and appropriation, they may enter less and less as raw observation, whatever that means, and more and more as memories and as objects. Maybe that is why they may feel like hauntings. For E. E. Smith and Anne Geoffroy, dealing with the past takes precision. No wonder it lends itself to work on paper, even when one does not recognize the medium. For Reeves, even the fragments of paper are the work of painting, in conversation with abstraction, but the talk keeps circling back to the silence of everyday things. Jennifer Wynne Reeves's I See Two Birds (BravinLee Programs, 2012)

Listening to abstraction

"Abstraction talks her head off. She has a lot to say." You might not hear her right away, but Jennifer Wynne Reeves does. "I tune out or listen," she adds, in the penciled text within a painting, "rattled by her noisy silence." She is also silently talking back. She could be abstracting away from reality, building life on abstraction, or discovering her inner child.

She sticks her text on three paintings, as if cut from a school notebook by a precocious learner. Each fragment shares a wooden frame with shards of acrylic or molding paste, but nothing within the frame, least of all abstraction. In due course, one may spot loose grids of soft colors, as for Paul Klee, but with more shards sticking out from the edges. They could pass for shattered porcelain from her morning coffee or the leavings of a brush wiped clean, on the way to painting something else. And mostly that something else is telling stories. Abstraction has the choice of tuning out or listening.

Maybe she has not really saved her notebook all these years (and her texts sometimes appear as Facebook posts as well, perhaps to rethink drawing as part of an ongoing virtual project). Still, a real drawing from age nine does greet visitors on the way in, in a glass case that the gallery often reserves for artist books. Reeves has hoarded it along with some updates over the years—plus a few messy sculptures somewhere between figurines, abstraction, and child's play. She calls the show "The Worms in the Wall at Mondrian's House," as if Piet Mondrian had grown up with her. And the same gallery has had echoes of outsider art and personal confessions from Amy Wilson. Yet Reeves is not half as innocent as she may appear.

Her gouache on paper has its share of realism, like the gray streaks of a damp sky or the scumbled vegetation of an open field. It also has room for somber dreams—or at least more ornery ones. A sailboat passes beneath a rainbow all but landing on its deck, and her characters are often literally at sea. A traveler crosses a bridge in low light, behind fencing not at all comforting in its whiteness. A prancing horse does not escape its tether, and a wolf howls at a star. A shotgun brings down a bird, although another bird flies above and a cardinal perches comfortably on a power line.

Actual wire, too, for her is part of abstraction's sign language. She draws with it and puns on it, as with the tense coils of those utility poles. Maybe she exaggerates the coiling and its looseness, but electricity works that way, and so does the loneliness of power lines beside a road, perhaps a memory of her native Detroit. The show can seem a little precious, starting with its title and the texts, but then there are those worms. In the end, Reeves and abstraction claim to reach an accommodation—"a perfectly unexpected Boogie Woogie." Still, these are first and foremost her stories, far from Mondrian's Broadway.

When it comes to finding a dance partner in Modernism, plenty of artists feel a certain ambivalence. Like Amy Sillman, Lia Halloran, Sara VanDerBeek, and so many others, they are looking for space between abstraction and realism or digital art and painting. Rainer Gross bases his tantalizing compositions on product logos and Disney "toons," but expanded, cropped, and reassembled. With Reeves, there is no such "abstracting away." Even when it comes to abstraction, she is telling stories. Art's third dimension makes it stick in your mind, but what you will remember is painting, talking its head off.

Note added in 2014: If her paint often suggests a stormy, wine-dark sea, Reeves experienced its rough passage personally. "The very act of making art," she wrote, "is an act of defiance against despair." And if her painting looks back over a lifetime to a child's delights and fears, she knew how little she could look forward. She died the next year, in June 2014, of brain cancer at age fifty-one. A September show at her galley, "Final Edit 1A"—of boats and buttons and a birthday cake, of paint and photos and figurines—recalls that quote. It opened the day of her memorial service in the East Village.

Action at a distance

E. E. Smith has a way of holding ordinary things at a distance, like distant memories. Like memory, too, though, her images can take on the immediacy of the present. The centerpiece of her latest exhibition is a large gridded wall of prints, as if to catalog the past to bring it under control. Their ghostly silhouettes have the look of photograms, like that of a glove or a dagger, except that some like a lemon have quite natural shading and even color. Besides, a comb looks too large to have left its own imprint—and a rearing, stumbling, or dying horse way too small. Perhaps the airplane, heading downward, is only a harmless toy of that just that size, but one will never know for sure.

She calls the show "Diversions," maybe to dismiss a grown-up's guilt at playing with handcuffs, although a shuttlecock and gyroscope look innocent enough as play. A flashlight or CLF bulb might even be useful, although the first serves mostly in emergencies, and you know what the light from the second is often like. She associates the series with cards in a learning game for children, and maybe encountering art, too, is like learning a language. She also breaks larger images—of a tree, a cow, and the Brooklyn Bridge in black and white—into adjacent prints, as if seen through window panes or reshuffled like cards. None of them are photograms or simply photographs, but oil prints, allowing her a degree of painterly control. Water guns on the grass have a grainy color that softens and naturalizes the danger, while making it that much harder to tell them from a police haul of the real thing.

She has explained the technique to me twice now, and I shall still get it wrong. (Her dealer had heard it thirty times by then and was happy to hear it again, too.) It begins with photographs, which become enlarged negatives, and with paper, prepared with gel and a light-sensitive chemical (aluminum dichromate). After direct contact with the negative and exposure to light, the preparation hardens and becomes variably accepting of lithographer's ink, which she brushes on gradually, in thin layers. The technique thus has elements in common with photograms, contact prints, photography, lithography, mezzotints, watercolor, and painting. If that starts you thinking about such seeming contradictions as Surrealism, improvisation, mass production, anonymity, tonal variety, patience, and uniqueness, your associations may not be altogether out of order.

E. E. Smith's Still Life (Kim Foster gallery, 2012)Five years earlier, Smith grappled with guilt and nostalgia by recourse to words. That series transferred leaves and other traces of life onto glass, which hang on the wall like photographs. The isolated image and pale plate merge as precious objects. The single word etched in each pane of glass becomes legible only as one moves away, as distance darkens the reflections. The words name emotions and human interactions, not necessarily happy ones. Across the wall, Smith hung grainy photographs on paper, of mostly urban settings devoid of life.

Smith's still earlier "Street Watch," in a show with Sherry Karver, makes the association between detachment and observation explicit. Here she pursued one outdoors, like the surveillance camera of Barbara Ess. These black-and-white photos do not always adopt a surveillance monitor's high vantage point, but they often do, and they have its way of isolating people from their surroundings. Subjects never engage the viewer and often turn their back on each other as well. They drift or loom like shadows against a shadowy background, like the silhouettes of Robert Moskowitz and "New Image painting." The camera insists in advance on guilt, but it never gets close enough to frame an action or narrative, much less the lives within.

As with the surveillance monitor, she still has in mind social and political issues. The cow alludes, she says, to sustainable agriculture, the bridge to the state of urban infrastructure, and the tree to global climate change. Perhaps, but nothing exactly justifies the connection, just as nothing exactly justified the sometimes portentous text on glass before. It may not matter all that much either, since the images hinge on displacement and disconnection. Her exploration from show to show of different media, too, suggests a continuing search for the past. The nostalgia arises from experience, and the isolated words, ghostly images, glass panes, and interrupted frames make the sentiment both more fragile and less literal.

In the attic

As I looked at the six tight rows of tiny beds, I could hear the talking. Family, the dealer was explaining, means so much to the artist. Anne Geoffroy had been grappling with the wish to have children, at an age when some women might no longer have tried. The thirty-six mattresses, too, belong to family. Geoffroy fashioned them from materials still piled in the attic in her native France, and this show is her "Legacy." This family has trouble letting anything go, even its secrets.

So, it appears does Geoffroy. The story sounded downright comforting, but the show is more of a haunting. The unmade beds, their railing at head and foot of equal height, are too small for gallery seating. They might represent bunk beds with no room for privacy or a hospital's isolation ward with no room for isolation. Were they blown up to ordinary size, the railing would become as confining as a prison. Only the slight variations in color from mattress to mattress break regulations.

Surely, though, they are cribs, multiplied to the point of insistent memories. Each has a raised star, like a mark of value, but only adding to the discomfort for anyone small and daring enough to lie down. They also represent something literally buried inside, maybe Le Petit Peuple, the little people of the title. A few identical beds, as Héritières (or "heiresses") stand singly, marked instead by a tiny white dress, like a premature death. In a careful pencil drawing, they crowd around a standing woman in white, motionless as the Fantôme of the title.

The dealer, a Lower East Side newcomer, comes from a Brooklyn neighborhood known more for casual eating, shopping, and real-estate than galleries. It may still be getting over the habit of overly large artist stables and the promise of "affordable art." (Not that, I swear, I am promoting the bane everywhere of high prices and pretension.) Geoffroy shares the space with Isabel Brito-Farre, a Spanish artist with charming enough sketches of ordinary things that caught her eye on moving to America, each with a hand-lettered line that refuses nostalgia but approaches pablum all the same. Together, they provide an opening show about displacement and recourse from the past in the Minimalism of the everyday. Both border on banality or sentiment, but for Geoffroy there is still the haunting.

If this was child's play, I had just come from an unusual game of Lego. Only a few blocks away, I had first seen a reasonably convincing riff on south Asian painting, of a suitably imposing and benevolent Buddha. Inside, I caught four women and a child in a circle playing—no, excuse me, making art. Oh, no, wrong again. They were contributing, you see, to the universe and its collaborative change, not to mention toy airplanes and toy sales. They were not doing a bad job either, at least compared to my lack of childish imagination.

One woman, introducing herself as Kylin ("a Brooklyn-based artist and Chinese mythological unicorn"), asked me if I wanted to join in. For a day, she had worked alone, but on the second and concluding day anyone could play. Art had become a game, the game had become a ritual, and the ritual encompassed gallery-going. Amo Legomandala invokes Tibetan Buddhist rituals of creating and destroying sand mandalas. Any parallel with capitalism's and a toy maker's ritual of creative destruction is, I trust, purely coincidental. Then again, everyone seemed to be having fun, and the Buddha was still smiling.

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Jennifer Wynne Reeves ran at BravinLee Programs through March 23, 2013, and after her death through October 11, 2014. Rainer Gross ran at Margaret Thatcher Projects through March 23, 2013, Anne Geoffroy at Muriel Guépin through April 14, and Kylin at Feature through March 24. E. E. Smith ran at Kim Foster through November 15, 2003, through April 26, 2008, and through March 16, 2013. Portions of the review of Reeves first appeared in a different form in Artillery magazine.


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