Saturday, December 20, 2014

"The Fiction of Flowers" (on Roland Reiss' "Floral Paintings and Minatures") by Douglas Messerli

the fiction of flowers
by Douglas Messerli

Roland Reiss “Floral Paintings and Minatures” / Los Angeles, Diane Rosenstein Gallery, December 11, 2014-January 17, 2015. I saw the show with Howard Fox upon its opening on Wednesday, December 11, 2014

In the midst of a long career of painting abstract canvases and sculpture,* Los Angeles artist Roland Reiss was drawn in the early 1970s to elements of Conceptual Art, discovering what Howard Fox described in his 1979 show, Directions, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden as “new possibilities for himself in its content-oriented representationalism.” Particularly affected by the advent of holography, Reiss perceived, as Stephanie Baron quoted him at the time, that the hologram “alters our whole mode of thought…..[it is] an effective tool to comprehend content out of abstraction.” A hologram implied that “everything is transparent and accessible, that it can be seen over, under, across, through, in effect, it gives the illusion that one can really enter it.”
     During that period Reiss temporarily stopped painting abstractions in order to focus on what he would later describe as “minatures,”** small Plexiglass encased environments that presented tableaux-like scenes of what might first appear as stage or movie sets. 
     According to Fox, these pieces did not call up any particular “story,” but stood rather as what Reiss described as “static fictions” that served as the basis for imaginative constructs for ideas as opposed to any narrative purpose.
     I would argue, however, that these works are quite narrative in their effect, but that the narrative structures they imply are simply not those of standard narrative fiction. Like the aurally-created fictions of talk-artist David Antin, they stand as narratives in which “story” has been erased along with most of the other elements we usually associate with story or plot: character, coherent action, locale or specific place, dialogue, etc. Indeed, we are asked to interpret works such as the “Dancing Lessons” series, The Reconciliation of Yes and No and Unfinished Business (both from 1977), as if they were narratives. In the former piece, we are invited by the title to explore, for example, the balances (the “reconciliations”) that have been achieved throughout the tableaux in terms of its palette (yellows, greens, corals or oranges) and the variations of plant life, the pots in which they have ensconced, and the balances achieved by the placement of chairs and the vertical and circular forms, etc. If we cannot precisely read this work—since, as in most of the works by Reiss there is simply too much going on to tie together the “events” implied with any one interpretation—we are, nonetheless, encouraged, perhaps even required, to look for narrative signs. The 27 tableaux of the “The Dancing Lessons” series, as Fox perceived “demand of the human imagination to create meaning, however indulgently or however compulsively, from the world around us. If we cannot specifically evolve a coherent narrative, we recognize that we have been asked to attempt to create one; it is simply that in Reiss’ “fictions,” the narrative has been exploded or erased. Hence the feeling we get from many of his miniatures such as Unfinished Business that we have stumbled upon the evidence of a mini-apocalypse or, at least, a titanic battle, the causes of which are outwardly unknowable. Like clueless crime detectives we feel the need to try to reconstruct the reality that existed prior to our discovery of this seemingly static world. But in that fact we necessarily impose a fictional reality upon the work, as if what is now a frozen three-dimensional snapshot of evidence, was once something else, a world perhaps peopled by individuals who “had business” to enact and did so with catastrophic results. In short, the work insists upon a narrative; it is only that we cannot ever completely know it unless we bother, over hours of study of the tableaux and intellectual consideration, to re-create its reality. In other words, Reiss’ work does have a narrative, but its “story” will be different for each viewer and can never be entirely known or, perhaps, even made completely coherent—which reminds us, in some ways, of the complex detective scenarios of film noir such as The Big Sleep or the more recent (what I describe as a film soir) Inherent Vice. This association has particular significance when we recall that Reiss’ earliest miniatures involved newspaper accounts and television coverage of crime scenes.***
     While continuing to produce his determinedly abstract works, Reiss embarked in 2007 on what may appear to be an artistic voyage in an entirely new direction, but which, I would argue, resonates with the fiction-making tendencies of much of his art. The new works, represented in the Rosenstein show, are stunningly beautiful floral paintings, the earliest of which is Paradisium (2009) and most of which were created within the past two years (2013-14). Iff these works, one more, seem to take the artist along a different trajectory, Reiss himself counters, as critic Lita Barrie notes in her essay “Exploring Spatial Depth: Roland Reiss’ Floral Paintings,” that he “aimed to put everything [he had] learned about painting into a painting.” 
     At first glance, one observes in these works amazingly colorful tributes (obviously, as Barrie suggests, employing Reiss’ knowledge of the “iridescent color dynamics” we find in his abstractions) to the floral world. We immediately recognize, however, that Reiss’ floral visions are somehow different from, say, Jane Freilicher’s pots of flowers (the recently deceased artist whose numerous floral works are representationally placed within a domestic setting but are also spatially located in more formal vertical and horizontal arrangements). Although Reiss’ flowers surely signify a three-dimensional reality, they more importantly explore, as Barrie observes, “the two-dimensional surface on the wall.” 
     As in the miniatures, Reiss returns in his discussions of these works to the important distinction between art that is large and small. “We can choose to live in a large space or a small space. It is a powerful metaphor in how we see the world” (quoted by Barrie). And although these paintings certainly cannot be described as “miniatures” (their dimensions being, as in Paradisum and Vertical Garden, 68 x 52 inches) we are, as with the miniatures, encouraged to carefully look into the tangle of blossoms, leaves, and roots in order to make sense of these obviously tactile images. For we immediately realize that most of these floral gatherings, with the exception perhaps of Domestic Setting (2014), exist neither in a controlled human environment nor in a natural one, but thrive in a world of the artist’s own creation, moving out, in some cases such as Lilies in Blue (2014) and Pacific Dance (2014) in horizontal configurations, but more often presented in vertical patterns, as the flowers “dance” up and down the canvas, both stems and blooms sometimes moving in opposite directions as in Sunflowers After Dark (2013) and Sunflowers At Night (2013)—perhaps as they are pulled equally by lunar forces. 
     If the first thing one notices about these works is simply their beauty—the nearly luminous appearance the flowers themselves—one quickly notices that a great deal else is going on within their canvases. Barrie nicely captures their quality:

In the Floral Paintings, Reiss uses the flowers as a
scaffold to create in-between spaces where surprising 
things can happen. The flowers float in the center 
of these paintings like a galaxy. Reiss juxtaposes 
multiple perspectives of space, as both flat and in-
finitely deep. Viewed from afar, the human-scale 
flowers, bursting with vibrant translucent color, 
are experienced in a body- scale relationship. Viewed 
from a close focus, tiny surprising details are dis-
covered in the gaps between the flowers. The play 
on large and small scale, telescopic and microcosmic 
perspectives, resembles a zoom camera lens that 
keeps the viewer’s attention moving up, down, 
around, and across the painting, making perceptual 
connections between the “clues” in the background 
details and the beauty of the dramatic flowers in the 
     Just as in the “miniatures” Reiss provides these works with an astounding amount of information: a jungle of root and leaf patterns, the placement of architectural sites and what appear to be tourist monuments and destinations, along with a whole complex of “other” signs and even symbols that inexplicably forces us to create or, at least, imagine interrelationships between the floral bouquets and the artist’s and our own relationships to them. Did the artist first encounter the flowers depicted in, for example, Human Nature (2012), within the city landscapes that appear embedded within the nettles and thorns and other “spider-web-like” structures surrounding these colorful roses, or is the artist simply suggesting that it is human nature to “associate certain thing with certain things.” (as Katherine Hepburn keeps describing her amazing ability to remember details in the movie Desk Set). In large, it doesn’t matter, for we necessarily do begin to associate the details behind the flowers with places and events, and, in so doing, without even knowing it, we transform Reiss’ paintings from a flat space into a work of multi-dimensionality. Perhaps we cannot help ourselves, particularly given Reiss’ encouragement, from transforming the more abstract patterns surrounding these flowers into the representational reality reflecting our own experiences in time and space. 
     As with Reiss’ miniatures, accordingly, we peer into these lovely bouquets not merely as mute observers but as inherently interested beings intent upon reading the fiction the flowers seem to hold out before us. By imposing subtle clues within and among these natural images, Reiss reveals that as a species we cannot remain disinterested. Similar to the Hudson River School painters, we inevitably “read into” the world around us, imbuing it with meaning that, in the abstract (the world of forms and shapes) it does not truly contain. In that respect, there is, Reiss suggests, no such thing as “pure form.” 
     Even the artist’s abstractions call attention to the fact that under the human gaze, every stroke of the brush is pulled into significance, becoming something like “short stories.” As Howard Fox writes of Reiss’ 1960s abstractions such as Orbit, Cosmologic, Hyper Space, and New World (all of 1968):

Their abstract imagery often suggested squiggly forms 
floating in a field of color, as if adrift in outer space. 
Unlike heavenly pictures from the Renaissance or 
baroque periods, with fictionalized lofty clouds 
magically supporting human-like portraits of God, 
the resurrected Jesus, assorted angels, or classical deities, 
all calculated to impress the human imagination with 
moral man’s relation to the immortal realm of the higher 
world, Reiss calls upon no depictions fictions, or illusions.
What you see is what is literally there to see, not an 
imaginative illustration of something else or someplace 
else. And yet Reiss enlists the viewer’s imagination by
provoking associations with his formal vocabulary and 
our own habitual, nearly unconscious, visual conventions. 
A squiggly form placed in a field of colored fiberglass 
is no depiction of an astronaut floating in space—
and certainly not an image of everyman in the existential
void—but it has the capacity to evoke such liminal thoughts 
in viewers. (from Fox, “Painter at Work”)

 If even his abstract works necessarily call up “liminal thoughts,” how much more powerful are those hinted at in his floral landscapes—satellites, monkeys, waterfalls, and other minutiae intertwined within his multi-colored roses, sunflowers, lilies and other flower—in helping us to respond by “reading” the fictions of his flowers? And it is, perhaps, for that very reason that we perceive Reiss’ works as so irresistible, an art to which we want to return time and again.

 Los Angeles, December 20, 2014

**One might ask, particularly in Reiss’ case, just what is abstraction? As many artists have long-argued, abstraction might be something only in the eye of the beholder. For example, if one were to paint or photograph the pools of water and random collection of stones and other debris along a beach, would it represent a representational landscape or an abstraction? What might appear as a collection of various circular and rectangular forms could also be perceived as a depiction of a real-life scene. As Howard Fox has observed of Reiss in the critic’s 2014 essay on his oeuvre, “asked if he intended to produce such highly divergent bodies of work spanning decades, Reiss replied that he saw all his art as arising from an ongoing mind-set, an evolving continuum of interests and explorations rather than a cavalcade of disruptive reinventions.” (“Painter at Work: Roland Reiss’s Studio Odyssey”) Fox also points to early, abstract-like landscapes by Reiss, which predate his more completely abstract works. But throughout his career, Reiss has continued to title his abstract artworks with names such as Mountain of Sand, The Inquisitor, the Silver Lake series, and, most notably, the “Short Stories” group of acrylics on canvas from 2001.
*Somewhat oddly if predictably, Reiss first denied that he was a miniaturist, arguing that the smaller scale simply suited his purposes better that a large-scale installation, because they forced the viewer to think about them rather than to enter and engage with them. Yet these pieces later (or perhaps simultaneously) came to be called “miniatures."
***Fox writes of these early miniature influences, quoting curator Betty Ann Brown from “Roland Reiss, Art & Life,” in Roland Reiss: A Seventeen Year Survey [exhibition catalogue] (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, 1991).

 Both Fox’s essay “Painter at Work” and Barrie’s “Exploring Spatial Depth” appear in the catalogue for the Reiss retrospective exhibition at Begovich Galley, California State University, Fullerton, curated by Mike McGee. 




Saturday, December 13, 2014

"The Age of Wonderment" (on The Hudson River School painters) by Douglas Messerli

the age of wonderment


Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School / organized by the New York Historical Society / at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, December 7, 2014-June 7, 2015


I attended the new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School,” with some anticipation. Having spent long hours before wonderful paintings such as Frederic Edwin Church’s Niagara Falls, The River of Light, and Aurora Borealis and Albert Bierstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and other museums of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., I had long ago been enchanted by the Hudson River painters. And, accordingly, in a year of my cultural memoirs devoted to “Conversations with Nature,” I looked forward to being wowed these American artists’ wonderment of the natural world they observed around them. If there was ever a time in which nature appeared not to be in danger, and, in fact, dominated the Romantic world-view, it was in the mid-nineteenth century, when nearly everyone seemed to be rediscovering and enjoying the transcendent beauty the world in which they lived.


The paintings in the LACMA show, however, are organized around the collection of the New York Historical Society, an institution which I had often visited, but whose permanent collection I have never seen. Although the great examples of the genre that I had been anticipating are missing, there are, nonetheless. stunning works of art which I am now able to study for the very first time. The greatest of these, Thomas Cole’s five paintings of his significant “The Course of the Empire” series, is worth an essay onto itself. But a great many of these paintings are beautifully representative of the “school,” which, unlike European paeans to natural settings, were painted in such detail that, at times, every element of the work—every leaf, rock, patch of light, and, in the most bucolic of these paintings, every cow—stood out with equal significance. To these worshipers of God’s bounty, it was if the very idea of democracy were able to be revealed in nature itself: for everything in the universe was of equal importance. The only blurs of the eye were due to the morning haze or, in the tropical landscapes they visited, an afternoon smokiness due to the heat. If ever God was in the details it was these amazing works. And, accordingly, in order to display their virtuosity, the artists often seemed to suggest the bigger their canvases were, the better. For, in those works, one could hardly ignore the attention the artist had given to each and every brushstroke.

Louisa Davis Minot, Niagara Falls, 1818

Most of the works in this show are smaller, suggesting a more petite adulation—and by metaphoric comparison, a more discreet shrine to nature’s and God’s presence. The show begins with Arcadian views from Italy, but soon settles back into the American landscape with Thomas Hill’s View of Yosemite Valley in California (1865), which serves as an early post-card like declaration of the reasons to visit the Golden State. Many of the other surrounding works, however, return to the central motif of life along the Hudson and nearby states such as New Jersey, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

  One of the blessings of this show, in fact, is the opportunity to get to see some of the lesser knowns of the “school,” like George Henry Boughton, whose Winter Twilight, Albany (1858) eerily captures the cold winter light of upstate New York, while suggesting that there are still pleasures in what appears to be a most desolate landscape, where in only a few trees still appear to be standing in small local clumps. When one thinks of the Hudson River School, in fact—with the important exception of Church’s numerous ice-floes and glaciers—it is in spring, summer, and autumn. But this show gives several lovely examples of winter landscapes that, even if it makes Californians shiver, are well-worth pondering. The better known Asher B. Durand’s Study from Nature: Stratton Nook, Vermont being a perfect example. But even during warmer climates these landscapes, instead of exploding out with a detail of plant life, can appear isolate and lonely, as in John Frederick Kensett’s Shrewsbury River, New Jersey.

 Niagara Falls was a natural subject for many of these artists, and Church’s vision of the power of the natural wonder is among the most important of the Hudson School paintings. Fascinating, however, was one of the few paintings by a woman artist, Louisa Davis Minot, of the same subject, an early painting from 1818, revealing a worthy artist I had previously not known. Evidently the two paintings of the Falls she did are her only known works of art. Not only is the one on display a powerful work of art, gives evidence of one of the earliest examples of the art that would soon coalesce into a group.

     Another true surprise of this show is the amazing Mammoth Cave, Kentucky (1843) painting of French-born Régis François Gignoux, who besides being an example painter, was the teacher at the famed Tenth Street Studio in New York of noted American students such as George Inness, John La Farge, and Charles Dorman Robinson. Like the Niagara Falls paintings, this vast depiction of the innards of the earth quite literally swallows up its human visitors. Although nature, in many of the works, is beautiful, it is also awesome, overpowering, and, in these respects slightly terrifying. Human beings and their creations are often represented as fragile things which simply cannot compare with the vastness and majesty of nature itself.

     Certainly that idea is behind the great five-part series of paintings by the nominal founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole. His memorable The Course of the Empire traces history—and by extension the history of the newly-founded democracy in which he worked—as it moved from the “Savage State,” a natural world without human intrusion, through the Arcadian or Pastoral state, with the earliest signs of human ritual worship, through the Consummation, Destruction and Desolation of the Empire, a cyclical historical pattern, suggests Cole, in which nature always wins out, mute witness to the meager attempts of humans to tame it. Based, in part, on Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage summarized by the poet as—

                                There is the moral of all human tales;
                                'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
                                First freedom and then Glory – when that fails,
                                Wealth, vice, corruption – barbarism at last.
                                And History, with all her volumes vast
                                Hath but one page...

—Cole suggests that all human activities pale in the face of nature, arguing, seemingly, that nature is destined always to outlast the human intrusion and destruction of the natural world. Indeed, this work nicely resonates with LACMA’s current Pierre Huyghe retrospective (see review below), in which I argue that the artist hints that nature may gradually reassert its identity and reclaim even the museum and its art itself.
     Unfortunately, most of us today fear that mankind has already “won” the battle, so devastating the natural world around us that within a few generations we will not even survive. What “nature” may follow our demise as a species now becomes speculation for science fiction rather than joyous task for the human eye.

Los Angeles, December 13, 2014