by David M. Roth
For 30 years beginning in 1971, Reiss led the art department at Claremont Graduate University, taking a fledgling program and transforming it into a creative laboratory, equal in strength and prestige to the best institutions on the West Coast. He also maintained a highly successful studio career with gallery and museum shows throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia. Reiss retired in 2001, but only from academia: that year he launched the Painting’s Edge program at Idyllwild Arts, a two-week forum in the San Jacinto Mountains that painters and critics say is the best idea exchange of its kind.
“Painting is first and foremost always about light,” Reiss observes in his downtown LA studio. “But the idea that you can refract, reflect, contain and transmit light in new ways, including the exposition of it in colored, transparent volumes or iridescent, pearlescent and interference-colored surfaces of different densities is exciting.” Reiss speaks fluidly and emphatically in a commanding baritone, projecting the force of an intellect that has always linked media and message. Semiotics and behavioral research, for example, have been long-term interests. So when Reiss says “the psychological aspect of visual perception” is what drives him “to intensify the power of abstract form as signifier,” you begin to understand that his paintings aren’t just random collections of environmental artifacts, but explorations of consciousness. Reiss first attracted international attention with the Plexiglas-encased, diorama-like slices of life he called “miniatures”. Fueled by Umberto Ecco’s writings on semiotics, Robbe-Grillet’s novels and the films of Fellini and Bergman, these quasi-anthropological investigations into conformity, family ritual, consumerism, mobility and corporate culture mixed voyeuristic thrills with biting social commentary. Critics, curators and collectors embraced them. But by the time the Barnsdall mounted a 17-year survey of that work in 1991, Reiss “had grown tired of social subject matter and wanted something deeper, more spiritual.” So he quit sculpture for painting that year and vowed to take the medium “beyond where it has been.
“I live in LA and I think my work is about the experience of LA light,” says Reiss. “It is about my experience of the world, about how I feel, see and think.”
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David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.