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Profile: Roland Reiss


roland_reiss_jan_2008__use-thisAbstract painting has had plenty of passionate, articulate champions over the years, but few have exercised as much material inventiveness as Roland Reiss.  In the firmament of LA art, Reiss occupies a unique station – that of cutting-edge artist and academic visionary. 

There and Here

   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.

            In the studio Reiss has always been an explorer, and at 77 his ardor hasn’t cooled.  In his current cycle of abstract, acrylic-on-Mylar paintings (on view most recently at Gallery C in Hermosa Beach), he pulls swaths of brightly colored pigment across his surfaces, leaving see-through spaces that afford views of subsurface layers that function like “movie cartoonist animation cells.”  The most vivid of these, seascapes, read like musical notations; while his landscapes, which include representational elements, employ metallic substrates to activate layers of pictorial space, both real and illusionistic.  All, in their isolation and amplification of specific shapes, colors and forms, evoke a set of atmospherics that practically shout “LA!
Begin at End

Begin at End

“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.”



In 2005, after experiments in geometric abstraction and P&D, he succeeded. With a series of wall-mounted Plexiglas boxes coated with clear and colored acrylic gels, Reiss was able to cast shadows on walls in ways that made it impossible to detect the shadow source or the source of the plastic activity occurring inside the pictures without touching the surfaces. The effect was mesmerizing and confounding.  And, so very LA in the way that artifice and illusion combined to form a perception-based aesthetic. 

             “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.”


Rogue Wave


Nature's Way

2 Responses to “Profile: Roland Reiss”

  1. Eleanor:

    Most of the works in this show were small-scale; I can’t recall the exact dimensions, but they were roughtly 10″ x 16″ or thereabouts.

    Glad you’re enjoying Squarecylinder. Keep reading, keep clicking! I’ll have reviews of a lot of very interesting shows coming up soon.



  2. Eleanor Wood says:

    It would be good to know dates & dimensions of works.

    Enjoying Square Cylinder well done!


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