LA in the fall is a joy. The air is clear. Days are comfortably warm, nights are T-shirt cool, and the galleries and museums, however battered by economic stress, seem determined to put their best foot forward. I’ve spent most of my life disparaging LA. But now, at a riper age than when I first visited, I love LA for all the reasons I once hated it. Its relentless car culture, its celebrity-youth obsession, its obscene displays of wealth and pervasive kitsch now seem like comforting reminders of better times. Looking at the sprawl of it all against the backdrop of the Hollywood Hills, it’s easy to see the appeal. LA, despite its flaws, is a great and wondrous city.
What drew me south were three exhibits honoring Roland Reiss. As an instructor at the University of Colorado and as a hands-on chair at Claremont Graduate University (1971 to 2001), Reiss shaped two generations of artists. At 81 he continues to work innovatively and prolifically. He recently unveiled ten new paintings from his Flora series at CGU, along with fiberglass-and-resin works from the ‘60s at Andi Campognone Projects in Pomona. A third show, also organized by Campognone, features Reiss alongside former University of Colorado students and colleagues at OBJCT Gallery (located in the space previously occupied by the Claremont Art Museum). The latter, Navigating Boulder: Connecting with Roland Reiss, includes Joe Clower, Jack Edwards, Merion Estes, Judith Hudson, Connie Jenkins, Tom Jenkins, Joan Moment, Jim Richard, Clark Richert and then-visiting professor William T. Wiley. I took the opportunity to bask in the glow of these events and survey as much of the LA scene as I could over a long weekend. Another show, For Roland, at Bunny Gunner in Pomona, featured more than 300 works from CGU grads.
This I did from a base near the intersection of S. Robertson and W. Pico, a neighborhood dominated by orthodox Jews and populated with tacky (and sometimes wacky) storefront shops, most of which seem to always be closed, Sabbath or not. For me, the scene brought to mind the Tom Waits song Eggs and Sausage. At a nearby Starbucks, actors, homeless men, students, soccer moms, business types and wi-fi moochers of all stripes could be seen ordering coffee and conversing with each other in Hebrew, Spanish, English and Farsi.
Befitting the onset of Sukkot, my own harvest was just as diverse. In addition to the Reiss events, I took in retrospectives from Arshille Gorky (MOCA @ Grand Ave.), Arte Povera pioneer Alberto Burri (Santa Monica Art Museum), Steve Roden (Pasadena Armory) and a huge show of John Millei’s paintings (Ace Gallery). At Bergamot, we happened upon the first U.S. show of German sculptor Ewerdt Hilgemann (Samuel Freeman) and a retina-scorching exhibit of paintings from Heather Gwen Martin (Luis de Jesus), neither of whom I’d heard of previously. At the Hammer, I checked out selections from the museum’s contemporary collection, which included head-spinning work from Mark Bradford, Llyn Foulkes, Nayland Blake and Kara Walker among others. (I’ve have more on all the above in a separate posting.)
As for Reiss, his place in the firmament of LA art isn’t always easy to locate. His most distinctive trait is mutability. It’s kept him vital as an artist and a pedagogue of legendary status for nearly 50 years. In 1991, when the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park mounted a 17-year retrospective of the autobiographical dioramas he calls “miniatures”, Reiss had already quit sculpture for painting. In the years since, he’s reinvented himself continuously in that medium, with paintings that modulate between pure abstraction and glancing representation, and between his competing desires to make paintings that “don’t allude to anything outside themselves” and an equally strong urge “to engage viewers directly” by purposefully allowing “the presence of landscape” and other recognizable elements to enter into the work.
In the Flora series, realistically painted flowers float over twisted grids that vaguely allude to an urban archeological map. They sit directly on the picture plane atop intertwined ziggurats that seem to come from everywhere and nowhere all at once. Some of the works contain buildings; others have backgrounds that appear to be littered with grit and dirt. Overall, the feeling runs from elegiac (Fleur Du Mall II, 2008) to heraldic (Anthurium in Space, 2010).
Apart from light, which has been a central concern, Reiss has never, to my knowledge, explored nature in much depth. He favors either pure abstraction or allusions to the “built environment” rendered in pigments laced with industrial ingredients to maximize transparency and reflectivity. Thus, Flora is markedly different. Yet in another respect – the use of artificial flowers as models — demonstrates a longstanding interest in the artifice of his immediate environment. In a floor installation called A Garden for Sally he displays 375 of those flowers, stationed upright on circular wire stands.
It’s tempting to read Flora as an ode to mortality – and, quite possibly, a bid for immortality (since flowers do resurrect each spring). Short-term, I’m betting that the 15 fiberglass-and-resin works Reiss has on view at Andi Campogne Projects will do the job sooner. In the Light-Space and Finish Fetish movements Reiss was a pioneer. He began working with plastics and shaped fiberglass while he was in Colorado in the late ‘50s – well before hot rod-influenced aesthetics took hold in Southern California. (De Waine Valentine, for example, was a former student of Reiss’ in Colorado. But by the time Reiss relocated from Boulder to Claremont to run CGU’s graduate program, he’d moved on to the miniatures, and so this work remained unseen in California until now.) Made between 1962 and 1969, it reflects the wide range of his experiments with convex and sometimes ragged-edged shapes that he coated with outlandish finishes: luminescent oranges, candy-apple reds, and metal-flake textures and glazes inscribed with Asian-inspired and camouflage-like forms. Newport collector Gerald Buck snapped up two of the pieces, opening the possibility that the work will turn up next fall in the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time, a traveling exhibition that will draw heavily from Buck’s collection and place Reiss’ work from this period alongside that of Valentine, Craig Kaufman, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin and others.
At OBJCT’s Navigating Boulder show, Reiss’ former students and colleagues display a diverse selection of current and past works. Wiley submits a tapestry based on his epic painting, Alchemical Lion Tortured with Abstraction, which recently toured the U.S. as part of his Smithsonian retrospective; Reiss features one of his miniatures, Castle of Perseverance from 1978, a send-up of minimalist interior design; Merion Estes offers a fiery, quasi-surrealist landscape built from collaged swatches of combed paint; sci-fi inspired painter/sculptor Joe Clower serves up a tin city set inside a hand-made vitrine whose supports look sturdy enough to withstand an earthquake; and Joan Moment submits two paintings that overlay op-ish circular forms against super-saturated topographical grounds. The biggest surprise was the Southern California debut of New Orleans artist Jim Richard whose work skewers homes of the rich and the tasteless. He gathers pictures from magazines and books to create electronic mash-ups. These he commits to canvas using multiple perspectives which make the scenes freakier and more claustrophobic than they probably are in real life, proving that it pays to bite the hand that feeds, provided you do it skillfully.
If there’s a message embedded in all this, it’s that fierce individuality begets the same when proffered by an enlightened pedagogue who practices what he preaches. From Boulder to LA, Reiss cuts a wide swath, and so do his progeny.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Roland Reiss: Selections from the 1960s @ Andi Campognone Projects through October 30, 2010
Navigating Boulder: Connecting with Roland Reiss @ OBJCT Gallery through October 31, 2010
Roland Reiss: Flora: Recent Paintings & A Garden for Sally @ East & Peggy Phelps Gallery, CGU closed Sept. 17, 2010
For Roland @ Bunny Gunner Gallery through October 5, 2010.