Tiny Guides on the Last Adventure: Doll Play in the Work of Jennifer Wynne Reeves
By Miyoshi Barosh, August 21, 2015
“Abstraction catches my hand in hers; I can feel she’s there, hot with ideas, a spool of suggestions, the answer for a painting, a perfectly unexpected Boogie Woogie.”
— Jennifer Wynne Reeves, Soul Bolt, 2012
IN APRIL, 2014, two months before she died of cancer at age 51, artist Jennifer Wynne Reeves posted this notice to members of the “beautification committee,” as she referred to her followers on Facebook:
WELCOME invention, preserve our Klingon fight, admire our grooved foreheads and dog teeth. It will keep us alive for longer than is thought possible. Over a hundred years ago, Mary Baker Eddy wrote, ‘We must look deep into realism instead of only accepting the outward sense of things.’ Beautiful. Making and buying art for the market place is the same as dumping the warp core; bad for the star ship Voyager; bad for those warring Klingon AbExers. Don’t worry. We can do it again. Visuals are exceedingly variable, each one a mathematical equation, reproducible, logical, Vulcan, spiritually relevant and applicable to the limits of paint.
“Grooved foreheads and dog teeth” describes cancer’s alien countenance: an irrational killing machine that has broken through the body’s defenses at warp speed. The phrase reappears in the title of a recent exhibition of two bodies of Reeves’s work, “A Bolt of Soul: Grooved Foreheads and Dog Teeth,” on view at CB1 Gallery in downtown Los Angeles from June 6–July 18, 2015. As co-agents of the Reeves’s archive with BravinLee Programs, CB1 showed a selection of small paintings from 1997 as well as a larger, more recent group of abstract paintings and various works on paper, all made in the year before Reeves passed away. Despite a buoyant spirit and quiet comic presence, the tendency for melancholy and — particularly in the earlier work from ’97 — reference to American folk art (and its somber color palette) casts a shadow over the exhibition.
Reeves had survived cervical cancer in 2005, loosing both her ovaries, before being diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, known as The Terminator, the most aggressive and common form of brain tumors and one that has also proven resistant to therapeutic interventions. Starting in January 2012, Reeves endured three operations to remove the tumors from her brain. She continued to paint throughout her battle against cancer, using symbolic imagery to form meaning from her experience and as means to articulate and sublimate the emotions between diagnosis and death into her own Endgame.
In an interview with Julia Schwartz in Figure/Ground (March 1, 2013), Reeves spoke of watching skaters in the Winter Olympics, saying they were immaterial, “pure lines, nothing but lines.” Against figurative convention, she similarly depicts the anxieties and experiences of life with cancer through abstraction and symbolism. Composed of awkwardly twisted contortions of wire and paper, Untitled (Spiritual Ejaculation), (2011) evokes a large angry erection letting loose a whimsical lasso of color in defiance of gravity — embodying a sense of “gleeful saturnalia” (Jenny Diski, “A Diagnosis,” Sept. 11, 2014, London Review of Books). (For Jung, “the phallus always means the creative mana, the power of healing and fertility.” [Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 16, 1966] The image explodes with rude creativity while the photographed highway gives a distanced perspective along the journey’s lonely road, reminiscent of Thelma and Louise discovering their freedom, driving into their own wild sunset before reality slammed into them, head on. In her self-published 2012 book, Soul Bolt, Reeves wrote:
“Orgasm arrives when the mind finally lets go of its grip on the body, its imprisonment in matter, its resistance to art, until the painting is completely open-ended. A spirit-ward cum is delivered. I walk away from the picture on the wall, my heart seeded.”
I continue my exploration of Reeves’s work through her still vibrant presence on Facebook (Jennifer Wynne Reeves, Memorial Page, 2009–’14). I grow dizzy reading her posts, scrolling backward in time while trying to reposition events in the normal forward flow of time. (After each digression — to look at albums or follow links — Facebook returns me to her non-existent future and I begin to scroll down again, toward her life.) Reeves explored the artist-as-subject in various forms, including poetry; a graphic novel, The Anyway Ember; and her self-published book, Soul Bolt. In this way, she easily maneuvered the performative aspect of putting her cancer diary on social media as a seamless extension of her life and work.
Irritated with digging through Facebook, I stop trying to analyze its structural dysfunction and discover the comments under her posts. The comment stream becomes another element of the on-stage life Reeves creates. Sometimes, commenters demonstrate the compelling urge to flesh out narrative fragments to her work, like would-be collaborators. When a commenter remarks that Reeves’s set up of figures and backgrounds, “has something to do with being a girl and playing with dolls,” Reeves responds to the rather clumsy observation with indignation, “I hated dolls.” Lurking in the reply are frustration and defensiveness, perhaps at any suggestion that women artists are diminished when the work reflects their gender experiences, while male artists referencing surfboards and baseball tend to be celebrated as über dudes by the male-heavy collector base. Despite the stubborn social and cultural prejudice that girls play with dolls while boys play with action figures (and that describing work as “playing with dolls” belittles it and takes it out of context), the Facebook discussion points to the pivotal way in which doll-play can be a guide to unlock unconscious narratives and express difficult emotions.
Despite her objections to the doll comment, Reeves continues to reconfigure sets and figures into new arrangements and posts these on Facebook as an extension of her practice. Some include narrative sequence like, “Woops, I’m an Asshole,” published as a “book” on Facebook, September 22, 2009.
In Soul Bolt, Reeves’s immaterial figures present different degrees of psychological anguish and absurdity. The diminutive beings, cobbled together accumulations of painted debris, play out silent scenes of operatic grandeur or teeter on the edge, in parody of the Sublime. A new level of mystery is introduced when Reeves begins to pair the figures with photographed landscapes, placing the iconography of the dream world onto a representation of the real, replicating the inside-out feeling of terminal illness.
One character, the Bride, continues to reappear, functioning as both an archetypal reference to love — or unrequited love — and fertility, as well as a folksy nod to Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915–’23). The Bride represents a doubling down on a kind of Symbolist Dadaism, incorporating the romantic iconography of the bride, while working within the non-rules of what has come to be known as The Duchamp Effect (after the 1996 book by Martha Buskirk and Mignon Nixon) with the humble materials of a driven outsider. Thierry de Duve describes this phenomenon in Artforum, November 2013, as a “withdrawal from traditional artistic agency and to [a] redefinition of authorship on novel, much less deterministic grounds.”
In an earlier reference, Reeves’s actors are descendants of the crude, primitively abstracted figures and masks from Africa that inspired Picasso and led him to into abstraction. This mask imagery was co-opted by the West in its re-discovery of the importance of the unconscious (Freud) and dreams (Jung) as a means to navigate and articulate lived experience. Like early Carroll Dunham, Reeves straddles this territory between the imaginary and the real. On Facebook, she posts, “The Abstractionists showed us what the inner life looks like. And now that that’s more or less done, some are attempting to show what it looks like between these views.”
Soul Bolt manifests as a pocket-sized book that combines text and images to create mini-narratives. The tiny reproductions are mostly high contrast; the little pieces of bright color pop against the neutrals. (At this size, the entire collection of text-and-images would fit into Duchamp’s suitcase of art, La Boîte-en-valise, 1935–’41). Reeves’s figures become stranger and more mythic and the scenes are richer, but the essential figure/ground retains the sense of an intimate and theatrical dream world.
The photographed scenery in the book is often blanketed with snow, a barren emptiness functioning as an abstraction for the voyage home or, as Reeves puts it, “an infinite emptiness that is so, so full.” Whiteness is also used as a field that is both infinite and full in the abstract paintings, Escape from the Cement Station and Your Earflaps Wave (both from 2011), but the intervention with reality and the strange space made by the photographed landscapes holds more power and describes a palpable state of not-belonging. The perspective recedes and the figures gather in a ritual of mourning, the artist identifying with both the mourners and the object of mourning. As the body is subjected to medical interventions, the mind distances itself toward an acceptance of the inevitable and a striving for transcendence.
“The hoary horizon rolls out the red carpet for a motley crew like us: sadists, longhorns and gnats suspended in amber. We’re cut loose in the frost to be the great ones we are — ragtag musicians playing a mum melody too radical to be hummed.” JWR, Soul Bolt
Soul Bolt covers Symbolism’s familiar themes: love, fear, anguish, death, sexual awakening, and unrequited desire. Reality isn’t rational or materialistic; it is primitive, melancholy, lonely, and full of anxiety. Reeves, however, is no pale Ophelia imitating a lily pad; she refuses to play in the boys’ clubhouse and instead finds humor in all those stilted stereotypes. “Playing with dolls” became an act of healing, allowing Reeves to speak to the unspeakable and to create a personal myth as she strove to control her narrative to the very end. These little allies that marched along beside her, guiding her along the final stretch, were never granted artwork status and exist only on Facebook and in the pages of Soul Bolt; their job done, they disband.
In Soul Bolt, Reeves wrote,
The sentencing hit us hard. Not guilty of a brain tumor, your Honor, not guilty! But there’s no appeal in matter’s court. No, not here—not when you’ve been sentenced to the electric chair by a dire statistic. The prosecutors think life is a mere matter, or matter inhabited by a weak wisp of spirituality. After the surgery the docs can’t find any trace of the tumor, but experience says it’s still there, biding its time. You must assume that what matter has done in the past, it will do again regardless of what you think. Fall in line; get ready to die or live with side effects you cannot abide — a state that makes you contact the Hemlock Society.
Feet tingling from chemo-induced neuropathy, Reeves dances her boogie woogie to “Strawberry Fields”: “… nothing is real and nothing to get hung up about …” Jennifer Wynne Reeves lived every moment of her life for art, sustained to the very end by creativity in its purest form, emotional honesty, and a striving for spiritual transcendence. Her work lives on reflecting her graceful humility and passionate spirit, “My soul bolts from here, lives on a no-time timeline in art.”
Review: Jennifer Wynne Reeves’ rough-and-tumble works at CB1 Gallery
By David Pagel, July 16, 2015
Jennifer Wynne Reeves’ “A Bolt of Soul: Grooved Foreheads and Dog Teeth” is two exhibitions in one. In a small room at CB1 Gallery hang eight paintings Reeves made in Michigan in 1997. A larger gallery displays 18 works she made in New York from 2011 to 2014, when, at the age of 51, she died of brain cancer.
Her early works are quiet beauties. Intimate pictures of barns and birthday cakes, often interrupted by errant scribbles, renegade swipes of paint-loaded brushes and crusty scabs of dried paint, they are suffused with more sadness than most would want to experience in a lifetime, much less an afternoon.
But delight also enlivens Reeves’ juicy paintings. Racing upward, like the fizz in a soft drink, that elusive pleasure pops when it hits air: a miniature Minimalist firework for the attentive.
The excitement of anticipation percolates in Reeves’ four paintings of birthday cakes. These harrowing pictures also embody the letdown of the actual celebrations, especially when the parties fail to measure up an innocent’s vision. Dashed dreams and stubborn hopefulness rub shoulders.
Reeves’ three pictures of farms give poignant form to the bittersweet reality of frustrated desires and the stiff-lipped stoicism with which Midwesterners typically respond to everything from heartbreak to burnt toast. Taking a long view of things, Reeves’ paintings are haunted by the ghosts of other go-it-aloners, including Giorgio de Chirico, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Forrest Bess, Ree Morton, Ron Nagle, Judy Fiskin and Richard Allen Morris.
Reeves’ works from the last three years are scrappier and worldlier. Their points of reference go far beyond the farm to include stories of saints, sinners, scientists and sexual adventurers. Love poems, letters to the editor and loopy ramblings add resonance.
Mismatched buttons, tufts of hair and bits of wire have been stuck to the surfaces of Reeves’ rough-and-tumble works, sometimes pressed deep into gooey globs of paint and at others pinned delicately, like collected butterflies.
More acutely attuned to the multilayered richness of existence, her collaged paintings, on which lovely poems are sometimes written, find magic in life’s nooks and crannies. Deftly switching from abstraction to figuration, they reveal an artist who believed that the most potent art was also the most flexible; able to roll with the punches and dig up insights wherever they might be found.
Reeves’ catch-as-catch-can pragmatism makes for profoundly rewarding works. Long after you leave the gallery, her paintings come back as memories, where they continue to give generously, both pointedly and powerfully.
Art I Like LA
Jennifer Wynne Reeves Seeing Through
By Moto Okawa, June 19, 2015
A poignant and moving collection of paintings by Jennifer Wynne Reeves, currently on view at CB1 Gallery, is an intimate love affair, which does not require homework to enjoy. It must be noted, however, that the experience, with the knowledge of the artist’s recent passing after her battle with brain cancer, is exponentially amplified with the sense of urgency and immediacy. The unstoppable creative energy lingers, filling the space with a quiet echo of undeterred commitment — even in the face of the inevitable.
Collaged with paint, handwritten texts, wires, hairs, and buttons, Reeves’ smaller works read as narrative assemblages or short stories. The poetic lyrics brief and involved set the mood, running the spectrum distance of jovial orgasmic exuberance to frightening imminent exhaustion. In the larger paintings, the stage appears to be set in dark dead-end alleys. The accumulated masses of tactile materials shape the discarded objects or disposed human body parts. Other beautiful debris dot the landscape sparsely. Precariously holding onto the surface, some feel destined for slow decay while others sink into the glossy sea of cement-like paint.
The glacier-pace disintegration of these scenes both starkly and luminously contrast against Reeves’ pleasant, uplifting paintings that hang in the separate room. Most notable among them are the cakes. Painted roughly two decades earlier, the confections are dense with creamy paint and colorful air. They are substantially more put together and grounded in life’s joy; though in hindsight, the muted melancholy is already present. In contextualizing the artist’s works set apart by both time and health, Reeves’ final paintings become the cakes. However deconstructed or splattered, life is a beautiful mess.
David Ebony’s Top 10 Most Memorable Artworks of 2014
By David Ebony, December 25, 2014
“…4.) Jennifer Wynne Reeves, Joseph, painting, (2013) in her solo show at BravinLee programs, Volta Art Fair, New York, last spring.
The late painter Jennifer Wynne Reeves was a wonderful artist and a charismatic individual. She was adventurous in her work, exploring a kind of hyper-sophisticated, folk-art fusion, often with text. When she sat near the entrance to her solo show in the BravinLee programs booth at the Volta Fair in New York last spring, she greeted visitors with her usual warmth and wit. It was difficult to believe that it would be the last show of her works she would attend. Reeves died just weeks later, June 22, at 51 from brain cancer. Among the most remarkable art works she left behind are the late paintings, such as Joseph, with its enigmatic spatial relationships and cryptic iconography, which was featured in the Volta show…”
Bathed in Grace: The Life and Work of Jennifer Wynne Reeves
by Lori Ellison, September 23, 2014
This touching tribute to the painter Jennifer Wynne Reeves is by her Facebook friend and fellow artist, Lori Ellison. Reeves died in June, aged 51, after a long struggle with brain cancer. The memorial service to which Lori refers took place at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery on September 6. An exhibition of her work continues at BravinLee programs through October 11.
Of the various names of beauty we have touched, hozho is the most comprehensive, which we might explain by saying the Navajo way of life is aesthetic at its base. But we also should simply say that beauty is not, for the Navajo, an aesthetic concept: it’s not primarily about the way things appear — though it includes the universe as a whole. It is usually translated into English as “beauty,” though also as “health” or “balance,” “harmony,” “goodness.” It means all of these things and more. It refers above all to the world when it is flourishing; it refers to things we make, which flourish and play a role in the flourishing of other things; and it refers to ourselves, flourishing as makers, as people inhabiting a community that inhabits a world. It is a word for the oneness of all things when they are joined together in a wholesome state.
-Crispin Sartwell, Six Names of Beauty, 2004.
At her memorial service earlier this month I found myself thinking about Jennifer Wynne Reeves and hozho, with its implicit moral imperative. It struck me that Jennifer lived, made and wrote in a state of hozho. Minutes after I had this thought the woman with the guitar started to sing a Navajo song about peace all around us which became a singalong to close the beautiful and elegant service to this woman’s singular life and work. The nearest English equivalent would be to say that Reeves lived a life bathed in Grace.
Reeves anthropomorphizes abstraction in an ultimately humane way, abstracting emotion in the way Pina Bausch does in her choreography. The Garden of Gethsemane (2014), with its off-white picket fence, and its multicolored abstract striped figure, reminds me that in the suburbs no one can hear you scream.
Jonah (2012) has a series of lumps of an Autumn palette forming a figure with wire arms in a gesture of either helplessness or praying — the two go together — facing away from the gaping red maw of a giant fish. It is archetypal in its appropriately named biblical theme.
Place (1997) drives home the impasto and materiality of Reeves’ work that does not show up in reproduction on Facebook, where I became one of her followers and a commenter on the long threads accompanying her art and her writing. I didn’t understand her work well on Facebook – it was over my head – but when I went to the opening of her memorial show at BravinLee and saw it for the first time in all its material glory, it went straight to my heart.
Place has a heavily impastoed cake form in black with white frosting accompanied by equally dimensional blobs in sky blue and sea green stacked into a figure. Kym Ghee, my Facebook friend who met me at the show, said all of her paintings were delicious and edible with something uncomfortable taking place underneath. No painting illuminates this principle more than Place.
Klee and Arp were designated the humorous painters of the time by art critics. I would add Sonia Delaunay and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. But their humor is not lacking in gravity. People err when they think of life as pure tragedy, for they will become melancholics, or of life as pure comedy, for they will become clowns. Life is both tragic and comic at the same time. Reeves shares with these artists a sense of the tragicomic.
Among her contemporaries she belongs with Thomas Nozkowski, Stephen Mueller and Jonathan Lasker to the genre of narrative abstraction. Mueller and Lasker the most: Mueller for his spirituality and early Lasker for his symbolism. Lasker was the Forrest Bess of the TV Generation. Reeves’ work shares this spirituality and symbolism.
Come walk in hozho with the work and writing that Jennifer Wynne Reeves has left behind.
The Saltz Cornucopia: 10 Fall Art Shows, Reviewed (excerpted)
By Jerry Saltz, September 10, 2014
“….At Bravin Lee, a sad ending — the exhibition of the late artist and my Huckleberry friend, Jennifer Wynne Reeves. Her thick, rich, small-scale, kaleidoscopic paintings sport objects or text that tell tales of sex, love, loss, and anger. She depicts smoking boats lost in abstract storms, rainbows over rooms with no roofs. This jewel of a show confirms that a well-selected, small museum survey of Reeves’s work would give a lot of artists a lot to think about. Good-bye, self-burning, driven ship….”
The New Yorker
Jennifer Wynne Reeves
September 4 2014 – October 11 2014
Reeves, who died of cancer in June, at the age of fifty-one, was a painter, a collagist, a poet, a popular Facebook diarist, and an unquenchable free spirit. This show of small works registers the world’s loss. They are whimsical in theme but strong in technique, deploying paint both flatly and in sculpted impasto, as well as the occasional button, hand-lettered text, or landscape photograph. Reeves’s eloquence with color commands respect. From work to work, you sense a racing mind hitting on points of expression like a stone skipping across deep waters. Through Oct. 11.
NY Art Beat
Jennifer Wynne Reeves “Place”
BravinLee Programs, September 4, 2014
Jennifer Reeves life was cut too short when she succumbed to brain cancer on June 22nd at the age of 51. Reeves is known for creating a body of paintings, drawings and photographs that speak to and confront formalist and humanist dilemmas. But beyond her reputation and achievements in the art world, Reeves enjoyed a considerable fan-base as a result of her astonishing Facebook presence where she chronicled and interwove her art and diaristic prose, living her life out loud, inviting her followers to take pieces of her and receive inspiration.
For better or worse Reeves was a painter’s painter. While she achieved a great measure of commercial success in her too abbreviated life, Reeves was best known and respected by artists who recognized her powerful skills of blending painterly style and manipulating materials in an alarmingly appealing way, avoiding the pitfalls that push abstraction against representation. Reeves was able to mine life’s deeper underlying enigmatic and elusive narratives and emotions by the taming of opposites. Combining color-field, minimalism, narrative painting, process art and expressionism, Reeves rejected low thread count, muted, mock solemnity.
In addition to her paintings, it will feature her hand-painted set-up photographs in which she set placed sculptural forms evocative of the figure against the backdrop of actual landscape space.
The exhibition is an invitation to have a conversation about Reeves legacy and we hope that in time, it will lead to a museum survey to explore her art and writing.
Reeves enjoyed solo exhibitions at Art & Public in Geneva, Gian Enzo Sperone in Rome, The Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, and Max Protetch and Ramis Barquet in NYC. Her most recent solo show was at BravinLee programs in 2013. Reeves was also celebrated for her writing. She produced a graphic novel, The Anyway Ember in 2008 and Soul Bolt a book of her set-up photography and prose in 2012. In 2012 she was selected as a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow.
There will be a celebration of the life of Jennifer Wynne Reeves Saturday September 6th, 11am St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery 131 East 10th Street, NYC
Art in America
Jennifer Wynne Reeves: NEW YORK, at Bravin Lee
by Nancy Princenthal, June 26, 2014
Paint gets physical in the late Jennifer Wynne Reeves’s work: bulked up into dented little bricks, squeezed into coils and cones, and knifed, fingered and smeared onto a variety of surfaces that include wood, Masonite and paper (but not canvas), it is augmented by buttons, wire, glass beads and unidentified miscellany. This sampling of mostly recent images and objects—along with a few from 1997, when Reeves first gained recognition—amply demonstrated her ability to muscle emotional complexity from ordinary stuff and paint straight out of the tube.
Occasionally, shapes seemingly born as doodles float across off-color seas and skies, but more often there are intimations of sociability, as when the collaged bits bump and huddle, and sparks fly. Titles further complicate the action. In The Butterfly Bomb (2011), a vaguely animate three-footed form hangs off of the panel. In Socrates and Hemlock (2014), a tumult of ropy paint erupts from a sea of cheesy white fake fur; to the right, a bright yellow column, none too steady, rises to a cap of conical yellow petals, or warheads. Sometimes, too, there are clearly recognizable subjects. A frosted cake has been plunked at unlit center stage in the comically grumpy Place (4-43), 1997. Night fishers trawl in Standard of Liberty (2013) and Hooking Stars (2014); taking the bait in the former is a preternaturally graceful brown bird, its wings an angelic pink. As she did earlier in her career, Reeves had also lately painted backyard scenes: the unusually large Garden of Gethsemane (2014; roughly 3 by 5 feet) features a stormy sky, a white picket fence and a poisonously verdant field beyond.
Briefly in the late 1990s, Reeves’s spindly, patched-together figures took three-dimensional shape and walked off into the woods, where she photographed them against bleak skies and snowy fields. The resulting inkjet prints, big and stubbornly unclassifiable, are enlivened with signature dollops of paint and buttons. Presented in a vitrine in the gallery’s reception area, the quixotic little sculptures looked especially vulnerable, not a trait for which Reeves is known. Exceptionally energetic and unhampered by convention (as to boundaries between disciplines, for instance), she wrote copiously and had a wide following on Facebook, where her tart and observant postings encompassed both professional and personal matters. As could be gleaned from two paintings here that bear handwritten text fragments, her candor was not least unsparing, or affecting, when she was writing about her own returning cancer, from which she died in June, at 51.
Reeves’s résumé says her teachers included Ron Gorchov and Alice Neel. One can also see the influence of painters ranging from Paul Klee to Jonathan Lasker, Amy Sillman to Grandma Moses. Raised in rural Michigan, Reeves came by her homespun subjects honestly. As was evident in her self-fashioned residences and, briefly, an antiques store she ran in small-town upstate New York, she could summon sensibility as a magic wand to transmute all manner of commonplace things. Of course she performed this trick (an admittedly tinselly operation; it was the stinging self-awareness that preserved its credibility) most forcefully in her work, where joyful wonder bumps up hard against a surfeit of experience and understanding.
Art & Design
Jim Nutt, Jennifer Wynne Reeves, Donald Roller Wilson: ‘Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?’
By Ken Johnson, September 12, 2013
This enchanting little show organized by the collector Todd Levin presents three works each by three artists in a chapel-like installation. A boom box plays a recording of singers performing a lovely old hymn called “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?”
Three pieces by Jim Nutt, the Chicago Imagist, include a lithograph from the 1960s picturing a monstrous woman rising from the sea; a finely made pencil drawing from 1975 of many tiny, grotesque people busily interacting on an open stage; and a beautiful recent pencil portrait of an imaginary woman, resembling a collaboration between Hans Memling and Picasso.
Donald Roller Wilson is known for zany, Magic Realist paintings of cats, dogs and chimpanzees dressed in elaborate costumes. Displayed here in an ornate gold frame, “Naughty Betty, a Rite of Passage” portrays one of his simian characters wearing a jewel-encrusted gold crown and holding lighted cigarettes between the fingers of both hands.
You might wonder at the inclusion of Jennifer Wynne Reeves‘s apparently nonrepresentational paintings featuring blobs of thick paint, pieces of fabric, wire and glass beads. The answer is in the prose-poetry she has inscribed into two of them. Her words express an impulse she shares with Mr. Nutt and Mr. Wilson: to connect the earthly and the heavenly, the low and the high. In one passage, she describes a bird in flight: “Flying in roller coaster curves, she throws back her head on the downbeat and drops a white pearl into the river. She’s the Hallelujah Chorus in May — a necklace of prayer.”
Facebook as an Artistic Platform: An Interview With Jennifer Reeves
By James Scarborough, July 1, 2013
About eleven years ago I met J.W. Reeves (Man or woman? No clue) in the comments section of a lively but now defunct publication, New York Arts Magazine. I was bowled over by her lapidary wit, her cultural fluency, and, mostly, by her ornery, spot-on insights.
Only later did I learn that she was not only a she but an artist. And what an artist! An essay I’ve been carrying around in my head begins with the observation that her work at that time combined the levitating bands of words you find in Renaissance Annunciation paintings (Think levitating fortunes in Chinese cookies) with the puckish, Waiting for Godot figuration of early 20th century circus posters. I believe she called this her Transcended Slug phase. Her work was as cheeky as her comments and, little surprise, her criticism and rumination pieces felt like fight scenes from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
I marveled at how her paintings (and, later, her sculpture cum photographs) perfectly mirrored her words, her character, and her personality. There were no fuzzy, inchoate spaces between what she thought and what she painted, wrote or said; no posturing, no irony, and not a lick of insincerity. Were the dramatic arc of her output a movie, Mozart (“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”) would provide the soundtrack and Victor Hugo (“Jesus wept, Voltaire smiled”) the script.
And now she’s making art on Facebook. Not to promote or otherwise document herself, not to float pre-exhibition trial balloons, not to elicit comments or feedback. Instead she seeks to explore and expand the possibilities that the social networking platform provides. And so…
JS: If, as you say, “Facebook is a medium for making art,” then what are its formal elements and how do you compose them? Similarly, how do you define its pictorial space and its audience? Is the space more like a canvas, a stage, a movie set, or a forum? What are the obvious artistic benefits of Facebook-as-medium?
JWR: Facebook sucks as a medium. I have to live with the company’s limited sense of pictorial space, a pictorial space that places mass needs over unique potential. On the other hand, plenty of artists have had to work around a client’s constraints: Michelangelo and the Pope, for instance. It’s an interesting challenge to take on. I find that constraints are like catapults; they hurl you into avenues you hadn’t thought of before.
JS: What led you to first post the images and texts? At the beginning, did it occur to you that you were tapping into something with limitless potential for art making? If yes, can you describe that potential? What have you learned along the way?
JWR: My first posts did not have images. I WAS CONTRARY AND USED A LOT OF CAPS. My motivations were to get attention. I’m petite and feminine in person so I thought I had to yell. Maybe I did. I’m not sure. Whatever the case, I began to finesse my sarcasm or drop it altogether. I learned it’s not bad to be an ambitious woman. Getting attention is fine, depending on the kind of attention one gets. I mean, if people are offended they can’t hear you.
JS: There seem to be at least three things going on here. First you have the narratives. They feel spontaneous, off-the-cuff; they have that staccato tone of hard-boiled detective stories. The entries are profound and personal, discussing things like custody battles, childhood trauma, dating, the art world, and inspiration. Where do they come from? Are they autobiographical? Did they pre-exist, perhaps in a journal, or do you write them as you go along? Do they reflect or otherwise continue your prior art critical writing?
JWR: The narratives come from suffering. Yes, they are based on my life and the people I’ve known. But I allow myself the freedom to extrapolate; the narratives are riffs. I’m not interested in memoir. I’m interested in parable. I want to identify the point at which suffering blooms into wisdom. I want to step on the stones to cross the stream, not wade around in a stagnant pool feeding leaches.
I usually write the posts in the morning. I get an idea and go with it, tweaking it later. Hopefully, I wait a day to let the writing settle. I may or may not have an image in mind. I have an archive of over 700 and counting from which to choose. In fact, the images are the journals. They are paintings created years prior to the written material but not always. There are no hard fast rules, here. The space I’m working in is enough of a constraint to deal with.
The critical writings feed into the current writing the same way old paintings feed into new ones; the ideas circle around and bite their own tails. I say the same thing over and over from different angles trying to get a grip on the ideas.
JS: Second you have the images that relate, even tangentially, to the texts. Displayed with the narratives, they feel temporary, like a Post-It on a work-in-progress. How do you connect the image to the text? Do you suggest that the process of life echoes the process of painting? How does Facebook mediate the creation and the experience of the work?
JWR: Intuition brings the text and the images together. The Facebook wall feels like an open sketchbook with an amphitheater. It makes creating less lonely and more infuriating. John Cage said, “When you start working, everybody is in your studio- the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas- all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.” I still can have this sensation in my studio but not on Facebook. There’s a danger of wanting feedback so much that one’s autonomy is undermined. On the other hand, the company is refreshing. If someone makes an interesting comment you can feed off of it.
Do I suggest that the process of life echoes the process of painting (creating)? Yes but that’s a rather sterile way of putting it!
JS: Third you have the books that you publish, independent in at least respect, from the Facebook work. You take the narratives, couple them to other, pre-existing work, photograph them, and create the book. Why don’t you simply use the original Facebook images? In form, content, and vision, how are the Facebook pieces different from the published ones?
JWR: So far, I haven’t liked the way the paintings look in print and it’s too difficult to control the color. Their physicality is dependent on texture so it’s better to see them in person. With the photographs of sculptures the physicality is not as much of an issue. The books are objects whereas Facebook is more ethereal. It’s a conundrum since my painting is all about the texture but my Facebook work cannot be physically tactile. I try to be prickly in other ways–with the words I choose, by a mental touch–the same mental touch used in the paintings. It’s not difficult to understand that a textured life can be reflected in a textured painting or book or online experience. That being said, I believe it is necessary to be able to demonstrate texture in the physical as a sort of proof of knowledge.
JS: So, in other words, for both the Facebook posts and the published book, the narratives and the images had individual existences until their moment of linkage. Does that suggest a fortuitous (and Surrealist) element in your work, the bringing together of previously unrelated realities to form a new one?
JWR: Yes, because the effect is psychological but I’m looking for reality not dreams. I’m trying to break through the mirage that would keep me down. These things, these seemingly unrelated realities, were always connected. I bring the narratives and the images together because they relate. They relate despite myself. Their comradeship surprises me. It’s an upside down, inside out surrealism linked by similarities of texture. It’s an absurd process.
JS: Speaking of process, you were impressed by a Matisse show at the Met, in particular, by the process shots that accompanied particular pieces. Why were you impressed and what, if any, connection is there between this in-process documentation of a finished work and this Facebook project?
JWR: Matisse slowly abstracted the figure. I am slowly figurize-ing the abstraction. I’m giving abstraction the power of representation–arms, a place to live, and a detailed particular life. Abstraction is taking on the power of representation, a power it has always had because, as I see it, spiritual sense, or inspiration, is real.
The art of Matisse wasn’t, at first, understood. People thought it was dashed off without a thought. I would wager that this bothered him. His solution was to not just show the final work but to also show photographs of the painting as it progressed. He hung the painting along with the photographs so people could understand his creative thought process, in his case, the simple complexity of it. Matisse understood that, as Hans Hoffman once said, “Simplicity is pureness not poorness.”
Thanks to photography the mind of Matisse creating could be recorded. Thanks to the Facebook format so can any artist’s and with the additional value (or danger) of feedback. To me where the art really exists is in the place where it moves from one point to another, in the artist’s mind. It’s fascinating to watch the jumps and leaps and backtracking and contemplate the whys. Why is art created? What strange phenomenon is this? Why is there life there?
JS: Is there any cross-fertilization here? Sequentially or perhaps at a future date, do the paintings, the photographs, and the narratives influence one another? Do you conceive of them as steps along the same journey?
JWR: Yes, but I can’t see where it will lead until I go there. I trust it will be worthwhile even if the final result is failure. Hopefully, someone else can pick up the remnants and make a Sistine Chapel out of it.
JS: These posts are very theatrical. They remind me of Joseph Cornell boxes and David Hockney stage sets. And, in fact, you used to act in high school. Is there some parallel here, some conflation of text, set design, and, one way or another, figuration? If so, do you see yourself more as a playwright, set designer, protagonist, or director?
JWR: What is it that makes art art? An artist can put a mark down on the page and that mark becomes something beyond itself. It is art. The same artist can put a mark down on the page and it’s just a mark on a page. It is not art. What’s the difference? How does that happen?
When I was a kid I was in the middle of a custody battle between my grandmother and my father. When the judge asked me whom I wanted to live with, I didn’t tell him the truth because I was afraid my father would think I didn’t love him. I don’t see this as a failure but it was a noteworthy mistake that ended up being a pivotal turning point in my life and, therefore, my development as an artist.
I’ll tell you why…. In college, I was in an improvisation class. I didn’t know how actors could get themselves to cry. I tried to think sad things but it didn’t work for me. During my improvisation something unexpected happened. I flashed back to the custody battle when I lied to the judge to protect my dad’s feelings. In my mind, my improv partner was my father. I think maybe my scene partner asked me what I wanted to do. I immediately knew what I wanted to say but I hesitated. I felt my answer was going to determine the rest of my life, that it was a turning point. It seemed like a billion years passed in mere seconds. I felt like I was about to jump in a dark hole without knowing how deep it was. For many years I couldn’t remember what I had said, I just remembered the emotion that gushed out of me upon saying it. I was amazed at how naturally the emotion expressed itself. It was an experience of feeling the difference between acting and being. It thrilled me. The next improv, though, was terrible. I felt so exposed I put my back to the audience the entire time. Today, I remember what it was I had said that made me so embarrassed in front of my college classmates and had brought on the ensuing tears. I had said, “I want to live with my grandmother.”
The following summer I went to Vermont Studio School. New York artist, Archie Rand, was teaching a figure drawing class. He was trying to tell us something. He was agitated, he paced around the room talking about the difference between Van Gogh’s early drawings and late drawings; how his early drawings were painfully awkward descriptions of nature. The later drawings had authority, his mark making had changed, a blade of grass WAS the grass. I puzzled over what he was trying to tell us. The model changed poses every thirty seconds. Then, it clicked. What Rand was talking about was the same thing I had learned in the improvisation class, the difference between acting and being. I changed tact. I began to feel the model and not merely draw her. The moment my thought changed, the drawings changed. Archie came around and pointed at my drawing. He said, “That’s it. That’s what I’m talking about!” It was a valuable lesson that I must continuously relearn.
JS: Can or will you take these Facebook posts in some other direction? At this point, do you see any potential dead ends? Do you see this – or whatever-comes-after-Facebook – as a viable artistic medium? Do you know of any other artists who inhabit and create in the same virtual space that you do?
JWR: Yes, I am not the only artist creating in virtual space. There are many others. The artists I know who are consistently utilizing Facebook as a medium for pushing the limits of creating are Judy Rifka, Oliver Wasow, John Monteith, P. Elaine Sharpe and NY Magazine art critic, Jerry Saltz, who brings criticism into the realm of the studio, not the artist’s studio but the critic’s.
Just yesterday I was talking with my friend Todd Masuda, an artist and lawyer. We were talking about how a sound is made. I asked him when he thought the sound happens? He said he thinks it happens before the artist touches instrument. He said, “There’s a non-technical transformation that’s more important than the technical one.” To me, that means, art is dependent on an internal transformation or vitality without which it is but the dead letter. If this is true then an artist can use the new medium of Facebook to transform dead letters. It doesn’t matter what medium an artist uses; all that matters is the way the medium is used. To me, that is spirituality, that is wisdom and a thoroughly viable artistic avenue.
by John Haber, April 29, 2013
“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.
Reeves sticks her text on three paintings, all from late 2012 and 2013, 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, with Untitled Collage, one may spot loose grids of soft colors, as with Paul Klee, but with more shards sticking off 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 Reeves has not really saved her notebook all these years (and her texts often appear as Facebook posts as well, perhaps to rethink physical drawing as part of an ongoing virtual project). Still, a drawing from age nine does greet visitors on the way in—alongside 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 on it. And the same gallery has had echoes of outsider art and personal confessions from Amy Wilson.
Yet Reeves is not as innocent as she may appear. Her gouache on paper has its realism, like the gray streaks of a damp sky or the scumbled vegetation of an open field. It also has somber dreams. The sailboat in Grace Note passes beneath a rainbow all but landing on its deck, and her characters are often at sea. A traveler in Far Away but Not Far Apart crosses a bridge in low light, behind fencing not at all comforting in its whiteness. A prancing horse in Horse Comforter does not escape its tether, and a wolf howls at a star. In I See Two Birds a shotgun brings down a bird, although another bird flies above, while a robin perches comfortably on a power line.
Actual wire, 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.
When it comes to abstraction, many artists today feel a certain ambivalence. Like Amy Sillman, Sara VanDerBeek, and so many others, they are looking for a space between abstraction and realism. In the end, Reeves and abstraction reach an accommodation—”a perfectly unexpected Boogie Woogie.” Still, these are first and foremost her own stories, far from Mondrian’s Broadway.
Interview with Jennifer Wynne Reeves
By Julia Schwartz, March 1, 2013
Jennifer Wynne Reeves has enjoyed numerous exhibitions internationally, including one person shows at Gian Enzo Sperone in Rome, Max Protetch in New York, Ramis Barquet in New York and Monterrey, Art & Public in Geneva, The Wooster Art Museum in Massachusetts, Joan Prats in Barcelona, and Gorney Bravin + Lee in New York. The many reviews of her exhibitions include The New York Times by Holland Cotter, The New Yorker by Alexi Worth, New York Magazine by Jerry Saltz, Art in America by David Ebony, Art Forum by Donald Kuspit, The New York Times by Ken Johnson, The Village Voice by Kim Levin and Art in America by Sarah Valdez. She is currently exhibiting at BravinLee through March 23rd.
What attracted you to the arts? What were your earliest experiences of making art?
My great grandmother started painting in her 60′s or 70′s. She made outsider art, painting from her memory. I loved to draw, especially animals, like a lot of girls, but I hated dolls or anything to do with dolls. There was a great deal of turmoil in my family life from an early age. I think I expressed this by making drawings of animals being hunted and dying from gunshot wounds. I almost never drew the humans, just the animals and the guns at the edge of the picture with little balls flying through the air.
I was raised by my grandmother who took me to ballet, piano, singing, violin, swimming, golf and tennis lessons. When I complained, she told me I had to be “well-rounded.” She was right and I am glad she persisted.
In High School I became very interested in theatre and was the lead in several plays and musicals. Theatre brought me out. I loved it. I found a family there. We had a great program, a large auditorium as well as a little theater. Students could use the little theater to produce and direct plays of their choice. There was a trap door in the floor of the stage we were always trying to find a reason to use. That’s one of the things I love about making art now—finding the trap doors, the surprises, in a composition and figuring out how to utilize them.
Did you go to art school? If not, what did you study in school? And how did you come to art?
I went to a liberal arts school as a music major, intent on going into opera. I did have the voice for it but decided, instead, to switch majors to art. I wanted to be the creator, the composer. I had ideas. My grandmother was mildly disappointed and my voice teacher wasn’t very pleased with me. Even an art professor said I should stick with music. It was difficult to make a decision with all those opinions flying around but good for me to learn to wade through them. I prayed about it and got an answer. The ideas for making a visual art flowed.
When it came to the visual arts and nudity, the school’s administration was a tad backward so I proceeded to push the borders, not simply for the sake of pushing borders but because my work was leading me to make what I felt compelled to make. I thought it was more honest to follow those leads but some officials didn’t see it that way. Although I was a straight A student, I was thereafter accused of being “stubborn” and “unteachable”. A theater professor, whom I was very fond of, told me not to mind my attackers. So I proceeded to make the art I wanted to make. But, I also overloaded my courses and graduated a semester early, glad to get out of there but sad, too. When I returned years later to visit, I was embraced. One of my art professors said that because of me things had changed there. It was very satisfying to hear because I had been feeling a little bad about the whole brouhaha and, I realized, for no reasonable reason. It was just emotional for me to be at odds with people I had thought I had a rapport with religiously, since the college is a religious school, not teaching religion but made up of people sharing the same religion….and, hopefully, the same principles. I found this was not the case, at least, when it came to the visual arts. But, people change, even religious people, and I was happy to see that change happened there.
Who were some of your mentors? inspirations? influences? What about current influences? who do you look at now or listen to?
Milton Avery, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Lawrence Harris, Brancusi, Louise Bourgeouis, Lee Bontecou, Charles Burchfield, Disney, Lichtenstein, Hockney, DeKooning, Guston, Lasker, Lawrence, Kiefer, Steinberg and soooo many others.
Could you talk about a significant success? Or a noteworthy failure that was an important turning point in your career?
When I was a kid I was in the middle of a custody battle between my grandmother and her son, my father. When the judge asked me whom I wanted to live with, I didn’t tell him the truth because I was afraid my father would think I didn’t love him. I don’t see this as a failure but it was a noteworthy mistake that ended up being a pivotal turning point in my life and, therefore, development as an artist.
I’ll tell you why….In college, I was in an improvisation class. I didn’t know how actors could get themselves to cry. I tried to think sad things but it didn’t work for me. During my improvisation something unexpected happened. I flashed back to the custody battle when I fibbed to the judge. In my mind, my improv partner was my father. My partner didn’t know this, neither did the rest of the class or professor who were watching us. I think maybe my scene partner asked me what I wanted to do. I immediately knew what I wanted to say but I hesitated. I remember thinking my answer was going to determine the rest of my life, that it was a turning point. It felt like five hundred years in ten seconds. I was deeply embarrassed but decided to go with it. For many years I couldn’t remember what I had said, I just remembered the emotion that gushed out of me upon saying it. I was amazed at how naturally the emotion expressed itself. It was an experience of feeling the difference between acting and being. It thrilled me. The next improv, though, was terrible. I felt so exposed I put my back to the audience the entire time. Today, I remember what it was I had said that made me so embarrassed in front of my college classmates and had brought on the ensuing tears. I had said, “I want to live with my grandmother.”
The following summer I went to Vermont Studio School. New York artist, Archie Rand, was teaching a figure drawing class. He seemed extremely agitated, he paced around the room talking about the difference between Van Gogh’s early drawings and late drawings. The early drawings were very awkward, trying too hard to describe nature. The later drawings had authority, a blade of grass was the grass, not a description of the grass. I puzzled over what he was trying to tell us. The model changed poses every thirty seconds. I knew by his body language he was trying to relay something essential. Then, it clicked. What Mr. Rand was talking about was the same thing I had learned in the improvisation class, the difference between acting and being. At this point, I changed tact. I began to be the model and not merely draw her. The moment my thought changed, the drawings changed. Archie came around and pointed at my drawing. He said, “That’s it. That’s what I’m talking about! This could be an old master drawing.” It was a valuable lesson that I need to continuously relearn and a significant success in my development as an artist. There were many more turning points to come but this was a big one.
Jennifer, I think that is crucial- the difference between acting and being, crucial in acting, in art, and most especially in life.
Can you describe your rituals or routines in the studio – ie, daily painting vs. sporadic, music, etc.
I’m best in the mornings but work anytime, sometimes with music, often not. I use the music or the television to keep me company until I forget about them. Then I get annoyed by the noise and turn them down or off. In my early years, I struggled a great deal with inertia. I’d be in the studio knowing what I wanted to do to a painting but sitting for hours staring and doing nothing. I decided to make paintings about inertia and came up with an imagery of mythic creatures I called, slugs. Eventually, that struggle became less and less of an issue. It still happens but not to the same degree, not at all.
Can you talk about your choice of materials: what draws you to them, are you consistent with this or do you switch it around (ie oils all the time or gouache in one studio and oil in another, photography, things like that).
Mostly, I am drawn to materials that are smooth or crunchy. I make works on paper in my apartment on an old easel that used to belong to abstract painter, Fred Mitchell, and I use the nearby bathtub to scrub away offending sections of the paintings. I make acrylic or oil paintings in my studio so I can close the door on the fumes and mess when I leave. My huge printer inhabits the same studio which I keep in a neat and tidy corner by the computer.
Do you start work with a concept or does the idea come later? Can you talk about your process.
Both. My process is intuitive coupled with experience. I try to synthesize them. I’ll take an old painting, turn it upside down and see if it wants to be something else, changing it completely or very little.
What would you say is the impact of your personal life on your work? What about other external influences?
I lived with my husband in France for a few years around 1993. I was making “slug paintings”. They were slovenly creatures in barren landscapes including biblical symbolism like the “pillar of fire” from the Moses story, but I was tired of them. About this time something that happened during my improvisation class in college kept coming to mind. After a performance, the professor would tell us if he thought something was blocking us. For example, a dancer kept “posing” her body. I kept repeating a word, not being able to get past it. One woman had no blocks. She was an excellent actor, a natural. I wondered what was behind my block and what was different about her improvisations. What was different was that her improvs were resolved. She moved on by forgiving.
One day I inadvertently came upon a Bible citation that said something about letting the water go down the stream. Immediately, an image flashed into my mind. I saw my hands held under a faucet of running water and the water going down the drain. I wasn’t concerned about where the water went after I washed my hands. I just let it go. I thought, okay, I guess I’m supposed to let something go. So, I sat in my chair, quietly letting various sadnesses and resentments go until I felt calm. Then I got up to go to work in the studio. That night I had a dream. First, a little background. My father was murdered when he was 34 and I was 13. So, I had this dream in my thirties. In the dream, he comes to me, aged as if he had never died, with glasses on, and he holds me. He said that everything was going to be all right. That’s it. The next morning the bedroom glowed. I was stunned by the beauty of the light. To see it was to touch it.
Simultaneously, the winter olympics were on. I watched a pair of ice dancers skate a gorgeous performance of their own choice of a contemporary artistic dance. While I watched them, to my eye, they suddenly changed. I could see through their bodies. They were lines, literally, nothing but lines. I think the revelation I had about the water had changed my vision or perception of things on a variety of levels. Lasker’s paintings suddenly looked great to me, too. I realized that emotion wasn’t the only essential in painting but, the intellect was, too. That they were complementary. I decided to let go of the slug imagery and make a painting a day without relying on what I usually did to resolve them. It was hard to leave the slugs. I had thought I was going to paint slugs forever, that they were my big breakthrough. Again, I kept wondering what my block had been. At the end of my improvisation, I was stuck, repeating the words, Oh God, over and over but I could have got up and left the room. Other actors had done it but not me. I kept waiting for my improv partner (my father) to give me permission. I wanted him to say, yes, I will be all right, go live with your grandmother. It’s true, as a child, I didn’t have the power to leave. But in college, I was an adult. I could have got up and left. It seems like a small thing but, for me, it was a major revelation to know I had the power to go AND forgive, that resolution was leaving, and leaving was forgiving and forgiving was moving on. So, I left the slugs and painted abstractly. Funny thing, after a month or so, the slug imagery returned. They were lines, like the skaters. Even though I had pushed past the slugs into another world I hadn’t lost them. They were still there, transformed, but still there.
So, yeah, my personal development as well as external influences are inextricably bound to my artistic development and progress.
First off, that experience you describe in which you saw the skaters as light and line sounds like a transformational moment- both in your work and personally just as you say. And secondly, when that comes into your practice, there’s such an energy and aliveness, which is apparent in the work from that time.
More recently, when I see your work online (which is how I know you), an image is posted with a story. Can you talk about the intersection or interaction of image and text in your work.
It happened organically. I used to joke that after my divorce, when I was getting no sex, I wrote a lot of art criticism. When I had a boyfriend, I stopped writing the criticism.
Seriously, though, after the slugs transformed into abstract figures they started to talk. Now they are developing arms. I’m not sure what is happening but I think the abstract characters, the former slugs, are slowly being figurized. Abstraction is taking on the power of representation, a power it has always had because, as I see it, spiritual sense, or inspiration, is real.
I see distinctly different bodies of work- staged tableaus that have been photographed, paintings, mixed media works. Are these sequential bodies of work? or do you find yourself returning to photography in order to complete a work that might not be expressed as easily in a painting?
I don’t know. I just try to do something, do it again differently, and then do it again from another angle. I think Jasper Johns or Rauschenberg said the same thing.
Can you talk about the process of making these very dimensional works? some are constructed with wire,some include hair, and some very thick applications of paint.
I grab what’s at hand. I push my understanding of my materials to evolve until I let them evolve.
Can you describe what are you working on now?
Not really. Not without sounding stupid.
I love that answer!
What’s next as for projects and/or exhibitions?
Another book. Better paintings, better and sounder and more inspired and, hopefully, mature.
Any advice for future or emerging artists?
Follow your growing perception of why the hell we’re all here.
The New York Times
ART IN REVIEW; Jennifer Reeves
By HOLLAND COTTER, Published: February 9, 2001
Max Protetch Gallery
511 West 22nd Street, Chelsea
Through Feb. 17
Jennifer Reeves makes her solo debut at Protetch with a funny, well-produced, intensely disrespectful show. She has won attention recently for her semiabstract landscapes, ornamented with fat flowers and paint as thick as icing. Her new paintings are similarly built up — she uses a material similar to putty — but also incorporate texts, schematic figures and an adamantly critical look at modern and contemporary art.
Gauguin, Giacometti and Abstract Expressionism endure tributes that are more like put-downs. Ms. Reeves’s titles are particularly important for the paintings that focus on the present. In ”Liberal Minded Art Dealer Gets Drunk, Talks Too Loud,” a thought balloon carries the words ”Beauty is hip art that sells,” while three detached miniballoons read, ”Definitely not you.” The all-white ”Bunch of Minimalists Try Hard Not to Say Anything” includes a heart with the words ”I love you,” along with an unprintable rude response. Critics as a species take hits, as do collectors and curators.
But only the most squeamish art-world loyalist could take serious offense at these carefully wrought fusillades, aimed at an establishment that, like any other, comes with its share of pretensions and exclusions. Ms. Reeves lives and works in a small town in upstate New York, far from Manhattan. As is true in all relationships, distance has a way of bringing clarified, if unnuanced, perspectives. HOLLAND COTTER
Jennifer Wynne Reeves, E. E. Smith, and Anne Geoffroy
By John Haber
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. Smithand 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.
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.
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.