"I'm Not Here"– New Works by Robert Reynolds
Exhibition text catalogue by Robert C. Morgan
The tradition of American iconoclasts who dispute the role of social, political, economic, religious, and cultural institutions is not a new one. From the American Revolution to the Transcendentalists, from the social reforms of Roosevelt to the Civil Rights and War protest movements of the sixties, artists and writers have maintained an important presence. As long as Americans have believed in a democracy, the voice of the outsider has made an important contribution to society through the use irony and humor as a means to expound on their personal beliefs. As a California-based artist who questions the role of religion in relation to advertising media and, more recently, the military role of the United States in the Middle East, Robert Reynolds employs a variety of art-making strategies that clearly challenge various assumptions regarding sacrosanct attitudes and cultural biases. Through his paintings, mixed media constructions, and neon signs, Reynolds presents words and images that function as icons of cultural difference.
In this exhibition, he explores the intersection of cultural differences by presenting the word 'virgin' in multiple neon signs inscribed in English, German, and Arabic. Viewers who come to the exhibition will encounter these signs in the windows as they enter into the building. Here they may consider the significance of the words and their diverse cultural connotations. When seen together, the emotional construct given to the meaning of the words within each culture may signal both ambiguity and interference in terms of an accurate communication.
Also in the exhibition, Reynolds presents a series of paintings that contribute a curious, if not humorous, range of secular and spiritual meanings. For example, in a large triptych, the artist appropriates a Hollywood film image of Marilyn Monroe who is shown standing in the middle of a barren rock and gravel landscape where a mysterious light emanates from a darkened sky upon her. In another painting, entitled “Mac Donna,” a praying Madonna hovers of an array of hamburgers placed on the table before her.
In another earlier painting, Madonna is shown in a supermarket aisle with a shopping cart in which a figure resembling the American Pop singer by the same name is bent over licking a fish that is poised between her stockinged feet. A third painting shows Madonna on the streets of an urban neighborhood during a riot, holding a hamburger. Each of these representations suggests a kind of Neo-Surrealist mockery of a religious icon, presumably showing the contradiction between certain aspects of Christianity and Capitalist representations. In both the paintings and the neon works, Reynolds reveals different manifestations of the meaning of the term ‘virgin’ in various religions and in contemporary culture. In all case, a vision of paradise is embraced, both in strange and paradoxical ways as Reynolds' work implicitly deconstructs the cultural fantasy behind the word and image.
In other works, Reynolds poetically refers to the concept of absence by using the phrase "I'm not here." One might interpret this phase -- a neon sign placed on a pile of rocks -- either as an existential realization in the postmodern world or as an ironic comment on the America's current geo-political position. As with the Madonna and Marilyn paintings, a further note of ambiguity is given to “I’m not here,” that equivocates between both personal and political associations. Does "I'm not here" suggest that American interests abroad exist autonomously apart from any stated foreign policy? If so, the question may follow: who is not there?
The intention behind Reynolds' installations is to underplay the sources of meaning shielded by common language. In this sense, his new work moves earlier conceptual strategies in art, employed by such early California artists as John Baldessari, Wallace Berman, Ed Kienholz, Douglas Huebler, and Edward Ruscha, into a linguistic territory that goes beyond the anti-aesthetic parables and paradoxes of the sixties and into a deconstruction of deceit on the level of current media practices.
As with these and other artists, who have worked in either a conceptual, assemblage, or a performative mode, through images of representation borrowed either directly or indirectly from popular culture, Reynolds is interested in applying ambiguities of signification in a way that is more directed toward issues of conflict and representation -- issues that, in fact, began more than twenty years ago in American art during the postmodernist eighties. In this sense, and within this continuing history, Reynolds’ attention to the commercial media as a source of commentary takes on a strange, but topical transposition of reality.
Reynolds sees the art of today as a kind of inversion where certain assumptions derived from the commercial media tend to mean the opposite of what they really are. This paradox is a manipulative one, but also a relevant one to tackle from the position of the artist. In this way, Reynolds contributes a more cogent understanding of present-day reality in conceptual, pictorial, and symbolic terms. “I’m Not Here” is as much about creating an absence as a presence, that is, finding out what is not really there.
ROBERT C. MORGAN
More on Robert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan has a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture and a Ph.D. in art history. As an art critic, he has written and published literally hundreds of articles and reviews in a wide gamut of international magazines and professional journals. He writes for Art News (New York) and Art Press (Paris), and is Contributing Editor for Sculpture Magazine and Tema Celeste (Milan). He has authored catalogs and artists' monographs for various museums and galleries throughout the world. His books include Art into Ideas: Essays on Conceptual Art (Cambridge University Press, 1996), Between Modernism and Conceptual Art (McFarland, 1997), The End of the Art World (Allworth Press, 1998), Gary Hill and Bruce Nauman (both Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000 and 2002), Alain Kirili (Paris: Flammarion, 2002), Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (University of Minnesota Press, 2003) and Vasarely (George Braziller, 2004). Selected exhibitions that he has organized as an independent curator include Allan Kaprow (1979), Komar and Melamid (1980), Six Artists. The Visual Score (1985), Max Ernst: Late Prints (1989), Logo Non Logo (with Pierre Restany, 1994), Women on the Verge (1995), Diversity (with Peter Selz, 1997), The Gesture (2002), Samadhi: The Contemplation of Space (2002), Art and the Cinematic Vision (2003), and Clear Intentions (2003). He was selected as a curator for the past Lodz Biennial in the Fall 2004. In 1999 he was given the first Arcale award in art criticism (Salamanca) and was selected as a juror for the UNESCO prize at the 48th Venice Biennial. He lives and works in New York where he teaches at Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts. He is currently finishing on a book on the interpretation of Eastern philosophy and the emergence of transcultural art.