“ Babylon to Baghdad ”
Review by Shana Nys Dambrot, Contributing editor of Modern Painters Magazine
For his latest exhibition of mixed media sculpture, Los Angeles artist Robert Reynolds will show three large-scale mixed media sculptures inspired by the artist’s infusive visit to Berlin’s Pergamon Museum and its chief treasure, the 3000-year old Ishtar Gate and Processional Way. Transported intact to the museum from its original location in what is now modern-day Iraq, this rare architectural monument was built circa 575 BC by Nebuchadnezzar II (the same king who built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon during his reign). In true Reynolds fashion, his enthusiasm for this remarkable feat of design and engineering did not end with an admiration of its formal qualities, regal and expressive as they were. The artist has a penchant for establishing event patterns that resonate through history and humanity; charting correspondences between passages in geopolitics and religious or cultural moments, in a process of conceptual archaeology. Previous work has garnered praise and vitriol for, among other things, a lyrical portrait of the sociopath dictator Emperor Hirohito as a child, his figure partly obscuring an exploding and sinking American aircraft carrier just struck by a kamikaze, and a witty, prescient neon-and-screen-printing wall pieces that in juxtaposing bin Laden and American consumer culture, was accused of using humor “too soon”.
So in this era of energy wars, Middle East violence, hypocritical and/or incompetent international governments and an impotent news media (not to mention a domestic culture that doesn’t always recognize the value of hand-crafted, skillfully made and conceptually ambitious fine art), it might come as no surprise that in confronting an imposing, iconic testament to the grandeur and richness of ancient Mesopotamian cultural and spiritual life, Robert Reynolds would think about cars. After all, cars are more than functional objects, they are vessels, icons of movement and freedom in ways that relate as much to ancient Mesopotamian death and rebirth mythologies involving preparations for the soul’s travel as they do the tone-deaf ruggedness of American car culture (and our dependence on Middle East oil).
“Ishtar Chariot of Nebuchadnezzar II” is a mosaic sculpture the size and shape of a four-door sedan, reiterating the pattern and ideography of the Gate, painstakingly replicated tile by antiqued and glazed clay tile by Reynolds over the past year. It expresses in its mass, authentic image-making style and the fragile warmth of its surface the aura of an excavated artifact; while in the opacity that renders it functionless and the disconcerting unexpectedness of its hybrid parts it is both impressive and ominous. Its counterpart is the ephemeral “Spirit Car”, a version of the same sedan frame built in steel wires, wrapped in stretched polyurethane to create a transparent symbolic object still reading as an automobile. Where the other is opaque this one is empty; it evokes the spiritual aspects of the form, but exists as an avatar for the skeletal remains of similar vehicles destroyed by bombs, souls destroyed by war, and history destroyed by lies. The final work is the vibrant and ferocious “Mushussu” Reynolds’ three-dimensional interpretation of the dragon protector of Marduk as found on the Gate. His towering form is embellished with expressive, exaggerated features, florid colors and vibrant patterns, while behind him he tows a cart holding an IED, itself covered by a depiction of “The Wounded Lioness of Nineveh”. This classic image is an ancient one, but often cited in contemporary history as a symbol of the fierce pride and strength of the oppressed peoples of the region. Its compelling fusion of a rapier humor, political insight and advanced craftsmanship are Robert Reynolds’ hallmarks.
Shana Nys Dambrot
Contributing Editor, Modern Painters Magazine