“Robert Reynolds. Alas, Babylon”
CitizenLA, September 2007
Article by Jonathan Jerald
Robert Reynolds work has been stolen, vilified in the German press and even censored (in Pomona). The publicity has helped draw attention to his work—even when it misrepresented it, and has helped advance a career that is quite interesting enough without the controversy. As a partial consequence, at least, he is featured in two major shows in Berlin this coming summer at a pair of world-class venues: at the Martin Gropius Bau and—surprisingly for a post-modern artist—at the Pergamon Museum, one of the most distinguished archaeological institutions in the world. Not that he doesn’t deserve the attention: His work, which includes paintings, constructions, installations and sculpture, is smart, intriguing, visually engaging and employs references from popular media, religion and ancient cultures and pointedly challenges notions of political correctness. It’s often funny, too.
A little more than a decade ago, a version of one of Reynolds’ better-known works, MacDonna II, showing the Virgin Mary praying over five Big Macs floating in space (see cover art) was hanging in Al’s Bar, the fabled and now defunct punk-rock venue in the pre-gentrified Arts District, when a canny customer simply walked away with it. “I just went nuts,” Reynolds recalls, “So I took an ad out in Coagula, the whole back page, and offered a reward. Later I specified a $25,000 reward. I didn’t actually have any money; I was barely making my rent. I was just mad and I was thinking it would never be found.
“There was this woman, an artist who worked with DADA (Downtown Arts District Association) and she saw the ad in Coagula and the very next night she was in an underground club and this guy came up to her, he was kinda hitting on her and they were talking about art and he told her he had just acquired this Madonna and a little light bulb lit up in her brain and she said, ‘Okay, I’m having a party in a week or so, why don’t you give me your number?’ So he gave her his number.
“So she had it on a little piece of paper and she went home and she had this room, a kind of performance piece in progress that consisted of a room filled with little pieces of paper and that’s where she left it, unfortunately. So she called me and told me ‘I’ve got his number, but I can’t find it.’ It took her six months to find it.
“The day she found it she contacted me and I called the LAPD art theft division and reported it to a detective and he immediately traced the number to a West L.A. apartment and he went and knocked on the door. The guy’s roommate answered and there was the painting hanging over the couch. The guy was executed a few months later – no, just kidding – he had to pay a fine and he got probation.”
A few years later the artist Rollo Castillo arranged for Reynolds to display his work at Cal Poly Pomona in the midst of a burgeoning arts scene (“Pomo” as it has come to be called). The show, titled “Love Hate and Lies” and featuring incongruous images drawn from the new post 9/11 iconography (Osama Bin Laden, the World Trade Center viewed from a jetliner’s cockpit) created a stir when a Cal Poly official covered the works with sheets after a resident objected to some of the pieces. “I was just unloading the truck and this guy saw the first piece coming out of the truck (a series of Wheaties boxes featuring the portrait of Bin Laden over which a neon sign reads ‘Breakfast of Champions) and he called 911 and the cops rolled on it and they came up and said, ‘Oh it’s just art’ and left. But during the show they had detectives watching me. America was so paranoid…
“Locals started protesting in front of the gallery. They got their wives and kids and they were walking up and down with signs and American flags protesting the show. A Cal Poly administrator freaked out and she went home and got her own bed sheets and hung them over all the neons. That really made it better. I wish I had though of that because the glow through the sheets made it even more mysterious and interesting.
“So that caused a controversy and provoked people who were against censorship and they started to protest. One guy showed up every day for a week and he wore this sheet and walked up and down the streets and said he wasn’t gonna take it off until the sheets come down. But by then, I didn’t want the sheets to come down. The show made headlines in the local papers. There were updates every day for a week. I even got a death threat. There was so much publicity it got me shows in Berlin and Dresden – public displays along the streets. People – my close friends were saying ‘You did this, you orchestrated this didn’t you?’ I said, Noooo, but they’d say, ‘oh come on, you can tell me.’ But I think now galleries and institutions are getting much more sensitive to how controversies can be manipulated and contrived because they understand they could be playing into anybody’s hands.”
Reynolds’ most recent work makes use of images and materials inspired by his travels through Afghanistan and a visit to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin a few years back. A kinetic work titled “Madrassa” is a row of wooden school desks with holes in the seats out of which smoke blows. Another is a whirlwind of Koran pages. But the most impressive works are inspired by the jewel of the Pergamon’s collection: the 3,000 year old Ishtar Gate and Processional way that was transported piece by piece from Iraq and re-assembled in Berlin. Nebuchadnezzar II built this architectural marvel in 575 BC in what is surely, in Iraqi terms, the good old days.
Reynolds channeled his inspiration through his own filters and the result is “Ishtar’s Chariot,” a full-sized modern four-door sedan sculpture composed of a mosaic of tiles that are painstaking reproductions of the originals on display in the Pergamon. It is a referential Rosetta stone of cross-cultural connections, suggesting modern America’s preoccupation with Middle Eastern Oil and the challenge of confronting cultures with ancient legacies that we know little about and yet whose modern descendents affect us so profoundly. The absurd wizardry of shaping a work of modern technology with ancient materials also provokes intriguing questions about the manipulation of one culture by another. This is the piece that will be featured in the Pergamon, placed directly beneath the Ishtar Gate.
Another work inspired by Babylonian artifacts and structures is a freestanding dragon (or Musshushu, to give it the name bestowed by the archaeologists who presumably know best) harnessed to what can only be a giant bomb. The implication is a little more obvious than “Ishtar’s Chariot” and more directly disturbing.
Reynolds ahs always had an interest in ancient cultures. “When I was a kid I always liked archaeology. I would bury little things in the ground and hide them here and there and then make believe I was excavating them using a dental pick and a brush. So my visit to the Pergamon was such a high for me because I was walking next to this tile that Nebuchadnezzar II had walked by, Alexander the Great had passed – just so much history happened there, upheavals and declines and finally the Germans collected all these shards and they took it back to Berlin and it took twelve years to reassemble. It’s a lot to think about.”
Jonathan Jerald is a columnist of CitizenLA, Los Angeles and has written for Vanity Fair and California Magazine. He has produced more than a dozen documentaries for The History Channel, including the award-winning History of LSD.