Honoring Roland Reiss

I have written a good deal about my friend Roland Reiss over the years. He has made a remarkable contribution to the rich and constantly growing heritage of contemporary art in Southern California as one of a handful of artists whose work successfully extends beyond the studio into the academic realm. In this part of the world I can think only of John Baldessari, whose legendary tenure at CalArts has been as widely influential as Roland's at Claremont Graduate School (now University). Retired from teaching, Roland is now an Emeritus professor of the Art Department, and last Saturday there was a luncheon at the CGU President's residence to celebrate a new Endowed Chair in Painting in his name. Among the guests assembled to celebrate his career were not only CGU board members, administrators and colleagues, but numerous of his former students who have established their own careers throughout the country.

It was a notable occasion, accompanied by no less than four concurrent exhibitions in the area acknowledging the breadth and depth--and indeed the diversity--of Roland's contribution. At the CGU galleries, a selection of his most recent paintings is on show in the main gallery, along with a three-dimensional installation work in the adjacent "Projects" gallery. The paintings, exhibited under the title "Flora: Recent Paintings," could as well have been called "The Defiance of Beauty." It is daring indeed for a contemporary artist to paint large canvases whose dominating foreground image is a bouquet of decorative, exquisitely painted flowers--not to mention the occasional brightly colored butterfly! Yet these paintings bring together many of the themes that Roland has addressed in the course of decades of work. In the background, like fading but persistent memories behind those great bouquets, we find subtle areas of geometric abstraction and linear, architectural planes, along with the silhouettes of miniaturized images of cityscapes and other vestiges of our contemporary civilization. (You'll need to look pretty closely here to see them...)

(All images in this post thanks to the respective galleries)
These are bravura performances by a painter of profound experience and skills acquired over decades of commitment to his art. The paintings are at once powerfully eloquent and moving. It's as though the artist were vigorously asserting the primacy of nature--and of natural beauty--over everything that man has wrought in the past century, from artifact to technology, to institutions and systems of all kinds--all of which fades into a neutral, barely distinguishable background. Except... for the irony that the flowers themselves are rendered in a way that leaves the viewer unsure whether they too are "natural" or "artificial." It seem to me that Reiss is inviting our minds to play with the increasingly blurred distinction between the two.
This play is underscored by the installation in the Projects gallery, "A Garden for Sally..."
In this provocative challenge to our assumptions about art (these are fake flowers, right? Are they, then, Roland's "art"?) and nature (these flowers are fake, right? Don't we despise fake flowers? And how can they be beautiful?) Roland sets up row upon row of fake flowers, a veritable carpet of artifacts which is surprisingly beautiful, even moving. It triggers a good deal of reflection on the way in which we use flowers--those little stands are on sale at Forest Lawn, right? They belong on grave sites?--and our culture's eagerness to replace nature with its own dubious creations. Confronting us with what most of us believe to be kitsch, Roland invites us to meditate on the ways in which the structures created by the artist can transform the way we see things.
Leaving the Claremont Graduate University galleries, we made our way down to what used to be the Claremont Art Museum, but is now the OBJCT Gallery, which combines an interest in art with the pleasure of fine design. Their current exhibit, in a back gallery space, is an installation created by Roland in the 1970s--a time when he was making three-dimensional works. His dioramas dating from that time are deservedly well-known--boxes that contain quasi-narrative, quasi-theatrical scenes of mysterious real-world events, recreated in tiny, hand-made, immaculately crafted stage sets, where the view is left not only with the wonder of things made so small, but with the enigma of their placement in these environments. Contrariwise, he made some of these environments in large scale...
"The Castle of Perseverance" (above, today and below in 1978) has been painstakingly recreated for the occasion. Constructed entirely out of fibre board, it could be seen as a large-scale version of those small dioramas. Exquisite in detail, it's one of those works that make the viewer gasp in astonishment at the meticulous workmanship it have required, as well--again!--as the sheer beauty of the installation, whose uniform color and bland, unblemished surfaces bleed out the distracting individuality of our normal world and ask us to look at everything anew.
On to Pomona just a few minutes south, where Andi Campognone has assembled the remarkable "Roland Reiss: Works From the 60s." Back then, California art enthusiasts will recall, artists like Billy Al Bengston, DeWain Valentine, Craig Kaufman and others were exploring new ways of making paintings with surfaces created of metal, glass, or fiberglass. (People who like art to have labels called it "Finish Fetish.") I was actually surprised--I need not have been--by the evidence that Roland was not only engaged in this new art at the time, but that he made some stunning contributions to the genre, as always with an eye for breathtaking beauty:
Our last Roland Reiss stop on this inspiring tour was at the Bunny Gunner Art Gallery, just a block further on from Andi Campognone. This show was called "For Roland," an assemblage of mostly small works by nearly two hundred and fifty former CGU students from throughout the country, ranging from the well-established to the accomplish but obscure (too many of those! So many deserve recognition.)
Organizers of the whole RR celebration had managed to keep this part of the event secret from the honoree until the moment he walked into the gallery on opening night last Friday. I can hardly imagine the emotion he must have felt, seeing this tribute to his life's work beyond his own studio walls. I imagine tears might have been in order. Unhappily, I was not there to witness the event.
Unhappily, too, the gallery was closed the day after the big opening, when I was doing my tour. A note on the door informed me that everyone was so exhausted from the previous night that they were busy recovering. I was, however, able to peer through the window to see a good part of the show, and was amazed by the passion and diversity of talent on display. The gallery sent me these installation shots:
All in all, the Claremont-Pomona exhibitions offer a unique glimpse into the life and work of a man who has given himself over unstintingly to both his own studio work and to the students who have learned from him. They have been fortunate to benefit not only from his eye, his understanding, and his skills, but also from the way in which he has modeled the life of the artist for them, and from the generosity of his heart. I'm delighted not to have missed this opportunity to join in the celebration.