Art Ltd: Roland Reiss by Molly Enholm

(November/December 2014)

Nov. 7, 2014

The legacy of Roland Reiss runs deep in Los Angeles. His fifty-plus-year career, the majority in LA, as both artist and educator have been influential to numerous artists over the past decades, and includes some 29 years as chair of the Claremont Graduate University’s widely respected art department. Yet although Reiss has been the subject of numerous retrospectives–including “Roland Reiss: A Seventeen Year Survey” at the Los Angeles Municipal Gallery of Art (1991); the more recent “Personal Politics: Sculpture from the 1970s and 1980s” at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (2011-12); and the upcoming retrospective “Roland Reiss: Painting/Sculpture” at CalState Fullerton’s Begovich Gallery this fall–one could also argue that Reiss is one of the great overlooked artists outside of the region.

Variety, more than anything else, has been the unifying characteristic of Reiss’ oeuvre. Instead of a “signature look,” the artist might be better known for a signature and continual investigation of both media and subject. He has described his work as “an investigation of the contemporary,” which, when taken in consideration, necessitates his continued evolution of form. His early paintings after earning his MFA from UCLA in 1957 were rooted in an ongoing dialogue around Abstract Expressionism, which he ultimately left in a manner he describes as “losing the baby with the bathwater,” after he began to ask himself, “Where am I in this?” This was followed by a 20-year exploration of narrative through thematic scenarios in series suggestively titled–the dancing lessons, the morality plays, the adult fairy tales– at a time when “narrative…was a bad word,” via his meticulously handcrafted series of miniature tableaux dating to the 1970s and ‘80s. Over time, these works have become the most celebrated aspect of his career, often overshadowing the fact that first and foremost Reiss is a painter.

Reiss returned to painting in 1991, returning to abstraction with works combining geometric and painterly techniques that challenged viewers’ perceptions of flatness and depth, and manipulating effects of light. In 2001, after retiring from Claremont, Reiss founded the Painter’s Edge program at Idyllwild Arts for painters to come together, create work, and discuss the concrete issues of painting. It was at Painter’s Edge, about eight years ago, that Reiss took a step in another new, and most unlikely, direction: paintings flowers.

“I never liked painting flowers,” Reiss remarks, seated in his expansive live-work studio at the Brewery–directly adjacent to a gallery room full of large-scale paintings of said subject. “ I had to do it in school,” he laughs. “As I have gone on, the flowers have become more important–to mean more in a personal and psychological way.”

Sight unseen, the idea of “floral paintings” invariably conjures notions of still life, at best; Reiss’ take on the subject, however, is anything but traditional. Like the miniatures, there are themes within series–multiple avenues the work has traveled. “In a funny sort of way, especially in the last four years, I’ve tended to work on an area, on certain flowers: the water lily paintings, the sunflowers, or the roses,” he explains, “each one is related, but also a different territory.” The layering of imagery includes not only the scaffolding of flowers, which lends the work an affectionately modernist feel, but minute images evoking notions of contemporary civilization: skyscrapers, satellites, airplanes, abstract geometries and with silhouettes referencing iconic works such as Matisse’s Dance and Picasso’s Demoiselles.

Another thematic variation of the floral paintings are what the artist calls his Lily Pad paintings. These works contrast flat graphic renditions of lily pads, interrupted with warped geometric outlines, abstract painted dabs, and stenciled koi fish against a solid hued backdrop. The point of view is decidedly abstract; standing across from the work it is painted as though the viewer is hovering above. The water lilies, which bear striking resemblance to lotus flowers and all of their transcendental connotations, are composed from different angles–profile, aerial, even from underneath–within the same composition. However, the colorfully articulated lilies do more than just revel in the artist’s preoccupation with toying with the viewer’s perception. “My lilies are luminous, and they have to be about light,” he explains, “you know, the whole universe is constituted by light.” He pauses before reminiscing: “Turrell is a very good friend of mine; we used to have a lot of arguments about light…so I strategized about using light (laughs). These arguments are what make it interesting.”

The paintings are encyclopedic, not only in the wide variety of images contained within, but also the history of the artist. “I wanted them to encompass my experiences in and with painting,” he describes. “Everything I know about painting, I want in those paintings. Each single painting can’t contain everything, but they can contain the seeds.”

 The nearly monochromatic American Still Life completed earlier this year signals a new direction for the floral paintings. The painting is nearly all white; much of the variation in tone comes from the shadows cast by the thick impasto application of paint, which ironically, is the background of the work. Central to the work, as single vase, illusionistically rendered, stands alone with five branches projecting into the thick white space. Scattered around the base of the vessel are fallen leaves from the mostly barren branches. The painting is at once material and abstract; combining the multiple languages of painting that has permeated Reiss’ long career.

Beyond formalist concerns, the symbolism reflects some of the octogenarian artist’s deepest concerns. “Creativity is a measure of culture,” he explains and goes on to cite Wittgenstein’s quote that artists produce the art society compels them to reproduce, adding his own modification, “we are expressive instruments of the society we live in…And I think, to a certain extent, we have some choice in the matter about whether we want to put positive energy into the world or not.” Though it may appear to suggest a bleak appraisal of contemporary culture, the artist doesn’t view the painting as pessimistic, pointing to the buds on the branches, which like the lone create left in Pandora’s box, signal his hope for the future.