Los Angeles

Nancy Reese

Gagosian | Beverly Hills

Until recently, Nancy Reese was best known as Ed Ruscha’s collaborator, the artist who painted many of the sublime backdrops to Ruscha’s pithy superimposed texts. Now Reese has emerged, literally and figuratively, from Ruscha’s shadow with a series of eight works that stake her claim as a painter of brilliant technique and visual bravado, but muddled concept.

Reese’s initial gambit appears to center upon an almost seamless fusion of traditional landscape and still life genres, a pushing of received information to its limit, all the better to deconstruct its rhetorical fallacies. Spectacular sunlit alpine vistas conjure up images of National Geographic photo spreads or the sentimental landscapes of the 19th-century American Luminists. Paradise Obscured, 1986, with its ominous mountain range blocked out by the foreground presence of a sullen, frowning boy, combines the mystical blue hues of Maxfield Parrish’s paintings with the innocence of a ’50s health poster. Portraiture and landscape painting are reduced in one stroke to a matter of recycled style, fueled by the mannered simulation of mechanical reproduction.

This has become predictable territory, and Reese, to her credit, is not content to restrict her thesis to a mere questioning of representational deceits. Guardian, 1986, for example, takes the compositional vocabulary of Auguste Rodin’s Monument to Balzac, 1897–98, removes the writer’s head and body altogether, and transforms a potentially ironic historical quote into yet another displaced déjà vu: a Jim Dine bathrobe. With its overt heavenly aura and neutral studio backdrop, the subject here is clearly not just the language of painting, but the creative act itself, with its conflicting dualities of spectacle and private soul-searching, of theatrical artifice and pretensions to “truth:’ The work’s weakness lies in a lack of distinction between formal and thematic resonance. One doesn’t necessarily want to be conceptually distanced out of the room, but there is an absence of irony that prevents the work from successfully analyzing its own structural parameters. Reese seems to want to have it both ways: to question the ideology of Romanticism and the aura of the artwork, yet also to absorb it, to create works that are themselves sublime.

The key work in this respect seems to be Private View, 1986, a meticulously rendered view of an idyllic 18th-century garden, with its trimmed, geometrically shaped bushes and manicured lawns, juxtaposed with the wild natural beauty of the untamed wilderness. The private view here is that of the artist, where man as the linchpin of the ordered universe is paralleled by the primacy of the painter as composer of artificial (read “transcendent”) worlds, where the creative imagination is equal to, if not better than, the real thing.

In many respects, what is missing to undercut the bombast of technique that dominates these works is Ruscha’s text. We need to be reminded that this is only a pictorial “background,” a flat picture plane that supports an illusion. Instead, Reese exploits a wide array of formal devices (cropping, linear and planar perspective, contrasts of light and dark, vivid and pastel hues), which serve more to advertise her facilities as a painter than to encourage her audience to take part in a dialogue with the work.

Colin Gardner