New York

Jennifer Reeves

Stefan Stux Gallery

Jennifer Reeves’ paintings of nondescript outdoor places convey a sense of returning to an unfamiliar yet subliminally recognized site, experienced as always and yet never truly the same. Or is it a locale so familiar that we've forgotten how unfamiliar it is—like the childhood home we think we remember intimately, until an adult visit reveals it as terra incognita? In the 1997 paintings that bear the title Place (each with a number indicating the order of its creation, and most designated as either “Text” or “Situation”), Reeves gives us the idealized image of Place in all its wish-fulfilling magic, rather than any empirical place correlating with a particular (and likely mundane) emotion.

It has been argued that what social scientists call the de-familiarizing effect—take something familiar, change a detail or two, and voilà, you’ve got something new, even “original” and disturbing—is the gist of avant-gardism. Reeves’ paintings use the de-familiarization effect in and for itself, with no apparent irony. Thus, while her “place” is almost always the same—there tends to be a fence or wall, presumably declaring some unseen thing or locale off-limits, a grouping of trees that sometimes becomes a forest, and clouds that hover in a sky as empty as the ground space—its elements are ingeniously manipulated in each work to keep the viewer from recognizing it. The scene is precarious, threatening to unravel into components at any moment. The surfaces are disjointed in any number of ways. Details may suddenly surge with texture, in Place (4-38)/Text, for instance, where the fence is a richly colored grainy surface that stands abstractly apart from the picture. Trees and clouds often rise unpredictably above the otherwise flat, uneventful surface, forming an impasto relief. The painterly gestures apparent in the relief seem autonomous, each standing out with a clarity that contradicts its function in the construction of the image.

In a quasi-poetic statement accompanying the exhibition, Reeves declares that she “see[s] the blood and the bones of a painting are fake,” but doesn't want to “delete the symbols.” She wants to have it both ways: to show the fakeness—why not say the formal and technical abstractness?—of painting while asserting that the medium can retain symbolic importance and resonance. She seems to succeed, although her Place is ultimately less convincing as a symbol than as a stage set for some drama that doesn’t take place.

Reeves’ landscapes have an old-fashioned surreal edge: they share some quality of de Chirico’s similarly void spaces and may even be more intriguing and contrived, but find an analogous emptiness in an American backyard rather than an ancient city. Reeves tells us her paintings have something to do with the Michigan environment she grew up in. Are they nostalgic takes on the Midwestern heartland? That might account for why the artist’s place is less depleted in spirit than those of de Chirico; Reeves’ peculiarly intimate, elated surfaces rise above the flat affect peculiar to the Italian painter’s work. And yet the subdued anxiety of loneliness remains.

Donald Kuspit