Düsseldorf

David Reed

Kunstmuseum

David Reed's exhibition begins in the half-light of the stairwell. Ascending the steps, you hardly notice the single work by the artist that hangs there, save perhaps to observe that its dimensions seem to match those of the painting opposite it, a work by Ferdinand Hodler that belongs to the Kunstmuseum and is no better lit. Likewise, as you reach the top of the stairs, you do not immediately see the vertical canvas, No. 218-2, 1982-86—though it is a striking work—placed in the corner near the window behind a large sculpture by Donald Judd that all but dominates this space. The positioning of these two paintings, however, is not merely the product of space limitations; rather, it evidences the kind of mirror play that their author so enjoys. And something similar happens in the final room of the exhibition, which is hung like a typical gallery in a permanent collection. Aside from two canvases by Reed (including his No. 46, 1974, the oldest work in the exhibition, which amounts to ending with the beginning), the room contains a Nam June Paik, a Bruce Nauman, and a Richard Serra—almost as if Reed, having introduced his exhibition in a clandestine way, wanted to slip out of his show as discreetly as he entered it.

Between its slyly surreptitious introduction and equally unorthodox conclusion, the monographic course of this show of forty-six paintings, titled “You look good in blue” and curated by Konrad Bitterli with the artist's collaboration, unfolds according to a logic that itself runs counter to convention. From the landing, we move almost directly to the boudoir—Scottie's Bedroom, 1994, which abruptly plunges the visitor into intimate precincts normally accessed only after a series of more calculated moves. Here, the artist has both physically and virtually placed one of his paintings (No. 297, 1989-91) above the bed of the protagonist in Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo. Its mahogany frame—or, more precisely, its meticulous faux-finish reproduction—appears here in shadowy light, the slightly pinkish hue of which comes from the soft glow of a lamp, also familiar from the film. The painting is here as well, hung in plain view over the headboard. All the viewer must do is cast a well-timed glance at the television set placed at the foot of the bed to discover both the bed and the canvas onscreen in the looping footage that is, of course, borrowed from the film, except that Reed has digitally inserted his painting. (As a lead-in to the film scenes, the artist's oft quoted profession of faith: Following a discussion with his friend Nicholas Wilder, Reed declared that he “wanted to be a bedroom painter.”) This mirror play between fiction and reality proves inexplicably pleasurable. Perhaps the satisfaction it gives has to do quite simply with the fact that we enjoy seeing fiction insert itself into reahty and reality slip into fiction. For these are indeed the respective states of the objects shown here: a bed and a lamp copied from the movies, combined with a real painting. The encounter, a few rooms later, of the other bedroom Reed borrows from Hitchcock—Judy's Bedroom, 1992—confirms the nature of this pleasure. The fantastical element of the apparition of Judy Barton/Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) in the video of this work underscores the artist's game of reflection and reciprocal contamination between the imagined and the actual. The cold turquoise light that illuminates the scene strongly contributes to this sensation. (One may recall that, in the film, this light emanates from the neon sign of the hotel where the young woman lives and which we catch sight of through her window.)

These two ensembles induce a palpable ambiguity in the exhibition, which, despite a few extravagances in the hanging, is on the whole presented as a traditional show of painting. It's as if doubt enters from the bedroom—bedrooms and beds, after all, are where we dream—to question the canvases presented: Are these actual paintings or merely the images of paintings whose mode of existence—or nonexistence—might be fictional? More than the paintings' dimensions, often strikingly elongated; more than the sinuously baroque motifs that echo one another from canvas to canvas; more than the asymmetrical arrangement of several works on the same wall, which Reed indulges in several instances; more, even, than the confrontation of a vast group of paintings with a television set that shows in split-screen format an extract of a film and a reenactment of it in the artist's studio (Las Vegas Piece, 1996)—more than all this, it is the doubt concerning these paintings' very mode of existence that makes the sight of them so fascinating. The same doubt is also evoked by the nature of Reed's painting: abstract, certainly, but nevertheless illusionistic. For instance, when he lets a brushstroke show, it does so in such a way that one wonders whether one is dealing with a photograph instead of a painting. In other words, Reed's canvases contradict their modernist appearance, not from the inside out, but precisely at the surface, via their too-flat facture and too-acidic colors. These works prove to be, on closer inspection, mere images of modernist paintings: more or less, optical illusions.

“You look good in blue” is on view at the Kunstmuseum St. Callen through Nov. 11. It opens at the Kunstverein Hannover on Jan. 25, 2002.

Daniel Soutif is a Paris-based curator and critic.

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.