David Reed

Ulrich Museum of Art

To call “Leave Yourself Behind,” David Reed’s recent show in Wichita, Kansas, a survey of his paintings from the past four decades would be inaccurate. With only fifteen works, it was too selective to be considered a comprehensive examination of the painter’s career. The exhibition was also installed in nonchronological order, thus happily avoiding any resemblance to the kind of teleological museum display that attempts to plot, say, Mondrian’s passage from trees to grids in six simple steps. Rather, the installation juxtaposed, to startling effect, Reed’s abstracted gestural landscapes from the late 1960s with his later, cooler works.

If the show traced Reed’s development over time, it did so, at least in part, in the service of an important element of his aesthetic: the awareness of a material and social world beyond the painting’s frame, a world including even the artist’s own evolution. Thus the intermingling of meaty abstracted landscapes from the late ’60s with fluidly washed “door” paintings from the ’70s, and later works characterized by a quasi-photographic mark-making technique, was itself a statement about the act of looking at a painting within a matrix of biographical, developmental, and broad cultural connections. Early works contextualized, and were placed in context by, their midcareer and later siblings. Like a narrative constructed through multiple flashbacks, the installation thus capitalized on Reed’s changing iconography as evidence of the passage of time.

In his “door” canvases (the proportions of which are determined by those of standard doors) and subsequent “brushstroke” paintings (in which black and white wet-on-wet horizontal bands are paired with simple monochrome panels), Reed made conscious allusions to the human body. Though abstract, they reference human scale in their proportions and human movement in their consistent foregrounding of gesture. In interviews, Reed has identified a shift in emphasis from these paintings to works from the ’80s, which justify themselves in more purely visual terms.

In #252, 1987, this change is visible in the form of liquid flourishes that suggest something between a photographic negative of fanciful cephalopods and a Hokusai seascape. The movement of the body is still present in the canvas’s undulating surface, but another dimension has emerged as more significant: time. Hard-edge compartments crop the fluid gestures like the elements of a collage or a movie montage, generating a sense of duration. We are made acutely aware of the act of moving our eyes from one part of the work to the next, and hence of the time we are spending in front of it.

Two videos from 2005, both titled Flint Hills Sunsets, capped the show and reiterated Reed’s connection between abstract painting and the real world. In one, a time-lapse record of Kansas sunsets is projected onto Reed’s roiling abstraction #523, 2004–2005. In the second, shown on a monitor, the same or similar footage is overlaid with images of Reed’s paintings. The artist has used video before, digitally stitching, for example, one of his paintings behind Kim Novak in a scene from Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) in an irreverent virtual realization of his desire to hang his paintings in bedrooms. But these videos go further. While using a very good painting as a mere screen may seem a shocking desecration, within the context of this show it offered further ties to the wider world. Like the inset passages in Reed’s recent works, like this exhibition’s design, and like the painter’s own maturation, the videos add a specific experience of time to the general experience of looking.

Michael Odom