BY David Everitt Howe in Features | 13 OCT 13
Featured in
Issue 158

In Focus: Alan Reid

Unbearable lightness, the fashion industry and ‘portraits of nouns’

BY David Everitt Howe in Features | 13 OCT 13

Employing absurd pseudonyms, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé secretly moonlit as a fashion magazine publisher, editor and writer, filling his short-lived bi-weekly La Dernière Mode (The Latest Fashion, 1874) with page after page of flowery restaurant and theatre reviews, advice columns and commentary on fashion lines. An analysis of a dress would go on seemingly for an eternity. As John Kelsey noted in issue two of Made in USA (2000), ‘the appearance of shimmering white silk ultimately disappear[ing] in its own description [...] and something intangible like death or infinity is suggested’. Ruffles lead to thrills, hems to hyperbole; form becomes content and content form.

Alan Reid’s works operate ina similar way. They’re very fashionable paintings or, rather, paintings of fashion so pretty that they seem disposable. In reality, though, there’s a lot going on. Chock-full of references to art history and music, these works elicit pleasure partly be­cause they force the viewer to re­con­sider the notion that fashion and design are somehow frivolous and stupid compared to more ‘serious’ disciplines – light rather than heavy, as Jean Baudrillard might say. To Reid, the two aren’t mutually exclusive; they’re dialectically dependent. A dress isn’t merely a dress, but something more. In the end, everything, from writing to revolution, comes down to looks. 

Standing Arrangement, 2013, Caran d’Ache, acrylic and foamcore on canvas, 1.7 × 1.2 m. All images courtesy: the artist, Lisa Cooley, New York, and Mary Mary, Glasgow

Pleasing to the eye – almost disarmingly so, like jaw-achingly sugary sweets – Reid’s works are rife with vacant, androgynous models and aloof references to music and poetry, sex and clothing, dresses and decorations. It’s easy to get lost in them. Seemingly plucked from Weimar-era Berlin, or the 1920s New York of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the artist’s favoured figures are the most waiflike of women, flapper-girls, seductively gazing this way and that as if looking for something to do. Rendered with pigment and wax Caran d’Ache pencils in wispy lines and delicate tones, Reid’s blushing figures are drawn so lightly as to be fading out of existence. In Octopus (all works 2013), shown last summer at Patricia Low Contemporary in Gstaad, Switzerland, a blonde with perfect high cheekbones gazes into an unidentifiable distance in faint shock, the words ‘Hotel Bar’ writ large on the canvas – a narrative to nowhere. Shakespeare Performed Nude, also included in the same exhibition, features a Natalie Portman doppelgänger gazing to one side, her shirt a cool cream marked by bold, criss-crossing black lines, as if a Sol LeWitt grid had been transformed into a dress design. The female protagonist of Standing Arrangement is dotted with foam-core croissants; she’s so skinny, she could do with eating a few.

Reid’s 2013 solo exhibition at Lisa Cooley, ‘poems, Sans Souci’, took Frederick the Great’s palace outside Berlin, Sannsouci, as its conceptual starting point. It was a place where, in Reid’s eyes, Baroque music took centre stage over visual art. In this body of work, great composers are read, not listened to or looked at. Written out in foamcore as hyper-stylized script, the names Beethoven and Bach stand in for the composers’ likenesses; as Reid noted, they’re ‘portraits of nouns’. In To Cum at the Same Time, the word ‘Bach’, in chunky, gothic letters, floats over a background of small, multicoloured dots. In The Name of the Father, Beethoven gets his star treatment in an Arts and Crafts-style sans serif, running straight down the canvas sideways as a vertical column. Buttressed at the bottom between two black and white circles, the composer appears as a thick dick with two cheeky, graphic balls – looking good, Beethoven! Elsewhere, Reid’s trademark females appear, surrounded by floating leaves and real porcupine quills that have been stuck to the canvas, as in Baroque Chamber, or pockmarked with geometric fragments of chair caning, as in Giza, an oblique reference to Pablo Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning (1912). Other arty references make covert cameos: Jean Arp’s moustache, made out of wood, floats above cruciform, leopard-print columns. In another leopard-print work, Milieu and Ambiance, Meret Oppenheim’s furry teacup, formed out of canvas, cuts a deadpan joke. Take it or leave it. Visual art, handily neutered, makes sneaky appearances as discombobulated, stray signifiers. Easy, breezy, beautiful – art history is left thin as air. 

Preposition & Fugue, 2013, acrylic, caning and cut canvas on canvas, 1.5 × 1.2 m

Preoccupied with the idea of ‘lightness’ for years, Reid cites Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) as being particularly influential, the author’s ethos of living in the moment and enjoying life to the fullest (with lots of attendant sexual abandon), functioning as a pointed critique of Friedrich Nietzsche. That party pooper’s notion of ‘eternal recurrence’ is the exact opposite of lightness, in that he claims everything has already happened and will happen again. With no control whatsoever, humans are thus, in Kundera’s blunt words, ‘nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect.’

It’s almost impossible to find anything Nietzschean about Reid’s paintings, unless Nietzsche had a thing for pretty girls and croissants. Rather, in as much as Reid’s work is the exact opposite of Nietzsche’s, the philosopher is everywhere ominously in absentia, the yin to Reid’s yang, waiting in the wings. One wonders when the end will come for Reid’s seemingly timeless, ageless figures, for the ‘lightness’ that so enthralls the painter. Pleasure is a tricky thing. As in Fitzgerald’s novel This Side of Paradise (1920) (to the artist, the name of the protagonist Amory sounds like ‘both e“amour” and “aimless”’) pleasure lingers then leaves, tingeing Reid’s painterly worldview with something strangely sad and elegiac. 

Alan Reid is an artist based in New York, USA. In 2013, he had solo shows at Patricia Low Contemporary, Gstaad, Switzerland, and Lisa Cooley, New York, where he also co-organized the exhibition ‘Air de Pied-à-terre’.

David Everitt Howe is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn. He is currently Curator/Editor at Pioneer Works and is a contributing editor at BOMB magazine.