Nine Lives, ex. cat. (Auckland: Auckland Art Gallery, 2003).
John Reynolds’s practice was forged in the crucible of early-1980s postmodernism, drawing on two of its opposing tendencies. Appropriation art recognised the source of all meaning in language, conventions, ‘difference’, and the ‘forest of signs’, while neo-expressionism still wanted to argue for originality, personal vision, genius, the ‘hand of the artist’. Elsewhere, this opposition represented a deadlock or endgame, but in Reynolds’s work, it became productive—a motor.
From the outset, Reynolds’s painting was grounded in drawing. He usually works in oil stick (oil paint in crayon form), rather than with paints and brushes, allowing him to draw on a painting scale. His works engage different logics of drawing (sketches, plans, charts, doodles); collaging together different orders of representation (expressive marks, symbols, patterns, writing). Although American painter Cy Twombly—who updated abstract expressionism by filling its field formats with writing, drawing, and scribble—was a major early influence, Reynolds’s seminal blackboard-like work Protocol for an Odalisque (1983) owes as much to Duchamp. In The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (1915–23), Duchamp mismatched subject and treatment, updating the perennial theme of the female nude by rendering the sex act as a machine. Similarly, Reynolds’s title invites us to read the cryptic graphics in his billboard-scale blackboard-like work as rude: as part nude, part battle-plan. Again, an erotic subtext is imputed, hidden behind chaste tech-drawing. Protocol’s repetitions of forms suggest a process, workings, a series of attempts to analyse a subject.1 In retrospect, this operatic early work seems prophetic of the directions Reynolds would explore over the next twenty years.2
Reynolds has always exploited that old chestnut: the idea that drawing is direct and expressive, that it reveals the artist’s creative thought processes. When Keith Stewart characterised Reynolds’s work, heroically, as ‘a mess of inconclusiveness and momentary achievement washed away by the next wave of struggle’, he could have been writing up Woollaston, thirty years earlier.3 Reynolds comes close to Woollaston in scribbly landscapes like Armature for a Headland (1985). Drawn on black seamless paper—the kind photographers use for backdrops—Reynolds’s forms are skeletal, chimeral. Like a Woollaston, Armature feels provisional, like the record of a performance, an index of the artist’s existential struggle with his subject (and materials), a drama of representation in which the logic of the artist’s subjectivity (the armature) and the logic of the landscape’s objectivity (the headland) are under perpetual mutual negotiation. Certainly, by the early 1980s, the Woollaston-idea was out: regionalist landscape and artist-heroes were disreputable. And Reynolds does trowel on the irony. Where Woollaston spoke plainly, Reynolds is showy, his clumsiness affected and campy, his struggle all show. But irony is a complex thing. If Reynolds dealt with the likes of Woollaston at arm’s length, it was still only at an arm’s length. A touch of irony was like the levy he paid back then to explore those retrograde big themes. Behind it, Reynolds remained a romantic.
Reynolds’s works were classically postmodern, exemplifying ‘quotation’, ‘bricolage’, ‘the palimpsest’, ‘code-clashing’. He layers images belonging to different registers, disciplines, and epochs for poetic effect. His favourite signs—crosses, scaffolds, gallows, veils, webs, knots, floorplans, roadsigns, grids, and miasmas—declared, simultaneously, a fascination with pointers (guidance) and a love of complexity, fragments, ruins (chaos). Reynolds’s works were dysfunctional, like ruins begging to be excavated, reconstructed; they were about failure, hubris. Ian Wedde once said: Reynolds ‘makes art out of vanishing, out of signs whose lives are ending as we begin to look at them, out of texts that have already fallen silent or been dismembered, out of history that is being erased at the very moment we are invited to ponder its significance’.4 Analogy and allegory were key devices. The diptych Sun. Tree. Beginning (1993), for instance, juxtaposes a tree of life, lifted from a twelfth-century Spanish fresco in the Prado, with a wooden structure, suggesting scaffolding or gallows, making a symbolic analogy between branching wooden structures, one natural, the other cultural. Behind these main-event images are washes of eye-popping fluoro-colour inscribed with decorative patterns, like traceries or veils, in pencil. Foreground and background play tug-of-war; the lurid gimmicky ground pulls the carpet on the moral enquiry invited by the imagery. The title is a nod to Beckett. (Reynolds is pretentious. He is routinely criticised for being both decorative and literary—that’s fundamental to his enterprise. His work is a play of pretences.)
The most recent Reynolds work in Nine Lives jettisons the drawing style he has become synonymous with, but only to underscore and reinvigorate other key themes and strategies in his work. The Coastal Classic (2001) is a flight of hard-edge chevron-signs in reflective vinyl on aluminium; different colour variations, all pointing right—a one-way street. The piece is based on Leigh Davis’s poem The Office of the Dead, where letter forms of different heights scattered across the page suggest yachts under sail during the Coastal Classic, the annual Auckland yacht race; some close, others far away. Davis’s poem is a mediation on the passing of time, and ultimately death; conflating ideas heavy and medieval with something flighty and contemporary. Reynolds’s individual panels are named after boats—Mustang Sally, Fuzzi Duck, Silveraider—scattering interpretations. Available to be hung in any order, Reynolds is less interested in the individual particles than in exploring the gearing of the spaces between them. Taking mundane roadside signage, vernacular language, and investing it with moral import … it’s a McCahon thing.
[IMAGE: John Reynolds Armature for a Headland 1985]
- Reynolds’s stepped forms may be a flippant reference to Duchamp’s Nudes Descending a Staircase (1911 and 1912).
- It was the centrepiece of Reynolds’s first solo show, at 100m2, in 198o.
- ‘History in Art—So What?’, Evening Post, 22 March 1990.
- ‘Lusty Painter Is out on the Street’, Sunday Star Times, 1 October 1995.