At The Weston Gallery

Todd Reynolds’ oils’ and watercolors’ most salient contemporary features depict an America in which chronic violence is implied, hope is in abeyance. His quasi-narrative, usually large scale paintings rip the niceties and pieties off of middle class life, portraying, instead, a near-Surreal world of low-life characters, drug-induced or -inspired people in scenarios of dead-end near apocalypse. His oevre is remarkably akin to the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates: tough, nasty, gritty, non-redemptive.

Both Reynolds and Oates depict the remnants of rural American life, a world of either predators or prey, wherein fantasy replaces imagination, pornography is pandemic, and where people have ceased to connect, where “winners” stomp over “losers”, yet both groups join the ranks of the disenfranchised and the decivilized. Reynolds must be considered Baroque in his dystopian paintings. Yet, like Oates, it would be easy, if incorrect, to consider his work Gothic in his depictions of the dregs of humanity. Both Oates and Reynolds come from an America decayed and dying, she from upstate New York, and he from Portsmouth Ohio, a city on the edge of Appalachia, with blocks of abandoned houses and businesses.

Oates’ fiction, once critically derided as Gothic and extreme, has lately been reevaluated as realistic; she is now considered one of America’s great Realist writers. Reynolds’ world of lost hope, nightmare, and grotesquerie must now be considered as realistically American as Grant Wood or Andrew Wyeth or Norman Rockwell. Oates’ and Reynolds’ cities and towns just happened to decompose earlier than many others in America. If what Reynolds paints—subject matter/content—is generally relentlessly bleak, his methodologies, iconographies, and appropriations of paintings, styles, in both oil and watercolor, remain firmly grounded in art history from the Baroque to modern and contemporary, and he revels in the act of painting as he absorbs ideas from Roman portraiture, Goya’s court portraiture, and the Spanish painters Velasquez and Zurburan. Since Manet’s portraits incorporate those same Spanish influences, Reynolds’ combination of figuration and blocks of abstraction come to him from Zurburan through Manet, as well. His extreme Baroque lighting is borrowed from Caravaggio and from the Venetian Renaissance painters.

An Expressionist, Reynolds’ paintings absorb stylistic conceits and painterly lushness from both Lucian Freud, and Francis Bacon, the sculptural attenuation of Medieval Church art and the architectonic, totemic presence of neo-primitivism and the overscaled frontalism of some outsider art. Combining such disparate influences is no mean feat, and Reynolds’ achievement is that much more impressive because his eclectic appropriation of such divergent and unusual influences manifests an enormous intelligence and sense of place in the history of art.

Reynolds’ Surrealist-like dreamscapes—more accurately nightmare-scapes—possess narrative intent, some biting social commentary, yet the influence of christian morality plays are not far from the surface of his paintings. His figurative paintings represent what the Catholic church, in particular, represses and negates, yet the lost hope implies a time when it wasn’t. His use of the diptych refers both to Western religious painting, as well as to the disjunctive 80’s painters such as David Salle and Julian Schnabel. His diptychs are transgressive and non-narrative at times. Reynolds’ imagination is extremely fertile; we are caught in the maelstrom of these nightmarish images, as if we’re floating on the River Styx between life and death where America’s obsessive materialism is rotting and sinking, devolving into the chaos of poverty, pornography, petulance, and pestilence. A drug-like stupor pervades the deadened features of most those portrayed, who often seem entombed in ambiguous space between above and underground. Like many critics and social commentators, Reynolds’ nightmarish visions probably originated as the longings of an idealistic Romantic.

Two watercolors of the same title, Alice in Nowhere Land, both portray a female character in early adolescence; the relatively innocent-looking girl in the painting with four figures morphs and/or devolves into the nasty, hyper-sexualized woman in the other, although her petticoated skirt in the later shows her wearing the Mary Jane shoes we associate with children. A nasty, blue-jeaned, leather jacketed teenage male, (he of the grotesque hairdo) stares at or just past her; both figures exude the sexuality of the young adolescent, but violence is implied on the looks of the petulant faces. Reynolds frequently places his figures on some undetermined bench; this one slides from upper left to lower right, hugely overscaling young Alice (whose face is remarkably male), and whose costume includes red, white, and blue; her torso is covered with a kind of Victorian bustier: sexuality bursts everywhere—the costume is right out of pornoland. (Androgynous figures appear elsewhere in Reynolds’ work, most frequently depicting a homoerotic or autoerotic male, mostly unclothed). Here are America’s young: angry, lost, aimless, druggy-looking.

In the other Alice (these characters truly are in “Nowhere Land”), the figure of Alice bears a strong resemblance to the young princess in Velasquez’s Las Meninas: Alice as the child princess, whom a seeming mother-figure, wearing a crown, and two figures, an African American male, and a catatonic female all sit on a rug, completing the “royal” group. Alice’s pose is borrowed from a John Singer Sergeant portrait, in turn borrowed from Velasquez. The room which they inhabit has no furniture except for a patterned blue rug, a mattress leaning against a rear wall, and a painting on another wall. Reynolds luxuriates in painting the herringbone pattern of the wood floor, and the wall behind Alice, fore fronting her, is a series of horizontal geometric shapes ranging from black to deep red. Red, white, and blue all predominate: here’s the American family 2010: no one speaks, alienation reign, and a zombie-like presence predominates. No one connects, and the four people depicted make no sense as a group. Reynolds’ painterly abilities are showcased in the figuration and the abstraction at which he so excels.

That same zombie-like look appears in These Days, another watercolor, wherein three men sit on an old sofa, the center figure in bathrobe and sandals, the two men flanking him in torn jeans, t shirt or turtleneck. Again, no one is connecting or speaking; no one looks at the others: the image looks like a seated prison line-up (or a break in an artist’s studio drawing session), but the three figures again bring religious painting of the Renaissance and the Baroque to mind: this is an unholy trio, seeming to await, quite passively, some authority figure to single them out for some unknown transgressions; Reynolds’ characters are, like Kafka, always guilty. Reynolds uses a limited palette of browns, deep blues, blacks, beiges, and whites, enhancing the stupor, or lack of affect in each man’s face. The central male is much older than the two flanking him; we wonder why he is nude under the robe: some homoerotic play is implied. One can read the eyes of the central figure as either dreamily far away or just zonked (although it is one of the few gentle, and attractive faces of all of the work on display). The abstract background wall is particularly engaging, as it reads as one horizontally attenuated male figure. For those unfamiliar with the dynamics of figure classes in studios, we wonder what these three await: the figures seemed glued to the bench, passive and struck dumb.

Reynolds’ commanding 8′ by 16′ dyptic entitled 4 is another show-stopper. Four figures on four horses, with one attendant, each figure in a different pose and different stages of dress/undress, radically forefronted, and each horse a different color and pose, all in front of a (probably Ohio) landscape of snow, ridges of hills, winter trees and a lightening sky, 4may be the first humans after eviction from the Garden of Eden; 4 is Reynolds’ epic painting, an opportunity to manifest his skills with the figure, its musculature front and back, and the female form in differing postures, the formal relationships between humans and horses, in front of a pristine and unpeopled landscape. 4 is Reynolds’ world before the Fall, before any apocalypse, a world without psychosexual ambiguity, doubt, or nightmare. 4 is Reynolds’ most peaceful painting, where his skills and his narratives are at peace.

DelugeFirewall, and one of Reynolds’ masterpieces, Sleepwalkers, are oils which represent a very real event: the burning down of his parents’ house; Reynolds himself was not there, but he has made its horror into a symbol of universal suffering and grief, symbolizing a living hell. A house, in America, represents both stability and safety, and Reynolds proposes in his paintings that neither may be attainable. Although we viewers may have become unshockable, these three paintings are as stunning an attempt at apocalyptic art as one is likely to encounter, and each is as powerful as the Greek myths and tragedies from which they are partially borrowed, Baroqued, recomposed into stage sets of tragedy. Survivors appear in states of shock, often sitting and staring numbly from enclosed and claustrophobically creepy rooms, mostly windowless. No one is able to comfort another. A male nude figure lies on an armchair in Deluge in front of which sits a female figure in a yellow slicker and large boots, holding a toy house; she clearly represents his mother. Cats roam the floor, where ruined objects lie about. Collapsed furniture is surrounded by blue/white tile walls, out of which emerges a man’s torso, seen from the rear, and a young man in dark raincoat, painted in an insert at the top of the painting, seems to be coming to help, although he is lost in an underworld/underwater labyrinth of stone walls. The deep indigos play off the whites of the tile walls creating eerie, wildly dramatic Caravaggiesque lighting.

Firewall is a companion painting depicting a room of similar chaos although between a startlingly near-nude young male and a terrified woman, sitting on the iron remains of a sofa an otherworldly figure floats on the floor, upside down, covered in a blanket: has this young man died? The states of shock are brilliantly depicted both as narrative and as dreamscape, as are the literal remnants of a fire in the walls in the paintings. A small window shows bare-limbed trees in snow. Reynolds has given us a view of living hell: the figures have an iconic or totemic presence, reminding us of the theatricality of the Greek chorus. I propose that Reynolds himself is the young nudish male in these paintings, placing himself there after the fact, as one might in dreams, or utilizing artistic license. The effect is that much more jarring, as this male always appears to be alive and a bit provocatively posing.

Sleepwalkers is Reynolds’ most vivid portrait of hell. Surrounded by four dogs, (Cerberus was the three headed Greek dog who guarded the entrance to the underworld), a robot-like male looks towards a screaming nude female in a state of horrified shock. She appears unable to move, partly because a uniformed giant male lurks next to her, representing the rape of the female by soldiers of whatever war. They all appear underground as in hell, although a city is abstractly painted in part of the upper left. White light highlights the screaming nude female, and flickers of light hit the male and two of the dogs. An old woman appears at the left edge, perhaps representing old women everywhere in times of war, while a man sits holding his head in despair. A triangle defined by three of the dogs creates a central seating group; a robot-like male is walking towards the bizarre figures at the right. As the groups intersect, they create a type of totemic-like movement.

Sleepwalkers is a tour-de-force. Reynolds appropriates Caravaggio’s dramatic lighting and the palette both of the Baroque and of the Venetian Renaissance, which he deepens and darkens. The four dogs are directly appropriated from Velasquez. Whether this painting represents a sleepwalker’s nightmare, a waking nightmare, or a symbolic hell does not matter. When, occasionally, as in Sleepwalkers, Reynolds comes close to borrowing imagery from science fiction or popular culture, he still integrates them in a transcendent universal scene of horror, no mean feat in an era inundated with horror in all electronic media.

Reynolds’ watercolors, thus, become the first act of a two-act operatic theatrical; the oils are the second act. A progression is proposed, from a nasty, above ground hell we recognize, in spite of our shudders, but devolves into a nightmarish Surreal miasma of horror. Fish Eaters is equivalent to McCarthy’s The Road; in narrative terms, this painting so Spanish in composition and color leads us from above ground to the netherworld. Reynolds’ genius with composition, with figural groupings, with tight, taught relationships between representation and abstraction, his unusual palette and his genius with lighting, make him one of the freshest, most prescient, and most original figurative painters alive anywhere today. His ability to evoke disgust, despair, fear, horror, and seductive sexuality concurrently, are uncanny, but by integrating these themes within centuries of fine art tropes and appropriations, his paintings become more brilliant, yet oddly more accessible. This is a remarkable achievement for painting, which must compete with computers, film, television, and other contemporary mediums, which routinely pour out similar ideas, but lack narrative flow, historical reference and psychological insight. Todd Reynolds is at the peak of his craft.

– Daniel Brown

Ed. note: This essay was commissioned by Todd Reynolds for his exhibition at the Weston Gallery. A longer version will become part of a book on Reynolds, with text by Brown.



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