Studio Visit: Roland Reiss, Chromatic Joy
By Gary Brewer
“Colors have their own distinctive beauty that you have to preserve, just as in music you try to preserve sounds. It is a question of organization, of finding the arrangement that will keep the beauty and freshness of color.”
“There are always flowers for those who want to see them.”
“All artwork is about beauty; all positive work represents it and celebrates it. All negative art protests the lack of beauty in our lives. When a beautiful rose dies, beauty does not die because it is not really in the rose. Beauty is an awareness in the mind.”
Agnes Martin, Beauty is the Mystery of Life
Color energy – vibrant color chords that dazzle – the unrestrained expression of joy; it is a serious enterprise to give weight and presence to the music of the heart and soul. In the ‘visual arts’ we live in a world where beauty is often trammeled underfoot by burdensome theories that negate experience in exchange for vapid conceptual conceits. To create works that express an ethos in which authenticity is a profound achievement and where one seeks to find something that they recognize as true. One often finds themselves in a defensive position, to rationalize the ‘raison d’être’ for that which is as pure as sunlight on a flower.
Roland Reiss has chosen this path, or I should say, it has chosen him. To make paintings that follow Matisse’s “wish to create a spiritual remedy;” works that comfort and soothe the spirit. Roland is on a serious journey, to look long and hard into the nature of color and form and to find chromatic chords that capture his experience; that reflect the joy of ‘being’.
As we spoke, I said to him, ‘It is almost as if you are pushing back time, that you are using the energy of light to expose a new dimension.’ He said of this, “As I grow older paintings become a way to expand the joyful experience of life!”
The current development of work out of his “je t’aime” series is an expression of these convictions. Last year Roland spent some time in the hospital. While there his wife Dawn Arrowsmith brought him a bouquet of flowers, and in his drugged delirium he looked at the bouquet and said aloud, “When I get out of here I am going to paint those flowers!” It was an assertion of an intense desire to get back to the work he loves; painting in his studio.
When he returned home he set to work. He created a small painting with an Etruscan red background, the colors of the vase and flowers fully saturated; a nod to Matisse’s late paper cutouts. The shapes of the leaves and petals are mostly flat with areas of subtle gradations. They are painted in vibrant colors and at the edges there is a slight feathering, a soft brushy edge that give the forms a softer presence. The field of red surrounding the vase and flowers is unbroken, isolating them in a central position. There is a sincerity to this painting that captures the genuine radiant joy and gratitude Roland felt for being healthy again and back in his studio. It was a joy that was palpable enough that when his dealer, Diane Rosenstein, came for a visit and saw the painting, she said in no uncertain terms, “That painting is about love!”
Roland has continued with this ‘je t’aime’ series, a theme and variations exploring the power of color. The newer ones are called “Unrepentant Flowers.” He sometimes repeats the same design in different colors exploring the effect the chromatic changes have on the composition. Each painting shares the same format surrounded on all sides by a field of color, the flower and vase are centered, floating in a chromatic sea of light. There are maybe 15 paintings hung on one wall in his studio in three rows, each painting is 30×24 inches. The effect is almost musical. The dazzling energy coming off of each painting is a different color chord. There are complex internal relationships of shape and color that establish high-energy visual vibrations that have a radiant, uplifting emotional tenor. Indeed the room itself feels physically lighter, like gravity has been lessened. There is a lifetime of experience and knowledge compressed into these small vibrant paintings. They assert ‘I am’ with a passion and soulfulness that is true and deep.
Years earlier, just before he embarked on his floral series, Roland had been thinking about artists’ mature work and how it contained everything that they knew about painting. He had been thinking specifically about Manet and his late flower paintings. He said of those, “ You can see in these small works his entire history as an artist. Every invention and innovation is in those paintings, you do not need to see “Luncheon on the Grass.” In one small painting of flowers he has summed it all up. I was intrigued by this and its possibilities supported the future development of my work.”
The series of floral paintings began in 2007, when Roland decided that he wanted to create works that would encompass much of his artistic journey up to that point. He wanted to find an armature that would allow him to include references and images from many different phases of his career and life. It was a tall order but considering possible solutions he thought, “well why not flowers, they are fresh territory for me. I could arrange them on a grid like scaffolding and fill in the spaces behind them and in between with fragments from my life. It would embody some of the various kinds of work that I have produced throughout my career.” He decided to float the compositions in the middle of a color field, leaving space around on all side. The background colors are subtle nuanced earth tones that create an atmosphere for the galaxies of Roland’s life and work to float within, suspended in a space free from gravity – a space just outside of ‘time’. These works are elegant in their design and restraint. These are complex, thoroughly considered compositions, with hidden narratives tucked in the foliage or behind a flower petal. These paintings are deeply beautiful in their conception and resolve.
His next series in the ‘Floral’ paintings are full of bold color. A group of red, yellow and blue paintings that juxtapose the flat vibrant purity of primary colors against the thick impasto brush stokes that Roland carefully placed to frame and ‘block in’ the flowers and vases. It was a dialogue between the energy of a stroke of paint from his hand in relation to the pure color relationships discerned by his knowing eye. These are bold powerful paintings that take on other 20th century artists for whom the primary colors was their ‘terroir’, namely Mondrian and Barnett Newman. It was a way to go beyond their efforts, to add something to the dialogue with history as well as to represent the concerns of what the hand and eye can capture of the artists individual spirit. It is a philosophical dialogue to simultaneously challenge oneself and to take on history. To challenge ones heroes, not to best them but to contribute a line to the narrative thread.
Roland’s life as an artist is long and rich. A brief synopsis takes us from Los Angeles to his early years teaching painting at the University of Colorado, to his move back to Los Angeles where he chaired the art program at Claremont University where he also became known for his miniatures, and then to the present.
I asked Roland about his early works that explored the minimalist-material zeitgeist of the late 1960’s, I was curious to know how he got from that body of work to the miniatures for which he became known when he moved back to LA. Roland responded, “I had been working in a reductive abstract approach for years, exploring materials, plastics and other ways of making paintings and objects. I was given a retrospective at the University of Colorado’s Denver Art Center and was happy and excited to see my work represented in a large survey. At this point my life had been filled with family and great students, I was expecting to be thrilled with the show, but as I sat in the gallery the work began to feel vacuous. I could not find my life in the work. I decided I needed to discover a way to bring everything into my art. I had been interested in holograms and was thinking about some holographic scientific objects I had seen in small Plexiglas boxes. My interest in film had an influence as well. I was a foreign film sponsor at the University – Fellini, Bergman, Antonioni – and the idea of film sets, fractured narratives, and the holograms in the Plexiglas boxes all came together. I decided I would make all this happen in miniatures and set to work. I thought of them as 3 dimensional paintings.”
These eccentric, obsessive and wonderful stage sets of the imagination would take up the next 15 years of his artistic output. He filled them with everything from his life and work; humorous, playful and open to interpretation they ‘contained multitudes’, and were an antidote to the emptiness that he felt when viewing his retrospective.
Following the miniatures there was a long period when he returned to his first love, painting. He was focused on light and had returned to using plastics, exploring its ability to capture and reflect light. These works were largely abstract but referenced figurative elements as well; a silhouette of something in his studio, the refection of his lights on a sheet of Plexiglas. These paintings explored light and color in an open dialogue between pure abstraction and representation. This was the last series of paintings he did before he began his new adventure into floral painting and intensified color.
All of Roland’s varied works throughout his career share a common quality in their conception and realization. He has consistently sought what is called a “peak experience” a subjective recognition of when a work reaches its zenith, when will and intuition persuade matter to yield to ones spirit and capture the synaptic sparks of consciousness. There is a radiance that Roland exudes in both his person and his work. It is a state of joy and gratitude, which literally keeps him young at heart. Older now, his mind and spirit exude an enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity that is a gift to all who know him or were his students.
He said of this, “As a teacher I was invigorated by my interaction with students. Their energy and enthusiasm were boundless and it continually fed me. It gave me an endless source of inspiration to create my own work and to explore new avenues of thought and artistic practice. I gave a lot to my students but it was a symbiotic relationship in which my giving was rewarded with their bright minds giving back to me as well.” On this note Roland told me of a mythic tale of endurance and sublime possession. Occasionally he would have the graduate students come for a lecture on color. Roland would bring wine and the students would bring popcorn. The lecture would open late in the day and continue into the morning hours. An incantation in the spirit of the mythic oral tradition of ancient times, a sagacious being in Dionysian splendor intoning the infinite possibilities of light and color, the metaphysical and metaphoric pursuit of seeing and knowing, of analyzing our perceptual experience through the prism of the light of mind and spirit.
Roland is a cultural treasure. His works mine the depths of his soul, bringing to light the treasures we all share, the treasure that we as humans are made from. Roland is a humanist in the deepest sense of the word, he believes that our world, as tragic as it can be, is a gift to appreciate and to share, to intone in words and deeds a gratitude and thanks for this brilliant ‘consciousness’ that we all possess, where memory and dreams yield great works of art.