Paint gets physical in the late Jennifer Wynne Reeves’s work: bulked up into dented little bricks, squeezed into coils and cones, and knifed, fingered and smeared onto a variety of surfaces that include wood, Masonite and paper (but not canvas), it is augmented by buttons, wire, glass beads and unidentified miscellany. This sampling of mostly recent images and objects—along with a few from 1997, when Reeves first gained recognition—amply demonstrated her ability to muscle emotional complexity from ordinary stuff and paint straight out of the tube.
Occasionally, shapes seemingly born as doodles float across off-color seas and skies, but more often there are intimations of sociability, as when the collaged bits bump and huddle, and sparks fly. Titles further complicate the action. In The Butterfly Bomb (2011), a vaguely animate three-footed form hangs off of the panel. In Socrates and Hemlock (2014), a tumult of ropy paint erupts from a sea of cheesy white fake fur; to the right, a bright yellow column, none too steady, rises to a cap of conical yellow petals, or warheads. Sometimes, too, there are clearly recognizable subjects. A frosted cake has been plunked at unlit center stage in the comically grumpy Place (4-43), 1997. Night fishers trawl in Standard of Liberty (2013) and Hooking Stars (2014); taking the bait in the former is a preternaturally graceful brown bird, its wings an angelic pink. As she did earlier in her career, Reeves had also lately painted backyard scenes: the unusually large Garden of Gethsemane (2014; roughly 3 by 5 feet) features a stormy sky, a white picket fence and a poisonously verdant field beyond.
Briefly in the late 1990s, Reeves’s spindly, patched-together figures took three-dimensional shape and walked off into the woods, where she photographed them against bleak skies and snowy fields. The resulting inkjet prints, big and stubbornly unclassifiable, are enlivened with signature dollops of paint and buttons. Presented in a vitrine in the gallery’s reception area, the quixotic little sculptures looked especially vulnerable, not a trait for which Reeves is known. Exceptionally energetic and unhampered by convention (as to boundaries between disciplines, for instance), she wrote copiously and had a wide following on Facebook, where her tart and observant postings encompassed both professional and personal matters. As could be gleaned from two paintings here that bear handwritten text fragments, her candor was not least unsparing, or affecting, when she was writing about her own returning cancer, from which she died in June, at 51.
Reeves’s résumé says her teachers included Ron Gorchov and Alice Neel. One can also see the influence of painters ranging from Paul Klee to Jonathan Lasker, Amy Sillman to Grandma Moses. Raised in rural Michigan, Reeves came by her homespun subjects honestly. As was evident in her self-fashioned residences and, briefly, an antiques store she ran in small-town upstate New York, she could summon sensibility as a magic wand to transmute all manner of commonplace things. Of course she performed this trick (an admittedly tinselly operation; it was the stinging self-awareness that preserved its credibility) most forcefully in her work, where joyful wonder bumps up hard against a surfeit of experience and understanding.