A disarming honesty permeated Scott Reeder’s first exhibition at Lisa Cooley, from its folksy title “People Call Me Scott” to its lineup of 30 small, bright acrylic paintings of stenciled word combinations. Reeder first gained attention for breezy oil-on-canvas mash-ups of canonical modernist art and humorous figuration involving fruit, sex, death and drugs. In 2011, the Detroit-based artist, who is also a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, had his first solo museum exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
Reeder’s new paintings (all 2013) are clear of explicit references to art history and are contextualized in a personal cosmos by two sculptural installations and neon signage. In the word paintings, the use of an airbrush, stencils and a tangy color palette evoke a downbeat teenage aesthetic, like a merchandise stand for a beloved rock band. There’s an aura of polite transgression in the word pairings, such as Free Acid, set against a rainbow color fade; Cops Kiss, on a magenta ground; and Lady Bong, spelled out like the lights of an old-fashion marquee sign.
The conflation of a zany, slightly nerdish conceptual flair with blunt material specificity was most evident in five large acrylic-and-enamel paintings from the “Pasta Series,” created by airbrushing over dried and cooked pasta. In these works, straight lines and wormlike squiggles are neither particularly expressive as abstract forms nor as food—a lifetime away from James Rosenquist’s juicy close-ups of spaghetti in red sauce. The monochrome backgrounds (baby blue, pea green, cold gray) seem like arbitrary design choices. The most visually exciting work in the series reads as a starry night sky, with each tiny alphabet-soup pasta letter registering as a point of light when seen from across the room.
In the gallery’s back room, two large canvases, Alternate Titles for Recent Exhibitions I’ve Seen and Song Titles, are covered with lists of handwritten chalk lines on chalkboard paint. They poke at the entwinement of commerce and digital media in the contemporary art world (“Just Think Of Me As a Philosopher Who Sells Things,” “We Do It 4 The JPGS”), while also exuding a shrugging complicity with the state of things. In contrast to the brisk, repetitive cursive in John Baldessari’s text piece I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art (1971), Reeder’s amiable chalk lettering reads as insouciantly generic, indicative of a practice more concerned with the limitations of contemporary culture than with a serial investigation into language as material. One of Reeder’s alternate exhibition titles, “Napping on Acid,” perhaps best describes the artist’s dilemma: the psychedelic rapture of art wasted in sleep.
Sharing the gallery’s back room with the chalkboard paintings are the artist’s phone number spelled out in white neon and “Bad Ideas,” a series of four painted aluminum sheets resembling crumpled paper balls, symbols of artistic frustration writ large. A fifth Bad Idea, a large version of the smaller four, evokes a delicate yet goofy send-up of classic Minimalism. Less ham-fisted is Paper, nine letter-size sheets of white aluminum, discreetly scattered in a corner at the base of the word paintings. Viewed in tandem with the word pairings, the piece suggests fresh starts and a Mallarméan roll of the dice. Reeder’s use of language in his paintings makes his work cannily accessible and sometimes even unbearably up-to-date, with overt references to the Internet and social media. But the inclusion of these simple, blank-faced sculptures wipes the board clean once more.
It’s not surprising that Scott Reeder lives in Wisconsin, birthplace of The Onion. Like the satirical newspaper, Reeder manages to get a lot of mileage out of the sometimes sad confluence of sensationalism and everyday life. The subjects of his small paintings, all from 2009, could be pictorial versions of Onion headlines, combining humor and pathos: a single white, childlike daisy gazing at its reflection in a cracked window that overlooks the glow of a fiery cataclysm; a flower looping from a slim vase to dunk its bloom into an Indian-yellow goblet of booze (Drunk Flower); an erect pink phallus standing onstage in front of a microphone (Comedian).
Reeder’s jokey, often anthropomorphic subjects are rendered in a style that at once pays homage to and satirizes modernism. Avery and Bonnard are the presiding spirits, though for Suicidal Shape (Study in Red), Reeder made a few artistic decisions, with offhand-looking results, that bring to mind Color Field painting, Matisse, Guston and Newman. Wiping the paint at the center of the red canvas (stained, à la Louis or Noland) into a pink rectangle shape, Reeder added a dark stool below, transforming the rectangle into a canvas resting on the stool—an arrangement that could have been borrowed from Matisse’s Red Studio. The Guston-y bit is a noose encircling the rectangle, the nod to Newman a hanging rope painted in thick ocher floating on the flat red stain, a kind of “zip.”
In less confident hands the art historical name game might grow tiresome, but Reeder’s approach is so nonchalant that his allusions are embedded in his work like those of casual but erudite fiction—it’s nice if you get the references, but not necessary to enjoying the work. (Reeder, 38, commutes to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he is tenured and has presumably been teaching the canon for years.) Where the jokes become central, particularly in the paintings with figures, the works are weaker. Four paintings in his “Cubist Cokehead” series answer the question of what to do with all those extra noses, but they don’t go beyond being one-liners.
Rendez-vous has a similarly silly premise: it isan almost all-green painting of two dollar bills having sex doggy-style among three stacks of more currency. Yet the work manages to transmit both the thrill of something naughty (are those stacks sleeping?) and a real tenderness. The bottom bill is curled up and seems to be exhaling just so. Scumbled brushwork throughout and some scraped paint on the top of the furthest stack give the picture a feeling of balmy air in the twilight. Reeder’s mixed attitude of affection and breeziness toward both his artistic heroes and his own offbeat imagery sets him apart from the crowded field of smart slacker painters. One assumes he worked hard to make his paintings look this easy.
Photo: Scott Reeder: Cubist Cokehead (Blue Table), 2009, oil on line, 28 by 23 inches; at Daniel Reich.