Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Bathed in Grace: The Life and Work of Jennifer Wynne Reeves

This touching tribute to the painter Jennifer Wynne Reeves is by her Facebook friend and fellow artist, Lori Ellison. Reeves died in June, aged 51, after a long struggle with brain cancer.  The memorial service to which Lori refers took place at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery on September 6. An exhibition of her work continues at BravinLee programs through October 11.

Photograph of Jennifer Wynne Reeves by Magaly Perez, 2012
Photograph of Jennifer Wynne Reeves by Magaly Perez, 2012

Of the various names of beauty we have touched, hozho is the most comprehensive, which we might explain by saying the Navajo way of life is aesthetic at its base. But we also should simply say that beauty is not, for the Navajo, an aesthetic concept: it’s not primarily about the way things appear — though it includes the universe as a whole. It is usually translated into English as “beauty,” though also as “health” or “balance,” “harmony,” “goodness.” It means all of these things and more. It refers above all to the world when it is flourishing; it refers to things we make, which flourish and play a role in the flourishing of other things; and it refers to ourselves, flourishing as makers, as people inhabiting a community that inhabits a world. It is a word for the oneness of all things when they are joined together in a wholesome state.
-Crispin Sartwell, Six Names of Beauty, 2004.

At her memorial service earlier this month I found myself thinking about Jennifer Wynne Reeves and hozho, with its implicit moral imperative. It struck me that Jennifer lived, made and wrote in a state of hozho.  Minutes after I had this thought the woman with the guitar started to sing a Navajo song about peace all around us which became a singalong to close the beautiful and elegant service to this woman’s singular life and work. The nearest English equivalent would be to say that Reeves lived a life bathed in Grace.

Reeves anthropomorphizes abstraction in an ultimately humane way, abstracting emotion in the way Pina Bausch does in her choreography. The Garden of Gethsemane (2014), with its off-white picket fence, and its multicolored abstract striped figure, reminds me that in the suburbs no one can hear you scream.

Jennifer Wynn Reeves, Place (4-43), 1997. Oil on birch hardwood, 12 x 16 inches. Courtesy BravinLee programs
Jennifer Wynn Reeves, Place (4-43), 1997. Oil on birch hardwood, 12 x 16 inches. Courtesy BravinLee programs

Jonah (2012) has a series of lumps of an Autumn palette forming a figure with wire arms in a gesture of either helplessness or praying — the two go together — facing away from the gaping red maw of a giant fish. It is archetypal in its appropriately named biblical theme.

Place (1997) drives home the impasto and materiality of Reeves’ work that does not show up in reproduction on Facebook, where I became one of her followers and a commenter on the long threads accompanying her art and her writing. I didn’t understand her work well on Facebook – it was over my head – but when I went to the opening of her memorial show at BravinLee and saw it for the first time in all its material glory, it went straight to my heart.

Place has a heavily impastoed cake form in black with white frosting accompanied by equally dimensional blobs in sky blue and sea green stacked into a figure. Kym Ghee, my Facebook friend who met me at the show, said all of her paintings were delicious and edible with something uncomfortable taking place underneath. No painting illuminates this principle more than Place.

Klee and Arp were designated the humorous painters of the time by art critics. I would add Sonia Delaunay and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. But their humor is not lacking in gravity. People err when they think of life as pure tragedy, for they will become melancholics, or of life as pure comedy, for they will become clowns. Life is both tragic and comic at the same time. Reeves shares with these artists a sense of the tragicomic.

Among her contemporaries she belongs with Thomas Nozkowski, Stephen Mueller and Jonathan Lasker to the genre of narrative abstraction. Mueller and Lasker the most: Mueller for his spirituality and early Lasker for his symbolism. Lasker was the Forrest Bess of the TV Generation. Reeves’ work shares this spirituality and symbolism.

Come walk in hozho with the work and writing that Jennifer Wynne Reeves has left behind.

BravinLee programs is at 526 West 26th Street #211, New York City, 212 462 4404

Jennifer Wynn Reeves, Jonah, 2012. Gouache, pencil, wire on hard molding paste on paper, 11 1/2 x 15 1/4 inches. Courtesy BravinLee programs.
click to enlarge
Jennifer Wynne Reeves ,Place (4-43), 1997. Oil on birch hardwood, 12 x 16 inches. Courtesy BravinLee programs.
click to enlarge