This essay originally appeared in 2012 on a website that no longer exists. It was my first commissioned review. Enjoy!
Trying to explain Jesse Reno’s art in a linear or logical fashion is like trying to catch Niagara Falls in a sieve. His paintings and murals begin as a stream of consciousness, but the stream becomes a torrent, then ebbs, then resumes. Intuitive, emotional and reflexive, yes, his art is all those; logical, no. What follows are my impressions from watching Reno paint for over three hours at the Contemporary Fine Arts Gallery in La Jolla, CA on a warm evening in September 2012.
He stood in his socks – his shoes were left at the edge of the dropcloth – and pondered the 75 x 60 inch canvas tacked to the wall. His face, bearded about the chin, hair popping out from behind a headband in near-dreadlocks, geeky glasses, focused on the work, barely an hour old. Already several colors were overlaid, forming flowers and eyes and scribbles of color. No one color dominated, though pinks, reds and oranges had some advantage. He said, “There are probably three paintings under there that anyone would call done.” Each painting rises phoenix-like from the death of the others – a phoenix being one of the glyphs that recurs in his work. Acrylic paints and pastels and brushes were lined up along one edge of the dropcloth; often he just spreads paint with his hands.
My girlfriend Heather snapped a picture as I walked around. Reno’s paintings are densely layered, text and images with the palimpsests of earlier stages showing through. “You Can’t Stop Me Now,” (2011) is a six-panel work in light, aqueous blues, dominated by a whale and an octopus bedecked with flowers, handprints and short strokes of color. They wear them the way Reno wears his tattoos – they are incorporated. The ocean around them is similarly alive with shapes – more flowers, arrows, even text. “In The Dark There Are No Shadows” is written on the right, while the painting’s title is on the far left. More words, partly defaced, run across the top. The titles develop as the painting does, neither pre-existing the other.
In the meantime Reno has written on the dropcloth “When everything is so clear it begins to speak.” Those words are copied onto the new painting, and considered at one point for its title; interesting, in that clarity isn’t always present or necessarily desired. “What motivates me is seeing all those little connections. There’s a dialogue created by the push and pull.” That dialogue is as much for his benefit as for ours, and the understanding of it isn’t required to enjoy the work. (The title of this review is an observation Heather made upon listening to Reno describe his method.)
A sense of explicit and implicit magic pervades his work. Reno has been profoundly influenced by Native American shamanism: as a boy seeing artifacts in the Museum of Natural History in New York to the heritage of Native tribes in his current home of Portland, Oregon. Among his largest works is a mural commissioned by the Province of Manitoba celebrating the culture of Native peoples. But his art is not limited to that. “There’s more and more room for magic,” he says of his compositions, though he could just as easily be referring to the content. A student at a workshop once asked him if he ever had shamanistic journeys, whereupon he replied, “Every day.” Don’t imagine Reno as some sort of taciturn wizard dispensing wise aphorisms; his manner is open and ebullient, his conversation as free-form as his painting. (He’s in his late 30s but doesn’t look it.)
He began to create a series of arches in deep blue at the top of the painting, turning the palette darker and more somber. He drew over the paint in pastel. Some of the paint is altered later by scraping it with a palette knife. Faces grew in the upper left corner, and an entire head formed center right and became the focus.
For the most part the Native American references are subtle and mixed with personal imagery, but sometimes they become more explicit. “Two Chiefs Conjure Magic” (2012) is a dense mixture of deep green with two multi-faced heads joined and interwoven. Eyes and faces abound in his work, along with flowers, hearts, and arched shapes that are either windows or gravestones – sometimes both. The layering creates the suggestion of images that aren’t there, of further potential awaiting germination.
The painting changed drastically. A slash of red added to the left-hand edge grew until red came to dominate the entire composition. The large head sprouted antlers in white. The dark arches vanished. The ability to let go completely – not only in terms of letting the mind do its thing, but also in letting go of what looks like a finished work – is one of Reno’s great strengths. The words “Connection over Direction” appear at the bottom of the canvas and will remain there to the end.
Though he works impulsively and has no formal training, there is a lot of polish in his best work, with none of the intentional crudity of a Basquiat or the accidental crudity of many so-called “outsider” artists – a term I usually avoid because it’s overused and ill-defined. Any term that attempts to equate Grandma Moses’ quaintly benign, amateurish qualities and the disturbing fantasias of Henry Darger is overreaching. Though Reno uses both outsider and art brut in his publicity material he does not seem overly concerned with definitions. I might have thrown in art informel, a term usually applied to tachisme and other abstract subgenres, through its emphasis on spontaneity. Best to just call it art and let the definitions fall where they may. Reno’s stolid animals (sometimes recognizable by species) with their fragmented faces sometimes remind me of the bull in Picasso’s “Guernica,” though otherwise they share little. What surprises me is the calmness that comes through, when it would be so easy for so much visual and emotional detail to devolve into a chaotic mess. He keeps order by bringing one or two elements to the fore in the final stages of development, giving them center stage, and demoting the rest to – background is an accurate term, but it doesn’t quite have the right nuances – the environment. Though everything is in motion, nothing moves; the motion is suggested but not depicted. Some Native American art does this, as do Roman mosaics and murals, Egyptian reliefs, much middle and far Eastern art. Cave paintings, like those at Lascaux, do not do this. Arrows and radiating lines schematize motion without portraying it. This saves Reno’s paintings from becoming frenetic, which would make them tiresome.
More words, this time at the top: “Antlers reach like Scrabnh” (sic); that last being “branches” jumbled and missing the E. The crowd is mostly middle class and genteel, plus a few of Reno’s friends and students. A tall, thin man in black with bright red contact lenses stands out despite his quiet demeanor. The artist’s girlfriend, cheery and boldly tattooed, helps break the suburban atmosphere.
When a painting doesn’t work – more often in his smaller pieces, as size seems to matter in how his compositions develop – the choices seem more random, the images more derivative. His palette becomes limited, which is, I think, a reaction to the limited space. The mixing of his own imagery with that which he has assimilated from outside keeps the former from being too hermetic, the latter from being mere quotation. The significance of size might explain why he considers himself a muralist. He has executed commissions in the Netherlands and Canada, as well as the US, and enjoys the challenges of working on a heroic scale.
As we were leaving, Reno went back to work. Even as the lights went off in other sections of the galley, he rubbed white paint onto the canvas, covering the antlers, further isolating the large head. The dark arches were succeeded by a series of arches outlined in white along the top of the large head as though they were feathers in a headdress. Though only whispers of the antlers showed through the final result, the title he had suggested to me as tentative endured: “Antlers Reach Like Branches;” most of the title text remains. He added the title to the dropcloth as the painting neared completion. We went out into the night and waited for the world to start transforming. Transformation in the expected ways had already occurred, as the sun set and the night life of the city passed its peak. That other transformation, the one hinted at in Jesse Reno’s art, would be slower and more subtle in its arrival.