I was asked to write this review for the exhibition Narrow Margins: 2011 KCAI Faculty Biennial. It was included as part of in interactive kiosk in the gallery. “Ask Not” is a teaser for Reif’s March 2012 exhibtion at the Kansas City Artists Coalition, Bedlam Bath & Beyond.
Sometimes painting happens by accident. Sometimes the unpredictable process of making leads artists into new territory purely by coincidence. When this happens, it’s important to acknowledge this evolution as significant and not just an artistic fluke. For the sake of this essay as well as for art historical reasons let’s call Brett Reif’s latest work, Ask Not a painting. Rather than stray into the semantics of institutionally imposed binaries like painting versus sculpture, let’s instead subvert the system. Lets use this work as a way to expand what a painting can be. Let’s bring the traditionally “sculptural” issues this work addresses like form, material, and structure to the world of painting.
Ask Not consists of layers upon layers of stacked, cut, bundled, and fastened domestic detritus which was then coated in some twenty eight layers of poured flock. It is a labyrinth of information. A departure from Brett’s previous work, Ask Not is the result of adventurous risk taking, experimentation, and play in the artist’s studio. When I was a student, I knew Brett as my professor; now that I’ve graduated I know him as a friend and colleague. I have long admired his work and the unorthodox techniques he uses. The difference I see in this latest body of work is an interweaving of his personal and emotional narratives with the socio-economic commentary present in his previous works.
Ask Not is a trying piece. Existing in the space traditionally claimed by painting, this large work demands from its viewer a higher level of inspection. Not exactly a ‘pretty’ picture, Ask Not struggles to be likable. However the work is not about aesthetic appeal. This meaning is more elusive than it’s formal properties. Perhaps Brett’s sampling of neighborhood waste (the materials were literally collected during large trash pick up day in Shawnee, Kansas) acts as a material mirror and therefore as an entry point for viewers.
If the work is a mirror, it’s a fogged one, upon which layers and layers of lavishly dripped flock cloud it’s surface. These drips and splashes of color are the moments that most heavily reference the language of painting. However, Brett’s mark making departs from the glossy theatrics of Abstract Expressionism or the luminescent gestures of contemporaries like Pat Steir or Petah Coyne. In Ask Not the compulsive act of repeatedly slathering the surface is calmed by the soft fuzziness and uniform texture of the flock itself, thus blending surface and structure. The work then asks viewers to become archeologists and dig through the layers to discover meaning beneath. Luckily, Brett has included a starting point: several handles breech the picture plane as a stable invitation.
For the artist as a maker, this work is also physically and emotionally trying. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone to explore new territory in a studio practice is commendable. Exhibiting the resulting work from these experiments is even more admirable.
Process and materials have always been crucial to Brett’s practice, usually more so than whatever image the work assumes. In a recent discussion about this work Brett said, “ I do not design image first, I design process first, and the images or objects get formed from the consequences of interacting events.” So if process is priority, then where does the image come from, and what does it mean? It’s difficult to say where the mind goes when the hands are working. The place is psychological, emotional, and deeply different for everyone. What happened in this work are two totemic shapes dominating the composition and a plant like form rustling between them and blooming above. The shapes could be seen as figures intertwined in a dark romance, or as pieces of architecture locked in a competition over dominance, or a slew of other narratives. In the end these interpretations aren’t actually important. What matters most parallels the creation of the work itself: the story is first told through process and material choices,and the image is consequential.