Paul Reynolds returns to the Finch Lane Gallery for the first time since 2004 with a majestic exhibition of abstract and nonrepresentational paintings rich in color and content. Reynolds’ new body of works, created since his 2007 solo exhibition at The Gallery at Library Square, explores dynamic tensions made visible as autobiography, investigated through a new visual vocabulary. Seemingly disparate elements work together, binding each work into a cohesive whole, giving the exhibition a voice that speaks to the viewer. Reynolds singular style finds influence from Abstract Expressionism as overall gestures are imbued not only with marks, scratches, and stencils, but with personal meaning that yearns to reach the surface.
All the paintings are oil and graphite on birch wood panels; within the body of work there are subgroups dependant on framing technique, color palette, and subject matter. Frames are an integral part of the whole to Reynolds, who chooses a frame for its character, cuts and places the birch wood panel into the frame, then treats the frame as yet another surface in the overall work. One loose group of works is placed in window frames that have been gathered from annual garbage pick up or were donated by friends. The window frames are scraped then sized with a birch panel. These frames are raw, lending the work a feeling of originality.
Each painting is a journal, beginning as a blank surface within which to create a dialogue. Reynolds absorbs cues (be they visual, or not) from a variety of sources: images from the road, from walls; graffiti; random patterns. Pattern, shape, imagery, and content are processed and incorporated into his works in layers of meaning. Reynolds’ artist statement codifies this investigation: “My paintings are getting messier. The recent pieces lean toward the world of marks and lines more than that of shapes. Recognizable objects show up as they would on a wall exposed to random scribblers. I take my cue from casual graffiti, wall histories, tar repairs, paint-outs, old manuscripts, bird tracks, and maps.”
With the first layer of paint, Reynolds begins a dialogue with himself and the work, drawing upon past occurrences and current events to shape each individual painting. This personal dialogue is layered with paint, with words covered and meaning obscured. It is a fascinating notion, tracing the life of a painting that travels from the artist’s deeply personal intent, to the anonymity of a work ending up in someone else’s home, who may not know of the secrets buried in the paint. “There are stories and secrets embedded in these paintings. I carry on conversations with myself and make notes to others, scratch the words into the paint, and then half bury them as the layers build, making a history of shifting thoughts and perspectives. I like the tension between the exposed and the masked.”
When Reynolds begins a work, there is no pre-conceived notion of what it will become. It’s about intuition at lightning speed, “with the same theory that the most important decisions in your life should be given the least amount of thought.” Marks are intuitively made, then Reynolds responds to those marks, adding layer upon layer of paint, painting out imagery that doesn’t work in the overall intent of the piece. Ideas come from marks that are already laid on the panel, wherein positive and negative space dance together to bring about form.
With several of these new works, Reynolds moves away from nonrepresentational shapes by introducing realism in small doses. “Birthday” includes a stencil of his daughter, her left hand covering her mouth. In her right hand — painted as an extension of the stencil — she holds a dead mouse. Reynolds painted in her arm to complete the representational aspect of the work. Is she laughing, or holding her nose? It’s impossible to tell, but to ask the question is to find the humor that flits across the surface of Reynolds work. This is one of the works surrounded by a window pane; its representational aspect setting it apart from the other white window frame paintings.
At least half the works in the show are nonrepresentational. “Underground,” another white window frame painting, has three mustard-colored blocks of layered paint in an otherwise winter-white field of muted hues. Letters have been painted on the panel, then painted-out. The left side of the painting has marks etched onto the panel itself, appearing at first to be a discernable language. The new language Reynolds creates is known only to him; finding its origins in writings left by a great uncle in his schoolbooks from the turn of the twentieth century.
The cool, winter landscape mood of the white window frame paintings give way to other works in the exhibition. “How Tall?” is a charged work springing up from a vibrant field of ochre and olive green. The background pulsates as pyramid shapes reminiscent of jagged western mountains provide resting points on the painting. In the lower right corner is the ghostly imprint resembling a person, moving us off the panel to a land not yet imagined. On the left of the panel a measuring device runs vertically, demarcating unidentified units in regular intervals.
Autobiography continues in two works: “Ralph” and “Millie and Jack.”Ralph was Reynolds’ father, an advertising artist whose circle of friends included Ed Maryon, Steve Macdonald, and dozens of other Utah artists and designers. It is the largest painting in the show, and a departure from other works in the exhibition. It is a complex dialogue with a father fondly remembered, a purely autobiographical work that provides more representational imagery overlaid upon secretive marks. Ralph’s portrait looks straight at us from the lower center section of the painting. Above him are images reminiscent of the father-son relationship: a magpie’s nest, significant to the pair; a bicycle; Ralph reaching up to knock snow from the trees.
“Millie and Jack” is another familial portrait, as interpreted through the vision of another artist. Millie was Reynolds’ grandmother. Jack was Jack Sears, legendary artist whose illustrations could be found not only in The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News, but in newspapers and magazines nationwide. Sears was a long-time art professor at the University of Utah, whose illustrious career included lessons from the American artist Robert Henri in New York City and Utah’s J. T. Harwood. Sears’ drawing of Reynolds’ grandmother is a small work in pencil: it is a drawing of the back of Millie’s head. Reynolds redrew and restyled the drawing at a larger scale, cut a stencil from this drawing, and then applied it to the wood panel in his painting three times, with each stencil image appearing fainter than the last. Reynolds avoids turning all three images into a serial portrait a la Andy Warhol. Rather, this portrait is mysterious and tender: each fading image of Millie belies a relationship between painter and subject we won’t know.
Technique is paramount in a discussion of Reynolds’ work. Just as one becomes caught up in ideas of content and meaning, relationships and secrets, the surface of each painting calls for attention on its own terms. One segment of “Millie and Jack” is raw and disruptive, with green paint laid down in a segment of unease. Reynolds’ constant investigation in finding new ways to apply paint to surface has led to the use of a chopstick in certain instances, stating: “It’s so hard to paint with a chopstick…it results in an awkward, tortured line on the panel.” Reynolds embraces the uneven coverage created by using this unorthodox tool, as he shies away from the “slickness” inherent in certain Abstract Expressionist paintings. “I want the paintings to feel hand-wrought, so I choose a deliberate, busy awkwardness over a cleaner abstraction. I try to approach the work with a willingness to leave ends untied, to leave it in a just-about-to-crash state.”
There is a certain affinity between Reynolds’ work and the earlier ABEX artists, yet, while he may create out of the ABEX school, Reynolds is not interested in slashes of paint that are expressive in nature and intent. Rather, he seeks out marks that are his own. While discussing his work, Reynolds talks about artists he admires, none more so than Cy Twombly. This comes as no surprise: Twombly’s lyrical lines and markings moved us outside ABEX forms of expression to embody a new visual language. In Reynolds’ words, “he’s an honest painter.”
In the midst of works that embrace moments of representation, or those that are wholly non-representational paintings, is “Rainstorm.” This large, horizontal work is the only one in the exhibition with a complete word written out for us….rainstorm. The boldness of the word emerging from the left side of the panel has, by the time it ends on the right, shrunk to a mere whisper of a word. The boldness of the word from the left side of the panel has shrunk by the time we see the right side of the panel to a mere whisper of a word. The huge cataclysm that so often begins a rainstorm and so often ends as a small shower is perfectly embodied in this work. Then, there is the hand. What’s a purple hand doing, floating in the letter “A”? A large red stain falls from the hand, leaving the panel with the appearance of more than just a mere rainstorm: the red stain alludes to apocalypse. Or, maybe the red stain is another secret – a private joke – joined to the numbered measuring device on the left side of the panel. How can we measure natural occurrences? The hand and accompanying stain, with a nod to humor, let us know that we can’t.
This is an exhibition worth taking your time over. Abstract and nonrepresentational works often seem inaccessible to those who favor depictions of the natural world in their paintings. Yet, with so many visual cues appearing in Reynolds’ work – be it the written word writ large on a panel, stencils of family members, or numbers and line as measurement – the exhibition as a whole is a rich autobiography of an artist whose marks and layers bury his secrets to the delight of the viewer.
has taught art history at Westminster College since 2006, and has also taught at the University of Utah and Weber State University. Her extensive exploration of Spiral Jetty was published by The University of Utah Press and the Tanner Trust Fund in a book titled “The Spiral Jetty Encyclo: Exploring Robert Smithson’s Earthwork Through Time and Place” in 2017; it won the 15 Bytes Art Book Award in 2018.