September 20th, 2019

Is Still Cool S**t: In Chicago

All the Unseen Things

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Kelly Reaves, Untitled (2019)


Among the doodlers, portraitists, conceptual artists, and illustrators, there are some who lurk in a kind of indistinct atmosphere. Their works do not so cleanly fit inside the confines of an ideology. Their ideas follow a more intuitive path. They may be stuck between epochs, like William Blake, or they may be describing a taboo world. I am interested in two such artists that form a kind of subgenre of this larger type and kind of marginalized scribbler. Both of my subjects are holy wreckers who annihilate the very thing they are tasked with presenting—who wrestle with the paradox of the seen world and the unseen spirit—the contemporary Kelly Reaves and Hyman Bloom, an until recently lost artist from the height of Modernism.


The differences between their two styles are immediately evident. Reaves’ work is reminiscent of murals spray-painted across subway sides, while Bloom is coming out of the expressive vulgarity of Van Gogh. Reaves’ prints conjure up a certain early twentieth century avante garde nostalgia, a la Ferlinghetti and Dada, while Bloom’s canvasses hint at Madame Blavatsky and her occultist blatherings.


I am especially drawn to the mazelike quality of Reaves’ images. The one that opens this article, with its fine pen strokes defining an almost cartoonish growth and the faces that can be found within it—specifically in the center, with other types of lines running through the “eyes” and behind the “mouth”—as well as the more leisurely spray-painted squiggles and bright pink bringing the viewer back to a kind of utopia of 80′s street art.


Contrast that to the image below, with its flat whiteness, and the sores of the buttocks so authentic in their mottled pea greens and swollen reds. There is a nostalgia here as well, of the medieval icon—but between the scratched out swirlingness in the white surrounding, and the vivid intricacy of the corpse’s upper torso, a unique sort of self-reflectiveness is conjured up in the viewer. It is a little piece of the sensation a son might feel cutting up his father’s corpse for the vultures in the Tibetan tradition.


Hyman Bloom, Female Corpse Back View (1947)


But with both Bloom and Reaves, what strikes the viewer is this mixture of the grotesque and the spiritual, the very visceral here-ness of the work and the ethereal otherness just out of reach of it. I think of these two very distinct bodies of work as two sides of the same psychomagical universe of preconscious ephemera. These are images being formed out of the very stuff that underlays our concept of the world—as divided into life and death, sex and symbol.


Symbols develop through dichotomy. They come to be in contrast, and in this way, symbols can be paired. Artists play in the lines between the words. They explore parts of the mind where words cannot reach, and go to places of such a subtle nature that symbols cannot capture. This is the kind of artwork that both Bloom and Reaves are performing. It is a painting that is between the representational and the abstract. The difference between their two approaches however, is that Bloom is a representational painter using decay to signify spirit, whereas Reaves is using an abstract body-ness, of growths and cancers, sphincters and fingers in such a way that the viewer is attracted and repulsed, that is both spiritual and abstract, and bodily and concrete.


In her vivid collage-like creations—as in space-bending, multi-layered, and mixed media—Reaves is intentionally highlighting abstraction’s puckered sphinctres and oozing openings, while for Bloom, there’s nothing more abstract than a rotting body. Bloom wants to tear open the cadaver to reveal the spirit within, but the sort of sorcery Reaves is performing is more alluring. Does she want us to acknowledge that the spirit too bleeds, belches, and leaks? Is this a reflection on decay, the jarring dysfunction of the abstract and the felt? Is this political parody? The result of self reflection? An attack? A confession? Each time I look I see something different, because these are symbols that are shape changers.


Kelly Reaves, Untitled (2019)


Part of the allure with Reaves is the mixed media layering. The images themselves follow a kind of dream logic. I am reminded of afternoons spent staring at brick walls looking for faces. Some of these works—like the one above—seem almost like they could have been created by a kind of controlled accident, an unfolding of splatters that are then inked, highlighted and accentuated with color and shading.


But there are other images in this same series that are more exactly worked out, more biologically inspired. A recent addition to her collection, Fresh Meat, takes the more biological aspects of the image to the extreme, with its talons, holes, joints, and hints of tendon, but these are parts without a person. Some of the earliest work in the series depict parts of women in fishnets or bits of some anonymous woman’s torso visible lounging in fur, and then the pieces evolve suddenly into abstract and all black and—reminiscent of some abstract rendering of microscopic plates—to then evolve into body parts strung together—and become colorful—almost like the images themselves are awakening to consciousness.


Reaves’ work has transformed rapidly in the last few years, but Bloom had a single penetrating focus, hammering his paint brush against the rotting flesh he paints in brilliant hues to reveal the “just rightness” hiding just below the surface of all this apparent wrongness. Of course, beyond his cadaver paintings, he loved to paint decaying squashes, Christmas trees, and synagogues. But his focus was always vivid color and even his Christmas tree paintings feel like an unraveling of the image, as if the painting itself were being eaten by the paint.


Hyman Bloom, Self-Portrait (1948)


Bloom’s interest in cadaver paintings began in 1943 with a trip to the morgue, whereas Reaves began producing these images in direct response to the 2016 election, moving away from representational oil paintings of collages to a more fluid and intuitive form of image-making. Knowing this, when I look at the pieces I have selected here of Reaves’ work, I sometimes see an effort to grasp the coagulating soul of the narcissist—or like a cancer of the mind, a tumor being excised. With Bloom, we are looking in from the outside, but with Reaves were are looking out through the more ravaged mind of the distraught, the bereaved, and the self-obsessed.


Specifically—ever since I learned Reaves’ inspiration for this body of work, every time I look at the image that opened this article, I see is a cartoon tumor face Trump screaming back at me. Is this a series of fantastical tumor heads?


For sometimes, these works of Reaves do appear to be portraits of cancer. Each one has some sort of orifice and they are all roughly head-shaped. Like with a gestalt image, sometimes I look and I see the parts twisting about dynamically, and sometimes I see a piece of static portraiture. This is a type of image-making that defies easy categorization, exists within no known ideology, and develops out of an intuitive reaction that is almost religious in origin, leads to the creation of an object that transcends its own object nature—that can be interpreted as political parody or a macabre aesthetic as well icons for the religious atheist—uncovering the disgusting gods hiding in our face creams and hamburgers, and the radiance of our decay.


Kelly Reaves, Untitled (2019)


Painting is a dark art. It is a reworking of the soul. It is an exploration of the image, and beyond the image. It is an interpretation of the world, and a re-seeing. What these two artists share is this element of re-seeing. They are giving a second look. They are looking again. They are conjurers.


And what they are conjuring is more than just the selfies of the earlier times. These are not the John Singer Sargents of the world. These are the symbol-makers forcing a transmogrified rot into our faces, in the case of Bloom, and awakening us to the grotesque foreignness of our dreams, in the case of Reaves.


These are the paintings of our times. For whereas, traditionally, paintings were our keepsakes of the dead, our remembrances of the lost, and whereas in modernity, painting moved toward a complete abstraction—going too far and becoming inhuman—the work of Bloom and Reaves is a more human type of abstraction. It is a work that depicts the thing we cannot see.


“We see before us a strange and macabre spectacle. The dead no longer lie forgotten in their graves. They rise before us, great numbers of them, in darkened rooms: they glow with light. In one place, they make political speeches. In another, they are telling raucous jokes. Here they speak among themselves, over there they are addressing the living. Great choruses of them dance and sing, sometimes in a serious manner, sometimes lightheartedly. But miraculously, the dead are not aged or decayed. They appear in full bloom of youth, at the peak of strength and beauty. The living gaze at them in awe and fascination. They listen intently to their every word. Their images appear everywhere, both in public and in the most private recesses of the houses of the living.” –Peter Halley (The Frozen Land, ZG, November, 1984)


The goal in painting has always been to capture the spirit, but we live in a world where the body can be captured with such cruel exactitude, we’ve forgotten that the spirit even exists. We live in a world where the dead live on and the living are not living—where the human body can be so altered to achieve our dreams of beauty, where the fragile human spirit has been so maligned, where God is either a political tool or a quaint notion of yesteryear, where the end of history is upon us but instead we’re binge-watching friends—and in this time we are faced with a choice.


Kelly Reaves, Untitled (2019)


A person could sit around and continue to binge on vintage SNL and Friends or what have you, or a person could awaken from the stupor of Netflix and Hulu and embrace what is and what’s coming in all its tragedy and horror. This is what paintings like Reaves’ and Bloom’s inspire us to do. They put front and center the grotesque we spend all our waking lives trying to avoid, with the shining objects of the internet and the numbing tinctures of our cupboards. For the crises we are facing may be monumental, but they are also personal.


These are paintings that awaken the viewer to the wider world—to its transience, corruption, beauty and uncertainty. These are artworks that do not differentiate between the sublime and the grotesque, disgust and awe. These are pieces that live between.


[An exhibition of Hyman Bloom's paintings is up now at the MFA, and you can find more of Kelly Reaves' work at]


Kelly Reaves, Untitled (2019)