David Reed at Max Protetch Gallery

David Reed, #492 (2001-2003), oil and alkyd on linen, 36″ x 110″; Private Collection, United States

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Walking west on 22nd Street the other week, I glanced in the window of the Max Protetch Gallery, noticed gallery personnel hanging paintings by David Reed and experienced something unexpected: anticipation.

I stopped and craned my neck, puzzled. Having kept Mr. Reed’s art at arm’s length in the past, I couldn’t believe I was actually curious–indeed, eager–to see the work. Could Mr. Reed have discovered a new (or interesting) facet to his hyperstylized brand of abstraction? It seemed unlikely. Here, after all, was a painter whose art I had described as the oil-on-canvas equivalent of a Big Mac, “unfailing and flavorless.”

Upon returning to Protetch a few days later, the exhibition now open to the public, my qualms about Mr. Reed’s pictures remained pretty much intact. His meticulous investigations of the art of painting still give off a whiff of formaldehyde. The roiling, silky brushstrokes–Mr. Reed’s signature mark, now widely imitated–are dramatic, denatured and cinematic. They’re emblems of touch, not the real thing, and, as such, self-conscious and mannered.

The work’s lustrous surfaces, having been layered, stenciled and sanded, nonetheless maintain a hands-off, disembodied character. Mr. Reed’s clever manipulations of oil paint dazzle the eye, the flashy forms creating lurid elisions of color, space and gesture. This is sleek, slick and brainy stuff-fodder custom-made for those who like painting only when it admits to being on its last legs.

Having said that, I was seduced by Mr. Reed’s recent efforts–though I don’t want to suggest that they evince an infusion of warm blood. The work is as chilly as ever, yet it seems different, more open and exploratory, more complicated in a way that has less to do with pictorial sensation than with pictorial structure. It’s to Mr. Reed’s credit that he’s discovering nuances within a style that had seemed fairly fixed.

The new compositions are geared to building upon, rather than exploiting, jarring juxtapositions of incident–they feel, I don’t know . . . fulsome. And sometimes these fast paintings are slow: In one canvas, an accumulation of yellow is augmented by thalos and purples, creating an elusive range of tones impossible to register in a single viewing. In an odd way, Mr. Reed’s canvases have become less statements about painting than merely paintings. That’s a heartening step.

Then again, maybe I’m just relieved that Mr. Reed hasn’t digitally inserted one of his paintings into an Alfred Hitchcock film or created a mock installation of the room in which the scene took place, as he’s done in the past. Maybe the absence of gimmickry, coupled with a hunger for well-crafted contemporary painting, has occasioned a softening of the critical backbone. Mr. Reed’s art is, in its immaculate contrivance, pretty off-putting. Then again, if it weren’t off-putting, the paintings somehow wouldn’t be as alluring as they are. Mr. Reed will never find his way into your heart, but he will finagle his way into your head, using the eye as his conduit.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Originally published in the November 28, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.

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