I first became familiar with the 1950s in the 1980s at a new, 'classic' chrome-detailed diner in Los Angeles: new wave geometry lifted from boomerang coffee tables and Cadillac fins; perpetual atomic paranoia; the Cold War. If memory fiddles with time, maybe the 1950s was just doing a little fortune telling. In the 1953 film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T - the only live action musical film created by Dr Seuss - Bart Collins hates his piano lessons so much that he has a nightmare. His teacher, Dr Terwilliker, becomes the evil kidnapper Dr T, a ruthless maestro who forces 500 boys to practice endlessly at the world's longest piano. In Bart's bad dream myriad red ladders skyrocket to nowhere and his widowed mother is trapped in a golden cage. In a final effort to escape his torture Bart races up to his nemesis, brandishing a mysterious bottled substance. Dr T asks nervously, 'Is it atomic?' Bart cries out, 'very atomic!'.
Nancy Reese's recent show of paintings concerned itself with nostalgia, surreal theatricality and a little fortune telling. Her show opened with Angry Boy (Paradise Obscure), a 'very atomic' painting from 1986. A young boy's gigantic head and shoulders, rendered in varying blues and blacks, dominate the canvas. The boy glares and pouts like a brat with X-ray vision. Meticulously peaked mountains rise behind him like an army - the hills are alive! Reese's touch with landscapes no doubt follows from her painting collaborations with Ed Ruscha, in which they superimposed custom typeset phrases across dramatic backdrops. But instead of incorporating witty text here, Reese sets up a paranoid nostalgia by nearly obscuring the landscape with the figure of the little boy, a devil child with Hollywood star quality.
It helps to know that Reese's show featured new, more diffused compositions alongside older, tighter works and in three different rooms (including an office). It helps because Reese's paintings evoke different moods and seemed to be installed irrespective of their effects. Her work can be sinister, playful, excessive, New Age Romantic and life-or-death serious in a Disney way, and is sometimes all of this at once. In El Señor (1990) a huge flaming ship idles in a near-baroque seascape, framed by a supremely flat golden strip on the left side. But fire oozes, rather than curls, from the ship's tattered sails, calcifying in a crust of red, yellow and white paint. In contrast, The Show Must Go On (1999) returns to the mountains with an even, pearly lustre. The title phrase floats across the hermetic surface like a well-behaved cloud in a precise, airtight font. These differences in surface mark only one aspect of the difficulties inherent in exhibiting eleven of Reese's paintings from 15 years of work in a small gallery comprising three rooms.
In The Way it Could Be (1986), perhaps the most compelling and least resolved of these paintings, a man's head - like that of a blissful matinee idol - juts in profile from the left edge, his eyes closed. An abstract, theatrical Art Deco detail cuts in from the bottom and a velvet drape falls along the right edge. Centre stage in the figure's future vision a dense, unpopulated forest of dark trees and lush grass is handled like a Fantasia animation cell by way of Alexis Smith's painted orange groves, all deep space and articulated detail. A curious valance swims along the top edge, a pastel floral garland equally reminiscent of Florine Stettheimer's textured arrangements and a Mexican crêpe paper party decoration clinging to its painted surface for dear life. The trees in this dream are solid and opaque while the dreaming man is an elusive figure, all coiffure and thick eyelashes and profile. Reese offers us a body and its vision concocted of the same stuff, on equal footing, a surreal utopia, the way it could be.
First published in Issue 65