Big Words

Roland Reiss' “New Paintings and Selected Sculpture” at the Huntington Beach Art Center is a Pavlovian bell for art-critic doctor types who talk themselves in circles with big, big words that seem placed there for the sole purpose of taking up some time and saying (in big, important, big-word ways) things so commonplace they don't need to be said at all, except that someone needed to pad their essay. Big word, big word, big word!

Take, for instance, Dr. Jeanne S.M. Willette's catalog essay, in which she says things like “The dichotomy between language-based art and object-based art was also a contrast between an emphasis on impersonal theoretics and subjective commentaries on the world at large. This dialogic crucible is the matrix of the art of Roland Reiss, an oeuvre that was defined and shaped by the distinctive Los Angeles environment.”

That's a whole lot of space in which to say nothing. But that's not the worst part. “Looking back over his four-decade career,” Willette writes, “it is difficult to think of any artist in LA whose career is more closely intertwined with the art scene: not only has he made art directly in response to this specific culture but he also has helped shape the very art world in which his career has been based.” Granted, she doesn't pile on ridiculously big words in this case, but her idea is retarded. Every artist in the LA art scene in the '60s “made art directly in response to the specific culture.” And not only can I name five artists I personally know who were equally responsible for shaping the LA art scene, but also two of them have asked to see my breasts. Oh, well. The good doctor gets better about three pages later when she starts discussing the meaning of plastic.

Reiss' works are perfectly pleasant. He tints his canvases with the sheerest acrylics, slathering them across one another like layers of sticky, gleaming marmalade. Depending on his color choice (Earthlight is a pretty tangerine; Northlight is an identical construction—sheer squares accented with pencil hatchmarks—but in soothing, toothpaste-glimmer blue), they are either inviting or not. Time to Time is one of a series that shares an identical envelope-lookin' graphic of geometric lines at the bottom of the canvas, imposing the symbol (which surely means something; no doubt Willette could deconstruct it for us) onto planes of different color but near-identical compositions. In an organic yellow infused with orange, it's a charming, happy piece; in pink with hospital-green accents, it's oppressive and icky, the wan colors working like a boot on one's neck to subdue and tyrannize, but passive-aggressively. The best works all evoke foods—marmalade, melted sherbet, viscous strawberry sorbet —as though one were tasting the canvas. You know, like when you're high, and you can actually taste music. Just like that!

The works are charming, even if some ain't so pretty. They are certainly fun to traipse among, and they're beautifully installed in the airy gallery. And at least the much-loathed Huntington Beach Art Center isn't actively sucking. It's the importance these highfalutin doctor types attach to the works that rankles. They invoke Clem Greenberg, Umberto Eco, Kim Levin and Marshall McLuhan. (Amazingly, Willette left out a comparison of Reiss' layered surfaces to Willem DeKooning's.) They discuss at length principles—reductivism and the degree to which it was adhered to—admired only by the most slavish of intellectual copycats, looking for any reason to use the terms “literary forcing” and “ontological infinity.”

It's easy to be a Philistine and rail against elitist intellectuals; it's especially easy in this era of Dubya and “the big lie,” when every brain cell is suspect. But we also must keep one another honest. Because big words and high-flying hypotheses with nothing to back them up are as damaging to our credibility as the subliminable gobbledygook pouring from the Right. It's with this kind of claptrap that we're ceding to the country-club set the image of “keeping it real.” Like Democrats in Congress, the art world is its own worst enemy.

“New Paintings and Selected Sculpture” at Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St., Huntington Beach, (714) 374-1650. Through April 14.

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