Thursday, December 18, 2014


A good half-century after it started, Roland Reiss’s career continues to surprise and delight in a new exhibition at Diane Rosenstein gallery.  The last time I caught up with this artist’s work, a couple of years ago, he was already painting, um… flowers—a bold, provocative gesture, fraught with professional risk in a culture in which the mainstream could reliably be expected to sneer at such an enterprise.  The paintings were beautiful, studied, quite formal in presentation—and the last thing I would have expected from a contemporary artist at the peak of an already distinguished career.

To judge by his current exhibition, "Floral Paintings and Miniatures," Reiss has been working hard to extend the boundaries he himself had begun to establish in those early floral paintings.  These new, large-scale works are painted with the same meticulous attention to detail and the same exemplary skill.  Formally, they create the illusion of symmetry without being exactly symmetrical...

Sunflowers After Dark, 2013, oil and acrylic on canvas, 68 x 52 inches
(all images courtesy of the artist and Diane Rosenstein)
Formally, too, they work as exhaustive exercises in the delicate art of color composition.  Lilies, sunflowers, birds-of-paradise, roses, these floral images float against flat, monochrome backgrounds enhanced with cut-outs and stencils that contrast their natural beauty, with quiet irony, with cultural icons of the contemporary world: the silhouettes of cityscapes, for example, or images that seem to reference the familiar excesses of the art market.  In a nod to Manet—and perhaps, to this viewer, to the meditative serenity of Buddhist practice—one quartet of paintings depicts the lovely form of lotus blossoms and the outline of lily pads, seen directly from above; and beneath, or perhaps more accurately behind them, as though in the water of a pond, lurk the barely discernable forms of variegated koi fish. 

Lilies in Blue, 2014, oil and acrylic on canvas, 44 x 44 inches
As I perused the surface of these paintings, I was struck quite unexpectedly by their aesthetic continuity with the other components of this exhibition: a handful of the exquisitely constructed miniature dioramas that brought the artist considerable renown some decades earlier.  

F/X: In Search of Truth, 1990, mixed media, 14 x 24 x 24 inches
Wrought with the same passionate dedication to detail and the same exacting craftsmanship, these three-dimensional mini-dramas required (and continue to require, in the examples included here) the same kind of exploratory looking: the two-dimensional surface of the paintings offers the same kind of visual complexity and invites the same kind of pleasurable detective work as the dioramas.  The viewer’s eye and mind are drawn into an act of (act-ive) contemplation, moving through surfaces and between objects in a constant voyage of discovery. 

When I used, above, the word “delight,” I intended it as an accurate description of the actual physical sensation that this artist’s work arouses.  As viewers, we feel constantly invited in, in a way that makes the work, beyond its intellectual engagement, a rare experience of sheer, genuine pleasure.  If the paintings glow with their own peculiar serenity, we find ourselves irresistibly glowing with them. In today's troubled world, such a gift is not to be taken lightly.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


It's a predicament.  I never learned to type.  For... what... ?  More than half a century, let's say, I have managed by looking down at the keys to type, then up at the text, then down again at the keys, and so on.  The system works, all other things being equal.  I do it virtually every day, and stuff gets written.  Now, though, with a pain in the neck that doesn't seem to want to go away, it has become a problem.  Even though I prop up my laptop at eye level, as my daughter suggests, I still have to move my head fractionally back and forth to look down at the keys.  Which results in... well, this morning, after only a few minutes, a nasty and persistent neck spasm.

As a predicament, it may not seem like much.  I think, for example, of Ram Dass and the catastrophic stroke that deprived him of his greatest gift, the ability to speak extemporaneously to eager listeners with wit, insight and wisdom.   But it's similar in that it challenges my deepest and most ingrained sense of identity.  I'm a writer.  This is what I do.  And when I can't do it, or can do it only at the cost of severe, not to say excruciating pain, this small predicament leaves me confronted with the prospect of not being able to be the person that I thought I was.  Even for a day--though it has been a full week now, not being able to write leaves me feeling empty, worthless, good-for-nothing.

Oh, I can manage to squeeze out a couple of paragraphs, like this entry.  But, worse than the mechanical problem I have described, the pain seems to drive all thought out of my head.  This morning I had intended, for example, to review an art show that I saw yesterday, but that requires the kind of attentive and sequential thought of which I seem to be incapable right now.  The attention is constantly diverted from the paper (I mean, of course, the screen) to the pain, and the mind blurs with lassitude in a kind of self-defense.

I don't mean to complain, though I'm sure this sounds like a complaint.  My purpose was merely to describe the predicament as best I could, so that I might better come to terms with it.  Like every other human predicament, it offers me the important (if unwelcome!) opportunity to learn...  I notice how I cling to that identity.  So what would it be like not to be "the writer"?  And what would I need to do to adapt to that new reality?  What happens if, and when, I begin to lose my writer's curiosity and intelligence?  The writer's ambition, which gives me a sense of purpose in my life?

These are tough, scary questions.  I have my neck to thank for bringing them so forcefully to my attention.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


... for The Pilgrim's Staff on Sunday, at the mid-town home of some wonderful old friends.  We had a good crowd in attendance, with more than enough to eat and drink for a festive party, and many old friends to visit with. My reading from the book went over well, I think, to judge from the discussion afterwards; and was helpful in bringing me to the realization that I need to be more selective in the passages I choose, find shorter pieces, and allow more breathing space in between them.  This will be useful in preparing for the next event, a reading/discussion/book signing at Laguna Art Museum on Sunday, January 4, at 2PM.

If you're in the area that day, please join us.  It should be fun.  And let your friends know about it.  I'm realizing that the gender issues the book raises are something people really want to talk about right now.  Masculine sexuality has something of a bad rap, what with campus rapists, power-hungry politicians, NFL bullies and abusive priests... among others.  When channeled in inappropriate ways, it can even lead to global dysfunction, with ungrown little boys in positions of power everywhere--from our own country to the Middle East.  It goes almost without saying that the mistreatment and suppression of women in too many parts of the world (including our own?) has much to do with the emotional and psychic immaturity of men.

We need to talk about these things, much more than we have done to date.  Women here, in the country especially, have been highly successful in drawing attention to inequalities and injustices and in empowering themselves in a good way.  It's time for men to raise their consciousness in similar ways.

Friday, December 12, 2014


Friday morning.  It's raining in Los Angeles.  And I'm in pain.

It's a humbling experience, pain.  In this case, I have no idea what caused this excruciating neck ache.  It came on slowly, intensifying over a period of two days, and reached its climax a couple of nights ago.  It stayed with me, full on, for two days before starting, yesterday, to recede as slowly as it had arrived.  This morning Ellie asked me the "on the scale of one to ten" question, and I arrived at "five".

Humbling, because it makes you feel so insignificant.  The pain is there, huge, and you can do nothing but tremble before it and beg it to go away.  You can take the pills, but they seem often powerless against it.  They last a while, but the pain outlasts it.  You take more.  The pain outlasts the second dose.  And so on.

It's powerful, pain.  It invades you, taking over your whole body, your whole mind.  I'm glad to have my meditation practice, which allows me, for a while, to put it in its place.  It's just pain, I tell myself.  It's not "me."  It's not "mine."  It's not "who I am."  And I find that I can look at it, experience it, as though from the outside, looking in.

For a while.  Then it comes back and laughs at my pitiful efforts to control it.  Do I get the last laugh?  Perhaps.  The pain will eventually go away and leave me in peace.  And I will have learned just a little more, for the future, when I may have to face more serious and longer lasting pain.  I'll be perhaps just a little better prepared...

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


That Greg Spalenka is a man of many and prodigious talents is amply evident in the handsome new book put out by Titan Press, The Art of Greg Spalenka: Visions from theMind’s Eye.  Splendidly and richly illustrated on every page, this coffee table volume explores the range and depth of the work of an artist and illustrator already well known for his contributions to print media and film. 
Accompanied by the artist's own commentary, it covers the early work, the inventive sketches Spalenka uses to generate and explore ideas, the portraits and editorial illustrations that have appeared in the pages--and on the covers--of such magazines as Time, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone and the New York Times Sunday Magazine, and the fantasy material for films like The Chronicles of Narnia.  All this, along with a wealth of personal works and photographs.

The book is an impressive compendium of accomplished, colorful, sometimes exotic and wildly heterogeneous artwork.  Spalenka is eager to turn his skills to virtually anything that catches his fancy, and his vision is consistently a blend of the Dionysian and the Apollonian, the dark and the light side of the human spirit--evident already, before you open the book, in the neo-rococo cover image of a nude female figure with a butterfly at the head and a skull at the feet.  Aesthetically, you might imagine a cross between Gabriel Rossetti and Odilon Redon, Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, with a lot of the spirit of art nouveau thrown in for good measure.  His work can be elaborately decorative, emotional and nostalgic at times, but the next moment it will turn startlingly realistic or futuristic.  His love of comic books is evident, as is his passionate embrace of the spiritual yearnings of our species.  He is as exuberant with color and image in painting the head of a Buddha as he is in designing the set for a fantasy or science fiction movie.  At times, his vision can be disturbingly bleak, in dreamscapes that can border on nightmare.  At other times, he strives for serenity and beauty.

No matter the genre or the style in which he chooses to work for any particular purpose, Spalenka seeks to explore the range of human experience with an unfailing curiosity and an all-embracing passion for the many different forms of visual art.  Readers of his book will surely be inspired by his embrace of all life forms, his passionate dedication to an ever-expanding vision, and by his excitement in constantly discovering new media in which to give them widely diverse expression.