I have lived for more than thirty years with a Roland Reiss diorama in my home. “The Gravity Observations: I Keep Wondering” dates from 1977. Insistently plain in color—I think of it as a kind of institutional, locker room green—it is inscribed in chalk with various mathematical formulae and diagrams. Juxtaposing two parallel realities—call them, in this case, “present” and “future”—it teases the viewer with the reverberations between the two; a pistol here, to remind us of the prevalence of violence in our society; a ray gun there, to suggest its persistence into the future; a full coffee cup and an unopened pack of cigarettes here, a spilled cup and an opened package there. Or, more subtly, a chair and table re-constructed in the lighter, stronger materials that our inventive species might be expected to develop in years to come. The eye and the mind are invited to play between these carefully chosen, carefully placed pieces of evidence, and come to their own conclusions about the relationship between these clues and the “story” that they may—or may not!—tell.
If you are of a philosophical bent or have a passion for mathematical conundrums, there is ample material here for your mind to work with. This artist can deal his semiotic cards with the best of them. Fascinated by how objects talk to us in ways both simple and obscure, he plunged, at a time when semiotics was all the rage, into work that happily deconstructs the meaning of these “signifiers”—and wraps back into obscurity. Let me be the first to admit it: having lived at close quarters with “The Gravity Observations,” I’m still at a loss to explain it to you—or myself. I am not blessed with the kind of mind that can wrap itself easily around its logical formulations, and am willing to trust that its propositions are meaningful. On the other hand, I am also content to settle for the work’s subtitle: “I keep wondering.” I can come up with an ample supply of stories, all of them provisional, some contradictory, but I am unable to reduce them to a single, rational thread. I’m brought back to the work’s inarguable and hugely satisfying completeness as a work of art, and to the inexhaustible pleasure I take in looking at it. I have looked at it a thousand times, and it never fails to please.
Which is as it should be. Because these sculptural works of Roland Reiss, like all challenging art work, are irreducible. If you’ll forgive the simple-minded formulation, they are what they are. At one level, Reiss delights in hearing from individuals—now adults—who grew up with these works in their homes as children, telling him how much they loved these small-scale dramas. They were responding, certainly, to a particular toy-like, dolls’ house quality which is undoubtedly present in the tiny there-ness of the immaculately crafted objects, and which engages the eye with wonderment and awe. Each diorama is a world unto itself, and we who look at—look into—them are not simply viewers but also narrators, actors, and participants in their drama. Our minds “play” with them, as children play with toys. At this level, they are whimsical, slyly humorous, enchanting. I happen to love a work of art that a child can love as much as I do.
But of course there’s more. Before embarking on the series, Reiss had an established reputation as a painter and object-maker in the reductive conventions of the 1960s. But he was compelled to move on. His art, as he describes it, felt disconnected from the richness and complexity of life, and he began to cast about for ways in which he could re-introduce into his work the feeling for the density of human experience that he found, for example, in a play by Shakespeare, a Fellini film, or a novel by the nouveau roman author, Alain Robbe-Grillet. Seeking similarly to condense “a complexity of ideas in a single piece,” he decided “to get smaller to get larger.”
In an art world dominated, in the early 1970s, by conceptualists who proclaimed a lofty scorn for art “objects” of all kinds, it was a risky strategy. In this context, Reiss’s delightfully appealing dioramas—he calls them “soft-core conceptual”—were a stubborn reminder that art is above all a visual distillation of the human experience and that, at its best, it engages the totality of that experience—the personal, the social, the intellectual, the emotional, the political and, yes, even the moral dimensions of the human consciousness. The title the artist chooses for the current retrospective exhibition of these works, “Personal Politics,” may seem at first glance something of an oxymoron. On reflection, it conveys an important truth about the work. If politics in the public sphere is about the organization of every aspect of our public life and ensuring the achievement of its fullest potential, so “personal politics” is about the articulation and expansion of individual vision and experience.
Politics is human drama. As we see to our universal discomfort at this moment in history, it is about conflict—about conflicting narratives, conflicting perceptions of reality and truth, and conflicting paths toward the resolution of human challenges. It is full of illusions, complexities and impasses, false starts and expectations unfulfilled, all of which form the essence of Reiss’s microcosmic worlds. The “murder mysteries” that led him into this decade-long adventure quite literally set the scene: they are cunningly staged settings in which the lay-of-the-land and the objects themselves are allowed to tell the story, at once mystifying and revealing; absent other human actors, they are the protagonists. We, the viewers, are invited to step into the crime scene as investigators, bringing our own interpretation to the illusory, perhaps contradictory “facts” with which we are presented.
Art, in all its manifestations—including its politics—becomes the central metaphor in the works that follow. “The Dancing Lessons,” “The Morality Plays,” and the “F/X” series are exquisitely sketched-out mysteries, fraught dramas from which the human participants have been knowingly absented, creating a space for the observing mind to go to work with the multitude of clues available. As in life itself, and as in art, the evidence we see is susceptible of infinite interpretation: a suitcase, to take but one example, may signify departure or arrival, dissatisfaction with a present circumstance, the anticipation of a pleasurable vacation or a bitter separation. Closed, it is in itself a mystery: what might it possibly contain? What do its contents, what does its outer appearance have to tell us about its putative owner? And so on. Its presence, its location in relation to surrounding objects, its size and color—these all “speak volumes.” The rest, as Shakespeare wrote, is silence.
Multiply these variables by the sheer number of objects, their intricacy and diversity—and by the complexity of their inter-relationships and the associations they evoke—and it soon becomes clear that no one of these intimate works by Roland Reiss is small in anything other than its physical size. They are “political” in that their multiple threads constitute a fully interdependent and interwoven fabric of human experience. They require our engagement and effort to resolve their complexities, even as they resist that effort and render it tantalizingly moot. We enter into Reiss’s miniature worlds seduced by the visual charms they offer: they do, as the title of one of the key works suggests, both “Amuse and Amaze.” Once there, we find ourselves involved in the rich and sometimes confounding intellectual, emotional and practical tumult of life itself. And, as in life itself, it becomes our responsibility to make it our own.
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FOOTNOTE: Unfortunately, I feel compelled to add a word about the installation of this otherwise excellent and absorbing exhibition: the museum should know better than to distract attention from this distinguished artist's work by using the entire space of the dominant wall, directly facing the visitor upon entry, to introduce another, unrelated, indeed jarringly different exhibit in the back gallery. The Roland Reiss dioramas are necessarily installed on low pedestals, to allow viewers to examine their content from above and from all sides. The title of the conflicting exhibit, spelled out in enormous graphics and printed up on the wall along with the artists' names and other information, grabs the eye and dominates the space in a most unfortunate way. This is not only a discourtesy to the artist but an annoying distraction from the art and a disservice to the visitor.