Adrian Dennatt on Fancy Dancer

Proclaim the invention of an architecture structured by notions of association.

Alison & Peter Smithson

I think that life, after all, is a collection of different moments and aspects that you have to build with patience and perseverance.

Eduardo Costantini

I would like to see this painting stolen, seeing it for the first time hidden & illegal in a room on a high floor over La Recoleta cemetery, and a balcony view down onto the family mausoleums, a muslin curtain in breeze blown into the room, the painting is propped on an easel in the passing brightness, the whiteness, of our hideout.

Perhaps I have stolen it myself, perhaps I have helped fence it out of America or perhaps I am the potential purchaser; it is all very familiar, I have been here before and the painting also seems so familiar, feels so 'right', as if it needs to be like that, was always intended to exist thus. The artist makes something and then it seems to have always been there; one could not imagine it not existing.

What does it mean? I am wearing a Prince of Wales check suit by Davies & Son who opened a branch in Paris just to cater to their royal clients, there is a cigarette burn on the cuff, I am barefoot and feel the cool of the polished concrete floor, warmer when the sun stretches into the room, my shirt pale silk, unbuttoned, from Budd.

The title of the painting is 'Fancy Dancer'.  I know this because the woman who has come in from the balcony, where she has been smoking a Jockey Club Con Filtro, tells me the name of the painting, she has an American accent, Boston brahmin, 'Choate conceptualist' I have previously joked, and wears bold Lilly Pulitzer no less. I have also been given the name of the artist, Alan Reid, but do not really know anything about him, or have a few clues.

When I first met him, very briefly, at the opening of his first exhibition at Lisa Cooley gallery on Orchard Street, in Chinatown, back up north in New York, he had created a show entitled  'Heiresses on Terraces.' I had published a story called 'Central Park Wet' in a local literary journal Open City and it featured similarly wealthy women and an erotic tryst on a rainy terrace overlooking the Park and I gave him a copy of the magazine. The publisher of Open City was someone who I thought would surely like Reid's work, an adventurer from a famously wealthy dynasty, the Binghams of Louisville, Kentucky, he spent much time in Cambodia, published his own short stories in the New Yorker, was married to a beautiful architectural historian, but he had died of an heroin overdose before I could get him to see Reid's pictures. Years later I published a poem entitled 'ON AN NY BALCONY' in another literary magazine, The White Review, of which the first line was, "Too much of my life so far has depended upon dressing-gowns." I realized, with hindsight, that I should really have dedicated it to Alan Reid, not that I even knew him.

And what anyway could one divine of anyone who dreamt such 'A Dream of Fair Women'?

At length I saw a lady within call,  

Stiller than chisell'd marble, standing there;

The star-like sorrows of immortal eyes….

A lover of women or an homosexual perhaps, like myself, or not, ambiguous surely, for how many young heterosexual artists were there in New York creating portraits of beautiful females fictive or otherwise? And I did not want to know anything about him, did not need to, for precisely what attracted me so much to his work was not being able to establish his motives, his intention, 'meaning' even, for the mystery to be left to me. These women come, of course, directly out of the history of art, the long heritage of such depictions, but their role here within so contemporary an iconography remains resolutely open. They are 'signifiers' certainly, of beauty, of grace, of elegance, of history, maybe even of desire, but they are also signifiers of signifiers, coded elements amongst the others gathered on this pictorial field, referring to the act of making art itself, of mimesis and re-presentation. To quote Lacan quite simply, "A signifier represents the subject for another signifier."

And what to make of the three-dimensional objects attached, literally and figuratively, to such imagery, could we construe them as some version of 'attachment theory' in themselves ? All those unexpected additions which manage to seem logical, which have all the presence of le mot juste, in such pictorial language? There always seems to be this additional element, this sculptural attachment, a bonus, an extra, an 'objet petit a' almost, where the "a" stands for "autre" (other), the unattainable object of Desire, a term Lacan insisted should remain untranslated, "thus acquiring the status of an algebraic sign."

In this painting we have a 'beauty mark', something which could even be its alternative title, 'a mark of beauty, beauty mark', this trompe l'oeil blob adding the perfect final balance to the composition. Here is this sudden blob of beauty, like a ball of Chris Ofili dung, Rebecca Warren powder puff or Schwitters disc, a shard from some saint's reliquary, which both 'makes' and 'unmakes' the painting, clearly a key element to its inherent puzzle.

There is also the outline of a bearded man deduced from an Eric Gill profile, that man himself so deeply entrenched in the erotics of art and art of erotics, of sex and childhood and scandal, sandals. Gill, still a highly controversial figure, indeed the star or anti-hero of a recent bestseller which paradoxically won an award for the best-designed novel, a man who believed that the heterosexual relation to women was paramount to the creative process, at its very sexual root, a potential paedophile who denounced homosexuality whilst having practiced himself, all in the quest for self-realization as much as carnal gratification.

Gill is wittily offset, counter-balanced, by a woodpecker, an inherently comic juxtaposition also rich in sexual innuendo, a logo as slang, a filthy joke in itself, a combination that suggests some DH Lawrence culmination.

And then there is the added mystery of a sort of wobbly Cézanne, an arcadian steeple as if from a Lawrentian rural saga, an artistic colony perhaps lost from the rest of the world, a bohemian idyll of 'Free Love' and emancipation.

Thanks to the skill of Reid, his innate finesse, the composition comes together, pulls its weight as one, the four elements or five in total, held there; the sharp edge of the face in the same direction as Gill, the woman's tilt of chin, the erotics of the angle, paleness and perfection, the other angle of male bearded head and woodpecker. And what are we supposed to make of the Rudraksha bead, Rudra's eyes, a deity of wind and storm, those seeds traditionally used for prayer beads in Hinduism? Where does all this fit together in its art-in-art appliqué? Yet it works, it works, the perfect tight scale and sheer freshness all contained by that clean cream gloss frame, so elegant, so crisp, its sharp edges against the softness of texture. For just this frame in itself gives me pleasure, made by the artist also I imagine. I am studying this painting, stolen, forbidden, orphaned, as the evening dims low across the graveyard below and the sunset hurts our eyes so far south. What does it mean? Why do I love it? Who does it belong to? Who was it made for and where will it end?

Perhaps all this is something to do with 'PARAGUAY'? For who can resist Reid's genius at titling, those titles such as Havana Poison, Vacation Ruined and Hotel Percussion, titles which are already enough in themselves and lead us, by diacritic resonance, to association with another Reid, Alastair, that Scottish poet, translator and critic who made Latin America his private literary fiefdom.  He who wrote, " To distrust/ What is always said, what seems,/ To ask odd questions, interfere in dreams" the same Reid who said, " Oh, understand/  how the mind's landscape forms from shifting sand,/ how where we are/ is partly solid ground, part head-in-air/ a twilit zone/ where changing flesh and changeless ghost are one." For somehow one wants to list Alan Reid alongside other writers and composers, rather than mere visual artists; to think of Ronald Firbank and Poulenc, to Henry de Montherlant and Satie, to Colette and David Darling, to Lezama Lima and Menotti, to the Requiem of St Saens and latest late James, to Prynne and Purcell, something impossibly Baroque to the point of incomprehension, extinction, yet pretty.

But of course there is something here that could be compared to something else as always. If one was in Venice at the time one could ponder that late Piero della Francesca, Madonna con il Bambino at Palazzo Cini with its radical utter flatness, in the best sense, or at the Accademia one could stop before Bellini's Il beato Lorenzo Giustiniani' of 1465, and marvel at its graphic texture somewhere between a drawing and work on cloth. Equally one might ponder those picturesque allegories of Guardi, his post-romantic capricci of invented vistas. As Adriano Mariuz wrote in 1971, "Guardi vaporizing the Rococo into a vibratory and shining quintessence, turning its rhythm into a coded, almost cryptic lexicon… into an imaginary caprice.  A coded, almost cryptic lexicon, yes. Or if you were strolling through the Tate you might stop at Meredith Frampton, Gerald Brockhurst or even Sir Stanley Spencer and at the Pompidou you end up once again in front of Boutet de Monvel.

Then you remember that you do actually know something about Alan Reid, even though you only really enjoy a film when you go knowing nothing at all about it, not even whether it is documentary or costume drama, and likewise you always prefer to know nothing about a favourite artist, to try and work it out, imagine it all for yourself. "A different sort of attempt to write the work. Add the irrational, the eccentric even."  You remember that you were asked by an Iranian gallerist in Atlanta if you would like to write an essay about one of his artist's called Robert Jessup. And you were delighted to discover this oeuvre, especially his most celebrated and commercially successful work of the early 1980s, perfect examples of the 'return to figuration' and 'neo-neo-classicism' of that era, and how he then bravely moved out into abstraction, back to the figure, out back to the abstract. And what really interested you was that all his compositions were invented, imaginary, fictive, even at their most literal they were always 'literary'.

Down in Texas for the re-opening of the Kimbell I realized that Jessup taught quite nearby at Denton, a place I'd never heard of before, and where he very generously drove me, reluctantly listening to my favourite C&W instead of his favourite NPR. And it was in Denton, at his studio, that I realized Alan Reid had studied here, the University of North Texas, and indeed knew one of Jessup's fellow teachers, one Matthew Bourbon. This led, in turn, to discovering a relatively early work by Reid, entitled Flags from 2007, selected by said Bourbon for a group show and about which he wrote at the time;  " I loved the application of paint in this wild allegory. I got involved in its detail and soft color range, even its odd juxtapositions of characters crammed in near-impossible space… When I got the images home and kept looking, it began to coalesce." I liked the fact this could be written about Reid's work today and found it fascinating to be able to see where it had come from, where he had started, in fact quite close to the early compositions of Robert Jessup, though I never found out if he had actually been his teacher. For the 'post-modern' as a movement in art and architecture, from mid-seventies through to the early eighties, has now become historic in itself, a source of intrigue and inspiration for artists born themselves during that era, that knowing 'post-post-moderne' belovèd of, say, Lucy McKenzie, Pablo Bronstein.

'Caran d'Ache', Pablo, Caran d'Ache of Switzerland, one of the reasons I so appreciate Alan Reid is that I know, I can just tell, that he adores the name 'Caran d'Ache', those words themselves, as much as the actual product. The artist's pleasure in his whole poetic list of ingredients, his practical magic, "Flashe, feather, shell and artificial fly on canvas, tinted gesso, wood veneer and polychrome foamcore", his delight in the individual words is overt. The colored pencil on canvas, that sheer écriture, to get continental, the very écriture of it all. Here I should mention how in August 2001 I was reading Le Monde on the terrace of the Flore, it might sound pretentious but that was how it was, and in the tiny paid-death notices in the back I read of the funeral arrangements for the artist Pierre Klossowski, who I did not even know had died. So I went to the funeral, I stood right in the back, and what so impressed me was the absolute working-class humility of this whole event, especially the church, a brutalist 1970s concrete chapel of utter banality, next door to the housing estate on which PK must have been granted a low-income apartment by the state. His address had been listed in the announcement in Le Monde and I went to visit, or as near as I could as it was in a large block of flats, a solid 1970s concrete high-rise in a particularly drab and poor suburb of the city. This was where PK had ended his days, so unlike his brother in the grandest and most fabled chalet of Switzerland, the difference in the lives, and deaths, of these two artists. And all I could think about was the pure chic of it, the outrageous, brilliant chic of PK to choose this as his ending, as an absolute affront to his more famous brother, the most defiant and witty of ripostes, an ultimate victory.

But we have sold the tower. The bags are packed and their initials gleam in thick embossed grandeur, softest leather, an advertisement, for exile, for ennui, crumpled on the marble. We have left Fancy Dancer behind, too expensive, too risky, too damn funny, we wrapped it in pale blue tissue. layer on layer, and laid it outside the ornate door of the orphanage in a Buenos Aires suburb. On the typewriter some words by Hal Foster,  “allegorical objects – objects that we must first decipher and then use in further deciphering” and on the balcony a battered copy of Manuel Puig, for the rain is about to begin again, it is dark at last.

Fancy Dancer, 2015
Caran d'Ache, Flashe & rudraksha bead on canvas in frame
81.28 x 71.12 cm / 32 x 28 in


Alan Reid (b. 1976, Texas) is an artist. He lives in Brooklyn and has presented solo exhibitions at Lisa Cooley, New York; Mary Mary, Glassgow; A Palazzo, Brescia, Nicelle Beauchene, NY, Eric Ruschman, Chicago and Patricia Low, Gstaad. His monograph Warm Equations is published by Edition Patrick Frey. He curated the exhibition Air de Pied-à-terre, at Lisa Cooley, NY. Reid's work has been reviewed by Bomb, Frieze, Vogue, NYTimes, New Yorker, and elsewhere. He both writes and speaks about art, on occasion.