Vitamin D2, New Perspectives in Drawing, 2012
Where did the polysemic relation between physical mass and intellectual or spiritual seriousness in art come from? Why is 'lightweight' considered an insult as far as aesthetics and ideas are concerned, when grace and freedom and delicacy are expressions of quality? Texas-born, New York based artist Alan Reid makes drawings in coloured pencil that are light in palette and light in tone. Often, he composes his figures with a disregard for the forces of gravity, or he floats cut-out, foam-core objects on the picture plane as if they were boats on a pond. The women who feature in his drawings are all slim and strong; one can imagine them gliding effortlessly through a room. These are 'Pics du sexy', as the breezy inscription reads in the drawing Prospect Park (2012). You could say that Reid makes lightness, in all its semantic hues, his theme. His challenge to the viewer is not to mistake lightness for a lack of seriousness; on the contrary, he has profound things to say about it. The world of fashion has historically been the victim of condescension by those involved in contemporary art. It is typically seen as frippery, a thoughtless and short-lived diversion. 'Fashionable' is rarely a complimentary critical term. Reid is interested in moments, however, when popular style and self-expression are inseparable from the most rarefied echelons of 'high art' - principally, for him, that of mid-century modernist abstraction. In Surface of the World (2012) (a title that itself implies both superficiality and supremacy), for example, Reid's female subject wears a skirt bearing a pattern reminiscent of paintings by Piet Mondrian. In Backstage Grammar (2011), the design of the woman's blouse is evocative of certain works by Bridget Riley. Neither case of appropriation is hypothetical; these were popular designs for women's clothing in the 1960s. The flatness of Reid's forms lends itself to being filled with appropriate imagery such as commercial patterns and quasi-modernist abstraction. His figures are blank canvases, so to speak; they give little away about themselves. In his earlier work, there was often a sense that Reid was scornful of his subjects (he once described them as 'bored and bitchy'), but in recent drawings, his relation to them is much more ambivalent. His use of inverted text in works such as La Collectioneuse and Façade (both 2011) can be interpreted in one of two ways: that these women are gazing at their reflections in mirrors, or that Reid is inviting us to step behind the picture plane and look out at the world through their eyes. By cutting his drawings of faces into the shapes of African masks (mid-century symbols of exoticism and otherness) Reid gives us the opportunity to don masks of two faces simultaneously. Ours is no longer a detached position of glib criticality, but one of empathy and of uncomfortable implication in the shallon fictions they embody.