Teresa Reeves’ new summer show of painting and sculpture, Channeling Joan Fontaine, is at Whitespace from 19 May to 24 June. Months after seeing the paintings for the first time during a gallery visit, I was excited to see them finally framed, exhibited, and to be able to conduct an interview with Dr. Reeves, who also serves as a curator at the Zuckerman Museum of Art.
—Whitespace intern Nathan Blansett
Nathan Blansett: Your current show at Whitespace, Channeling Joan Fontaine, is a cerebral visualization of certain themes in Hitchcock’s film Rebecca, about a second wife, played by Joan Fontaine, subjected to her household’s lingering obsessiveness with the dead first wife. Your artist statement notes the film had — and has — a personal connection to you and your mother. What are some of the themes the film evokes for you, and what does it mean to translate them into visual art?
Teresa Reeves: When I was young, my mother introduced me to Rebecca, a movie made in 1940 when she was a little girl. I was mesmerized by the beauty of the black-and-white film, which is rich and moody. I was equally drawn to the romance of the grand old British estate on Cornwall’s rocky coast. But mostly, I identified with Joan Fontaine’s role in the story. I recognized her. The idea of comparing oneself to an idealized other is directly expressed through Fontaine’s character. This tendency is what I’ve tried to visualize through the paired forms in the show, while the habitual nature of this practice is suggested in the line of small sculptures that circle the gallery.
The forms themselves are abstracted from molded jello desserts, some of which are represented in the video [installation], Hers or Mine. The choice of jello as a jumping off point is a reference to my mother’s era of decorative aspics and congealed salads, but also the idea of molding or shaping a thing with a life of its own.
I realize that the film reference I’m making here is very outdated, but Rebecca’s early and very specific message, coupled with how inextricably it is linked in my mind to my mother, made me throw caution to the wind.
NB: The dominant shape of the paintings are these ovoid or hexagonal figurations but with very different textures. In many ways, they remind me of paintings from the Bloomsbury Group or evoke Clive Bell’s idea of Significant Form. Is Channeling Joan Fontaine different from your past work? Do you see this new work — or the entirety of your artistic project — operating in a specific aesthetic or tradition? Where else do you draw your influence?
TR: Good questions. Since the 16th century, many artists and architects have believed that shapes like the golden rectangle are aesthetically pleasing. And Fibonacci sequences appear unexpectedly often in nature—the arrangement of leaves on a stem, branch growth on trees, etc. These intertwined mathematical formulas argue for a universal aesthetic, as does Clive Bell. And I get it, but I remain a bit of a skeptic on the universality aspect. In my mind, there are just too many variables, too many eyes and brains and points of view to privilege a singular human ideal.
I can make beautiful objects, but that isn’t my overriding concern. Beauty is a tool. It can be useful, but it can also get in the way. Sometimes though, it just happens and I let it be.
I’ve been making things since I was a child. Both of my parents were artists; my father was educated as a sculptor and later in life made furniture and paintings. My mother was trained as a painter but gravitated to weaving and then back to painting before she died last summer. I grew up in their art world, which found resonance in my father through Henry Moore’s biomorphic sculpture and David Smith’s abstractions. My mother was influenced by the abstract expressionists, and regional painters like Howard Thomas and Lamar Dodd. They met at the High Museum School of Art in Atlanta in the early 1950s, and that institution was a familiar to me as a teenager as Lenox Square and the Tara Cinema. Art was just a normal part of life. I mention this to try and explain how art (as a subject) came to be so much a part of my art.
Is this work different from my past work? Many would say yes, but I see the connections. Sometimes it is the idea that is stable and the visualization of the idea that changes. I once complained to a teacher in grad school that his emphasis on consistency was problematic for me. In answer, he pulled out a piece of paper and drew a small circular form at the center. He labeled it CORE IDEA/QUESTION/PURSUIT. He then proceeded to draw a line that started at this nucleus and circumnavigated around it, sometimes zooming way out to the edges of the paper and sometimes tightly circling in on the center. He said that most people are lucky to have one solid idea/question, and that they spend their entire career working it out—directly or indirectly. I admit to favoring this analogy for a lifetime practice.
What is my core idea/question? I’ve always been interested in looking at collective memory and how popular culture (movies, tv, etc) can shape our understanding of history. In this body of work, I’m pulling from a more personal memory of a particular film, but because the experience of Rebecca is not mine alone, it does open the door to a larger understanding (or at least I hope so).
NB: The paint seems very fluid and yet many of the paintings also evoke something corporeal, fleshy. Is that a tension you see in the work? What are some of the other tensions that draw the work into focus for you?
TR: The tension I’m looking for is between control and the phenomenology of a water-based medium on a slippery, nonabsorbent white surface (aka: an intentional lack of control). At this base level, the battle is about paint and its final form. On a conceptual level the painting itself (not just the imagery) is an object that serves to further the narrative.
NB: You made many of these paintings in Dublin, Ireland on a Fulbright grant. What was your experience in Ireland like? How did it affect the work?
TR: In Dublin I had the opportunity to focus. I had both time and space—the magic duo. As a result, I was able to distill the past 3 or 4 years of work into something much simpler and cleaner. I was in my studio often enough that I could stop overthinking everything and just work. I was able to achieve and maintain the painter’s version of a runner’s high—a state that allows you to work intuitively, and in retrospect, learn.
Being in a different and new environment also awakens your senses. You are in “absorb mode.” I had time for reflection, time for reading, time for walking, alone time, shared time—all in a beautiful and stimulating place that is rich with history.
NB: In addition to your work as an artist, you hold a doctorate in art history and work as a curator. Are the questions you pose in your creative work estranged from the questions you pose in your critical or curatorial work, or do they come from the same place or urge?
TR: My first impulse was to say that my work as a curator and an artist stems from the same place, and that it is only the labor that is different. But the more I think about your question, the more I realize that the fact that my curatorial work is very public and my studio practice is very private necessarily impacts how I approach each activity. Curators are educators—and to varying extents, proselytizers. I’m committed to widening the audience for contemporary art and ideas and with that in mind, I work to be clear and to engage as diverse an audience as possible.
As an artist, I can step back into the poetry of an idea. The emphasis doesn’t have to be on words and pictures, it can be just about pictures—you can let them carry the message. It is a different vocabulary.
Teresa Reeves’ Channeling Joan Fontaine is at Whitespace through 24 June.