Bedside Manner

Article excerpt

Every theory of painting is a metaphysics.

- Merleau-Ponty

The artist and dealer Nicholas Wilder once mentioned to David Reed that paintings by John McLaughlin were often moved by their owners into their bedrooms, as if the works somehow seduced them into more intimate relations. For Reed, his mentor's anecdote was a revelation: A "bedroom painter" was what he had always aspired to be. At the very least this reveals that, though an abstractionist, he was not a formalist, since, however formally impressive his paintings, they are meant to beckon viewers to an almost erotic colloquy, as with Mary and the Angel of the Annunciation.

Not long after Wilder made his comment, Reed staged "Two Bedrooms in San Francisco," an exhibition for which he modified clips from Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 Vertigo by inserting images of his own paintings into the bedrooms of the film's two main characters, Judy and Scottie. In addition, he made life-size replicas of the two beds as they appear in the film. Finally, on the wall above the beds, he hung the very paintings that had been inserted in the film clip, which ran continuously on a television monitor next to the beds. The work as a whole directs the viewer to establish with the (real) painting the relationship implied between Judy and Scottie - and the relationship the two have with the paintings visible in the doctored film. The message is this: Instead of simply viewing the painting under gallery conventions, imagine it as something with which to live intimately.

This work, like others that followed in this expanded vein, demonstrates that, while Reed is a bedroom painter, he is not for that reason a bedroom artist. Judy's Bedroom does not itself seem ideally suited for most homes, let alone someone's bedroom. Rather, it communicates a truth about our ideal relationship with painting, without proposing that we can or should establish that kind of relationship with the apparatus of the installation. Indeed, in these commentaries on the artist's primary practice, there may be a tacit assertion of the superiority of painting over other forms of expression that have tended to marginalize it. At Reed's recent exhibition in La Jolla, California, a girl climbed into Judy's bed, undressed under the coverlet, and was joined by a boyfriend. The two of them then made love. If they in effect transformed the gallery into a bedroom, perhaps in doing so they subverted the kind of relationship to the painting effected by the installation.

When Scottie's Bedroom, 1994, was installed at the Max Protetch Gallery in New York, I noticed that several paintings surrounding it were in what I thought of as lingerie colors - pinks and whites and pastel blues. Could this be what Reed meant by "bedroom paintings"? It wouldn't seem so. Reed claims that all his paintings belong to the genre. Here is a possible explanation: Viewers become fascinated with what we might call the "skin" of these paintings. To see them is to be drawn to touch them. A visiting art historian - of all people! - once reached over to touch a painting, consequently spoiling the work, as it happened still to be wet. She could not help herself. Touch is what we turn to, after all, when we cannot believe our eyes, which suggests that with Reed's paintings we, like Doubting Thomas, are uncertain whether what we see is real.

In Reed's images, the forms are raised only slightly above the surface - so little, in fact, that the paintings appear to be photographs. No one touches the surface of a photograph to feel through fingertips the textures of the objects shown. But given the smoothness and apparent substancelessness of Reed's forms - the qualities that lead us to imagine that he achieves his effects through some arcane photographic process - we want confirmation. His forms are thus illusionistic in two ways. They are illusionistic in the traditional sense, shaded and highlighted in such a way that some details seem further away from us than others. …