Mark Reynolds: Compositions
31 May – 30 June 2013
by Dan Fishman
With each new drawing Mark Reynolds envisions new sublime geometries. He explores the possibilities of complicated shapes derived from simple, age-old, ratios. It’s an endeavor that’s both mathematical and artistic. He’s been working with this method of drawing for over thirty years and he knows the world of buzzing squares and circles as comfortably as most of us know our bed boards and doorknobs.
In a world of competing postmodern manifestos, Reynolds seems more devoted to geometry and to shapes than to any political, cultural, or aesthetic cause. He says that he has been more influenced by Da Vinci and Plato than by the canon of modernist geometric painters. (He does make an exception, however, for Kandinsky who, according to Reynolds, “saw the spirituality of geometry right away.”) Though his work makes sense in conversation with many other geometry-inspired 20th century modernists—Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers, Paul Klee—he approaches geometry very differently. Rather than experiment freely on the canvas, Reynolds focuses on mathematics first, developing detailed rules and constraints for his drawings that will then inspire stimulating images.
Despite using very orderly tools—rulers, compasses, colored pencils, watercolors, and basic geometry—his drawings elicit chaos, whimsy, and remarkable personality. Like a well-performed Indian raga or an expertly crafted sestina, the heavy limitations of his form are not only met but mastered. Though he has so little room to improvise, Reynolds makes the most of every opportunity, using color, linear perspective, and varying line thickness to individualize his images.
But his best tool might be the ability to imagine the math behind complicated geometric patterns before he ever puts pencil to paper. Many abstract artists tend toward minimalism: they paint simple, balanced shapes with thick, opaque colors. Reynolds, however, prizes entropy. He frequently chooses ratios that he knows will be mostly incompatible and then grids them within the same piece, curious to work with the shapes’ strange connections. He calls these works “Marriages of Incommensurables” and, other times, “Unions of Opposites”.
Though his works are, for all intents and purposes, composed on an x, y coordinate system, his drawings are surprisingly three-dimensional. He achieves depth by coloring certain shapes and lines such that aspects come forward according to their color. Another effective strategy is to fill the paper near to the brim with lines, in every direction, such that, when viewed from up close, one’s eyes never fully settle. “I don’t like to erase,” Reynolds explained to me over the phone. “I’d rather build and build and build.” As a result, there are many conflicting linear perspectives, and vertical lines waver like strings from a plucked violin.
Other aspects of his drawings invite comparisons to music, and it’s no fluke that his show at the Pierogi Gallery is called “Compositions”, a name which conjures examples from both music and visual art. The relationship between music and geometry has been studied since the Ancient Greeks who realized that music was guided, at its most fundamental level, by mathematical ratios: octaves, minor thirds, and other harmonic intervals. Pythagoras believed that the same mathematical structure governed both geometry and music—such that most of the difference between music and geometry could be explained by the fact that one was seen while the other was heard.
Reynolds often titles his works so as to bring the music of his geometry into focus. One of his gray scale drawings is named as an ode to John Cage, the famous experimental musician who, like many of the artists at Black Mountain College, was inspired by geometric patterns. (Little known fact: before Cage began using the I Ching as a means for decision-making, he often used magic squares.) There is also an entire series dedicated to visual exploration of the minor third, a musical interval that is often used by European classical composers to suggest sadness.
If his drawings were to be classified in terms of their musical affinities, I’d imagine they’d be considered dissonant jazz or avant-garde classical music. “I’m trying to make geometric situations atonal or discordant,” Reynolds has said. His ratio combinations remind me of complicated time signature arrangements in contemporary jazz, and the competing urges of order and improvisation are noticeable in all of his gallery pieces.
As a result, his drawings offer an opportunity to meditate on the peculiar flavor of vision compared to our other sensory modalities. I wonder how much of what we call balance in painting is mere geometry, forms that fit the ratio we desire and come to expect as a result of our neurobiology. I wonder how much of geometry is “out there” in the world—basic to its natural laws—and how much of geometry is inside us, humanly-constructed, based on some sublimated desire to envision order. To his credit, Reynolds avoids using geometry to make the world seem utopian and perfectly harmonious. Rather his drawings resonate with the chaos in our lives.
Dan Fishman is a journalist in New York.view all articles from this author