Michael Reeder’s figurative art explores concepts relating to identity. He is currently focused on examining the defining elements of the individual which together create the distinct formation of self. Through repeatedly working from the limited reference of one person, whom Reeder himself does not know, he constructs a fresh identity with each new painting. Cleverly utilizing ambiguity, Michael’s protagonists live in a kind of limbo, where their identities appear within reach, often being strengthened and aided in their definition by the clean, crisp contours of their graphic and voidlike backdrops, yet their personalities are somehow blurry and distant, as if a key component is missing. By constantly working in a free flowing manner and allowing his subconsciousness unlimited scope within his creative process, Michael’s portraits remain open-ended, encouraging conversation and welcoming the projection of our own self-identities.
Michael Reeder was born in Dallas, Texas in 1982. He graduated with a BFA in painting from the School of Visual Arts in New York. Since then he has pursued a career as an exhibiting fine artist, alongside the work he does as a freelance graphic artist and also his work at Eyecon Studios, a custom mural and design company based in Dallas.
WOW x WOW were recently granted the opportunity to ask Michael a few questions about his personal work. Read on to hear his thoughts on ambiguity, the evolution of his painting and the concepts of identity he contemplates through his art.
Hi Michael, thanks for making the time to join us for a chat, we really appreciate it. If you could please start us off by introducing yourself, touching on anything you feel relevant to story of Michael Reeder the artist?
Thank you so much for having me. My name is Michael Reeder and I am an artist from Dallas, TX. I received my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree focused in studio painting from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I have been seriously engaged and captivated by the creation of art ever since I can remember. When I was very young I would spend hours sitting at the living room coffee table drawing while neighborhood kids would run and play outside. I really enjoyed the challenge and process of rendering a photograph, album cover, etc. and my parents were always very supportive and involved in the progression of my artistic path. My schooling ranged from private oil painting lessons in the first grade, to attending an arts magnet high school, and adventures in graffiti. Mix that together with a BFA degree in New York and you’ve got a beautiful concoction which equals me.
Where are you currently living and what do you like about the area?
I have bounced across the United States, but have landed back in my hometown of Dallas, Texas. I wanted to be closer to family, and let’s face it – I do love the fact there’s no state tax here. Nevertheless, I am comfortable here. With not only plenty of physical space, but also mental space, I feel more at ease here. More capable of interpreting what my path of art requires.
Ideas regarding identity are being explored in your current figurative works. What type of philosophical ideas are you interested in when it comes to this theme?
The various elements that define one’s self to create a person’s supposed identity is a fascinating thing to me. Genetic makeup mixed with cultural environment, and religious upbringing, coupled with popular trends that clash with geographical limitations is a wicked formula. To me, that is modern day identity. I don’t focus or render these literal elements in my work, but I try to utilize the broader concept in an effort to create an interesting and thought provoking image.
Ambiguity plays an important role in your paintings. Can you please discuss how you approach this aspect of your work? Also, are there any particular artists who awakened your fascination for the ambiguous?
I try to imagine individuals who are lost and trying desperately to either fit in, or set themselves apart. Most of these people never find that one thing that gives the definition that they are searching for. They are real, living, and existing people. However, they feel as though nothing defines them as an individual. They may not directly realize this is occurring, although it is an everyday subconscious battle. A piece I did titled ‘Staring Into A Glimpse’ is an attempt to portray this issue. I painted a realistic portrait in oil and deliberately blurred out the features of the person, only to then re-establish their shape by the surrounding background color.
I have been a huge fan of Neo Rauch’s work ever since I was introduced to it back in the early 2000’s. His paintings depict unclear narratives with obscure landscapes and incomplete architectural structures. Figures often appear to be intensely focused on a particular struggle, but the reason is rarely discernible. It’s almost as if he’s depicting life at the fifty yard line, teetering between the factual realm and the subconscious. The manner in which he fully renders out particular areas, giving them the perfect amount of information, and yet allows other areas to merely be represented by ambiguous shapes, forms etc., is simply marvellous.
Delving further into what you touched on in the previous question; in your bio, you have stated that through your current work you ‘attempt to reinvent the persona of an unknown person’. Could you please expand on this concept for us?
Well, it may or may not be apparent in my most current paintings, but the figures/portraits are all painted from the same three references of a person, whose identity I am unaware of. I should probably back up a bit and first explain why I started painting portraits.
During my schooling and SVA, and for the first few years after I graduated, I had been painting scenes of open-ended narratives with figures in randomly conceived environments. Fun and weird stuff, but I felt I needed to move away from that. I decided to reduce everything, and effectively removed an overabundance of content, which then allowed the subject matter to have breathing room and space to exist. By simplifying the image down to a single portrait (the same portrait, in fact), I began to realize that I was reinventing who the person was every time I painted them. The process allowed for them to look slightly different, with a different undertone and story, thus a new existence. I began to push that further, and so spawned my focus on identity.
One of your recent paintings called ‘Split Reality’ was created on a piece of battered and split, found wood. It’s such a great piece, which manages to conjure up a whole host ideas, which could lead a viewer down paths of thought about parallel universes, quantum theory, schizophrenia, etc. Do you work with a definite concept in mind when creating a painting or are your thoughts free flowing? How important is the role of your subconscious to the art you make?
This is a great question to follow the last because the openness within the process of creating my work is critical. The process I have developed, and am constantly developing, allows for me to not require too much of an initial idea from the get-go. Therefore, the subconscious always has room to be heard. I can confidently say that none of my current works would exist without giving my subconscious ample space to do its thing. The surface that ‘Split Reality’ was painted on was something I assembled from found wood pieces, and only at the point of construction did the concept present itself; Fresh and uncontrived. I really enjoy that piece as well. The split direction face laid into a symmetrically shaped head. How many of us have felt like that before? Being torn in two separate directions at once.
Another piece entitled ‘Untitled Existence’, which is also painted on a piece of worn and weathered found wood, brings to mind thoughts about the continuation of the self and the idea that within the span of seven years, every cell of our bodies will die and be replaced – therefore we are literally not the same people we once were. In this case where lies our identity and psyche? The ancient Greek thought experiment the ‘Ship of Theseus’ contemplates this very paradox. What are your thoughts on this? Also, if this interpretation is way off the mark, please feel free to bring it back into line with your intention.
You’re on point with your interpretation in a sense. I am salvaging a piece of wood that was once on it’s way to the dump, and essentially repurposing it – giving it a new second existence in life. Painting on found wood is something that I used to do years back and recently decided to revisit the method. There is a sense of freedom that my art gains by painting on something that I have little or no connection with. As we previously discussed, it allows for a more free flowing creative process to transpire. Primarily because I am not subconsciously hung up on creating the best piece of art on the surface I just spent three days building and preparing.
Would you say that the interpretations viewers offer about your work end up influencing what you produce? What are your thoughts about the dialogue and conversation cycle which is created between the artist and viewer?
The viewer’s interpretation does not influence my work. I love to hear what the viewer gets out of my work or sees in my work, however they do not influence it. I am a firm believer that no matter how literal or blatant you think you are with your work’s supposed message, the viewer will always interpret their own idea of what is going on. This is a beautiful thing in my opinion, and I make work that feeds into this concept. The aspect of the gestalt image is a beautiful one – something that is made of many parts and yet is somehow more than, or different from the combination of its parts. I can’t say it any better than that.
You have referred to your portraiture as ‘esoteric’. Do you feel that you paint images that only a few people will connect with? Are you intentionally challenging the viewer to look deeper?
Although I feel that my work has moved away from the esoteric nature I previously described, I do still feel that it possesses an element that only a certain viewer can relate to. Who or what that type of viewer is, I don’t know – but they are specific.
Pattern and texture are recurring elements of your visual aesthetic. What inspires your choices within these areas?
Inspiration can come from anywhere you allow it, but the purpose for these elements being so consistently present in my work is simply to diversify the dialogue of imagery and mark-making. For example, a painting might include the juxtaposition of a flat background tone with a completely rendered out figure, which both contrast against a pattern that completely interrupts the space everything exists in. My goal here is to create a conversation on the picture plane, minus words. In addition, the range and combination of mediums and finishes furthermore emphasize and support this direction.
In what ways have you seen your work evolve over the years?
My work has reached a point where I can now look back to concepts and ideas used in the past and reassign them a new home and new purpose. When I was younger, I would just bring elements into paintings because I couldn’t think of anything else, or I merely thought it would work. But after giving these elements some time to find their place, I now understand what their purpose has been all along.
Alongside your fine art you also work as studio assistant and painter for Eyecon Studios and freelance as a graphic artist. Tell us a little about these other avenues for your creative expression and any impact they may have on your personal work?
They all lean on one another in some form or fashion. In my personal work I regularly borrow from some of the techniques, color palettes, and compositions I have been exposed to at Eyecon Studios. While at the same time, the graphic illustrative style that is laced throughout my personal work can certainly be linked to my freelance graphic work. I don’t mean to sound corny, but the art already exists all around us. I am merely a single vessel through which a certain combination of my experiences and surroundings are fused and presented via my paintings.
Mikhail Bakhtin noted in his study of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s poetics: “Artistic form, correctly understood, does not shape already prepared and found content, but rather permits content to be found and seen for the first time.”
If you could own one piece of art from the world’s collections, what would it be and why?
This is the most difficult question you’ve presented yet. Wow, my brain is literally being flooded with serious artwork that I love. If I had to choose today I would go with ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ by Francis Bacon. This being one of Bacon’s earlier triptychs, and is a painting of his close friend, and fellow painter, Lucian Freud. As in most of Bacon’s work, I love the composition and spatial play. The portraits are handled beautifully, representing a fusion of the internal and external form and successfully creating a delicate violence within the figure. It’s safe to say that my work has been influenced by Bacon’s. His ability to marry gestural abstraction with flat graphic space is remarkable. I might be vegetarian, but I love me some Bacon!
What’s next for Michael Reeder?
I’m going to be taking my work to the exterior mural world soon. I’ve got a wall approved here in Dallas, and I am beyond excited to utilize some of my mural know-how within my own work. Other than that, I am going to try to keep riding the wave and keep challenging myself in the studio. Every piece is a new journey with a new story. The goal is to never stop surprising myself.
Thank you so much for preparing some great questions about my work. This has been a lot of fun!