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mortal beauty: hunter reynolds

by Robert Marshall  

Maxine Henryson &
Hunter Reynolds
from "I-DEA: The Goddess Within" at Linda Kirkland Gallery.

Henry Reynolds Installation
at Boesky & Callery

Patina Du Prey's Mourning Dress

Blood Spot Bed
Berlin Sky

Meeting on the Stairs
   I thought Hunter Reynolds' show of photo-weavings, on view last May at Boesky & Callery in SoHo, was powerful and lovely. In a way I was surprised.

I first saw Reynolds' sewn snapshots several years ago. At that time, I knew his work primarily through his drag performances as Patina du Prey. It occurred to me that these weavings were Reynolds' solution to a common problem of art-world performance artists: how to give the gallery something to sell. But these artifacts seemed awkward. The conjunction of sewing and photography didn't appear promising.

Then, as now, I could only look at these photo-weavings in the context of Patina du Prey. Patina is not your usual drag queen (if you have a usual one). She's no John Kelly. She's no RuPaul. Patina's persona isn't feminine but transgendered. "Masculine" body hair is invariably present. Like a Greenbergian painting, du Prey reveals her means of construction.

In a show last spring at Linda Kirkland Gallery in Chelsea, Reynolds and photographer Maxine Henryson showed collaborative photographs of du Prey promenading through various cities, interacting with passersby. Supposedly this work documented how people in different cultures responded to a tall, stately, hairy queen.

But when I saw pictures of Patina twirling down the streets of Paris or Berlin in her lovely white ball gown, I wondered who these performances were for -- the people she encountered in her travels or the folks back home in Soho. The work felt disingenuous. Art world self-consciousness attended and attenuated the performance. Still, Reynolds got points for wearing a fabulous gown.

Reynolds gets a lot more points for his latest show. The large scale photo-weavings, semi-monumental and fragile, are reminiscent of both quilts and paintings. They have formal power and elegance. The threads of the sewn snapshots waver in the air like fragile graphic marks. The photographs curl away from the wall, things as well as images that, like us, suffer the sad fate of time.

Only one of the weavings explicitly invokes Patina du Prey. She isn't there, but her mourning dress hangs from the ceiling in the center of the gallery. She is more powerfully present in her absence. The dress is made of netting and photographs of flowers, suggesting that the mourning dress is also a gardening dress. Maybe the absent goddess is Demeter. Maybe she wants to bring life out of mourning.

Reynolds' other works include a photo-weaving of the sky above Berlin, draped with calculated casualness onto the floor; three smaller quilts made from flower snapshots; and three photo-weavings of blood spots. The work is clearly about AIDS -- and about mortality generally. Another quilt of photos includes shots of a Felix Gonzalez-Torres bead sculpture. In this setting, flowers and sky suggest time, timelessness and a consciousness of beauty in the context of an awareness of mortality.

The show's strongest and most problematic work is in the rear gallery: a photo-weaving draped over a hospital bed. Here, the sky and blood-spot imagery are interspersed with images of pills. The work suggests a sheet or a blanket, and drapes from the bed onto the floor. It is impressive, but still, at first, I had trouble with it.

Any work of art with a hospital bed uses a risky strategy. It has immediate power, but the theatrical quality of its power becomes immediately suspect. This installation is saved from sensationalism, I think, by the quilt's metaphorical complexity. Quilts, including the AIDS quilt, often memorialize individual narratives; this quilt, which records blood and sky and medicine, could be anyone's. It is powerfully non-specific.

The quilt could be seen as sentimental kitsch -- so could the whole show -- but for me, the work's material oddness protects it from this reading. Reynolds' earlier photographs of himself in costume are documents or pseudo-documents. Here, his photos catch me, for a moment, off guard.

I am not quite certain what to make of these photo-things. It's like seeing a drag queen used to be -- once upon a time. In drag, categories are subverted, hopefully in order to free us from them. I think something more modest but similar is involved in the making of these objects. It's a strategy of displacement which doesn't subvert beauty, but which attempts to use beauty as subversion.

Hunter Reynolds at Boesky & Callery, May 1 - May 31, 1997, 51 Greene St., New York, N.Y. 10013

ROBERT MARSHALL is an artist and writer who lives in New York.