Essay by Eleanor Heartney
In the work of Louise Reynolds, venerable art historical traditions bump up against the supersaturated media landscape of the digital age. The artist notes that her process tends to start with news headlines or reactions to current events. But the works she produces utterly transform these topical sources into highly personal meditations on larger issues like the abuse of power, social inequality, political hypocrisy and moral confusion. Her artistic language contains echoes of history painters like Francisco Goya, symbolists like William Blake, caricaturists like William Hogarth and expressionists like Käthe Kollwitz. Like them, she employs allegory, myth and metaphor to transform present-day concerns into haunting tableaux that speak to commonly experienced realities.
The works in her exhibition Once Bitten, Twice Shy reveal how this operates. Thus, for instance, thoughts about extreme disparities in power and opportunity sparked At Least for Some. This work adopts the hierarchical strategy of medieval paintings in which the figures who are closer to God – or, in this case, those in power – tower over those who are not so blessed. Once Bitten, Twice Shy presents the image of a tree whose spindly trunks are bound together with ribbons. The branches spread out like neural networks, becoming a metaphor for the ever more tenuous nature of human connection in a world where screens replace face-to-face meetings and rates of marriage and birth plunge precipitously.
The duelling realities suggested in medieval and renaissance paintings of heaven and earth are updated in I Haven’t Ruled Anything Out Yet. Here, however, the two realms are connected; not by grace or faith but by the trickle of information doled out by elites to the huddled masses, for whom it becomes the stuff of half-truths and conspiracy theories. All That Glisters Steals Your Gold offers a related scenario. In a setting that suggests a medieval street festival, a crowd is transfixed by a performer who manipulates a puppet representing a goat or, in this case, a scapegoat. Distracted by this entertainment, the rapt audience fails to notice that it is being robbed.
Is The Feud Over? The Drama Explained was inspired by the ginned up conflict between Selena Gomez and Hailey Beiber, presented here by way of reference to the ornamental women in paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Reynolds draws parallels between Rossetti’s dreamy fantasy figures and the ways that the media transforms female celebrities into unreal objects of desire and speculation. And finally, the title of Safe Passage employs a term associated with the proferring of legal services to immigrants, which Reynolds recasts in a painting inspired by the reliefs that ornament Eutruscan funerary urns. The figures who convey a shrouded body to the afterlife evoke the kind of care that is rarely extended to living people who are in danger of deportation.
Reynolds wraps her contemporary morality plays in a deliberately anachronistic aesthetic language. She removes us from the modern world by drawing on the esoteric theological symbolism of traditional religious paintings and the otherworldly reveries of Symbolist and Pre-Raphaelite art. What these modes of expression have in common is a rejection of the reductive factuality of realism; instead, they seek to suggest the existence of an unseen realm. In the case of the earlier styles, this was the realm of God or spirit. In Reynold’s work, the unseen reality is that of cyberspace. She draws on these antiquated styles to suggest how it feels to live in a digital world governed by invisible forces. In the process, she suggests that our current subjugation to the arbitrary whims of social media and AI-generated algorithms bears a striking resemblance to the pre-modern sense of a world shaped by an unknowable Divine will.
As a result, these works present us with a world devoid of comforting certainties. Media distracts and entertains, a gullible public willingly swallows fake news and those in power happily exploit the weaknesses of the populace. Right and wrong blur in a universe where no one is completely innocent. The scenarios Reynolds imagines bear a kinship to the demonic absurdities of Goya’s Capricios. One also feels whiffs of Dante’s Inferno, in which contemporary figures were stripped of their righteousness and lampooned in a series of hells tailored to their offences. An earlier series by Reynolds was titled Doomscrolling – a term that links the contemporary scanning of ever more apocalyptic bits of click-bait with Western culture’s persistent and ongoing preoccupation with the end of the world. Apocalypse today may be largely stripped of its religious underpinnings, Reynolds seems to say, but its spectre is no less ominous in our media-saturated times.
Reynolds, a 2020 graduate of the Glasgow School of Art, grew up in Hamilton, Scotland and spent much of her early life on the nearby family farm. Her rural background may have contributed to her frequent recourse to images of animals, landscapes and the natural world. But one suspects that an even greater influence on her work may be the contrast between her early grounding in the concrete realities of rural life and a sense of the madness of our media-crazed world. In her short but very vibrant career, her work has evolved from tableaux realised in intensely brilliant colours to a more subdued and dusky palette. This, she notes, is more compatible with the shadowy events in her works and it contributes to a sense of distance, lending her scenarios the quality of dreams or memories.
The ambiguity in these works is intentional. Reynolds reflects the dilemma of contemporary consciousness: we find ourselves immersed in a digital stew swirling with images and ideas that have become unmoored from their sources. In this brave new world, we feel forced to abandon the comforting promises of clarity and rationality that characterised the pre-digital age. Instead, we find ourselves remaking our reality from fragments, never quite sure what is true or even if such a word as truth still has any meaning. Swimming in this sea, we grasp at images and attempt to cling to drifting half-truths that might help us to keep afloat.
Eleanor Heartney is a critic and curator based in New York. She is a contributing editor to Art in America and Artpress, and has written for numerous other publications. She is the author of several books on contemporary art, most recently Doomsday Dreams: the Apocalyptic Imagination in Contemporary Art (2019).