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Light and Bright . . . With Bite

Vibrant abstractions and dioramas of domestic uncertainty serve as a mini-retrospective of Roland Reiss' work.


Eye-popping patterns of candy-colored squares. Shimmering shades of lush beige and orange paint.

On view through April 14 at the Huntington Beach Art Center, Roland Reiss' latest abstract canvasses are exuberant, hopeful and energy-packed.

They are feel-good paintings in the best sense.

Feel-good with a sharp edge, that is.

Reiss' acrylic-on-canvas composition "Special Events" teases the senses smartly with its play of bold parallel lines over variously sized squares.

Peruse the painting and its gold and green stripes seem to recede into, then advance from, the red and purple geometries they cross. The work vibrates with contained excitement, unity that could burst apart--much like a crowd caught in the drama of a sold-out sporting event.

It also conjures a kind of over-stimulated circuit board or computer component.

"Earthlight" is a swath of glowing, barely-there orange acrylic overlaid with darker orange lines, thin black crosshatchings that look like dancing TV antennas and scattered white and pink squares.

It's easy to get lost in the hypnotic luminosity of the piece. But one thick bar of pink paint pulls the eye forward again, out of some unimaginable inner world and back to the cheerful flirtation of surface texture and tone.

This positive aura is very much the point of the exhibition, which is also a kind of love letter for Reiss.

Now in his fifth decade of painting, Reiss teaches at Claremont Graduate University, where he chaired the art department from 1971 to 2000. His resume includes shows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1961 and the Whitney Museum in New York in 1975.

His artwork and teaching have influenced generations of young artists.

Reiss' work was exhibited earlier this year at Claremont Graduate University's Peggy Phelps Gallery and East Gallery before it came to Huntington Beach. Both shows were organized by Dean DeCocker, gallery director of Claremont Graduate University, and were curated by Darlene D. DeAngelo, the Huntington Beach Art Center's curator of exhibitions and programs.

Although the paintings on view in Huntington Beach date from 1991 to 2001, the exhibit also serves as a retrospective of sorts. It includes six miniature sculptures, or dioramas, made in the late '70s, two more made in '91, and two large-scale sculptures from the '80s.

Playful yet meditative, the early dioramas pumped Reiss' career and added a new vocabulary to the lexicon of conceptual art in the '70s. They depict scenes of domestic confusion in uninhabited living spaces, all on a tiny scale that imparts much irony to the work.

"The Need For Certainty," from the "Mortality Plays" series, is a replica of the interior of a home--top removed. Suitcases are scattered about, as are diminutive dishes of food, cigarettes, half-peeled bananas, magazines and coffee cups. An open safe spews miniature money. There's a rifle in one corner. The phone is off the hook.

Free-standing columns are tilted at varying angles, each carved with a single word--"Suspicion," "Vanity," "Absurdity," "Honor."

The whole scene feels subtly menacing and claustrophobic, as if its unseen occupant or occupants were frenetically busy abusing their lives, as if they were scared of life itself.

By contrast Reiss' 1991 diorama "F/X: Double Exposure" skewers the artifice of our media-besotted culture. Its miniature horror-movie studio is crammed with the makings of scream-inducing special effects--a flying saucer, some sort of gooey dripping creature, the head of Frankenstein's monster on the floor.

This little bit of theater is packed with well-honed humor. Like Reiss' meticulously crafted abstractions, it promotes an aesthetic that is a rare commodity--good vibrations that are incisive, too.


Paintings and sculptures by Roland Reiss, Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, noon-6 p.m.; Thursday, noon-8 p.m.; Sunday, noon-4 p.m. Free. Through April 14. (714) 374-1650.

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