Jennifer Wynne Reeves’ “A Bolt of Soul: Grooved Foreheads and Dog Teeth” is two exhibitions in one. In a small room at CB1 Gallery hang eight paintings Reeves made in Michigan in 1997. A larger gallery displays 18 works she made in New York from 2011 to 2014, when, at the age of 51, she died of brain cancer.
Her early works are quiet beauties. Intimate pictures of barns and birthday cakes, often interrupted by errant scribbles, renegade swipes of paint-loaded brushes and crusty scabs of dried paint, they are suffused with more sadness than most would want to experience in a lifetime, much less an afternoon.
But delight also enlivens Reeves’ juicy paintings. Racing upward, like the fizz in a soft drink, that elusive pleasure pops when it hits air: a miniature Minimalist firework for the attentive.
The excitement of anticipation percolates in Reeves’ four paintings of birthday cakes. These harrowing pictures also embody the letdown of the actual celebrations, especially when the parties fail to measure up an innocent’s vision. Dashed dreams and stubborn hopefulness rub shoulders.
Reeves’ three pictures of farms give poignant form to the bittersweet reality of frustrated desires and the stiff-lipped stoicism with which Midwesterners typically respond to everything from heartbreak to burnt toast. Taking a long view of things, Reeves’ paintings are haunted by the ghosts of other go-it-aloners, including Giorgio de Chirico, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Forrest Bess, Ree Morton, Ron Nagle, Judy Fiskin and Richard Allen Morris.
Reeves’ works from the last three years are scrappier and worldlier. Their points of reference go far beyond the farm to include stories of saints, sinners, scientists and sexual adventurers. Love poems, letters to the editor and loopy ramblings add resonance.
Mismatched buttons, tufts of hair and bits of wire have been stuck to the surfaces of Reeves’ rough-and-tumble works, sometimes pressed deep into gooey globs of paint and at others pinned delicately, like collected butterflies.
More acutely attuned to the multilayered richness of existence, her collaged paintings, on which lovely poems are sometimes written, find magic in life’s nooks and crannies. Deftly switching from abstraction to figuration, they reveal an artist who believed that the most potent art was also the most flexible; able to roll with the punches and dig up insights wherever they might be found.
Reeves’ catch-as-catch-can pragmatism makes for profoundly rewarding works. Long after you leave the gallery, her paintings come back as memories, where they continue to give generously, both pointedly and powerfully.
CB1 Gallery, 1923 Santa Fe Ave., (213) 806-7889, through July 18. www.cb1gallery.com