Happy Thoughts or Life in Knots?


Snap, crackle, pop! The cheery elves in Brett Reichman's work immediately bring breakfast cereal to mind. His lambs might perk up Saturday morning TV too.

But, as with some advertised products, things aren't always what they seem.

Reichman's pointed-nose pixies, dressed like candy canes, wrestle with unfulfilled desire; their frozen smiles mask foreboding. The keening of his baby sheep go silent in a world where innocence has become what he calls "an empty shell."

"The lamb is a universal symbol of innocence and sacrifice," Reichman said. "My work has been about a certain loss of cultural innocence."

Six of Reichman's vividly rendered paintings make up the aptly titled show, "It's Hard to Be Happy," on view through Oct. 4 at the Orange County Museum of Art.

His first solo museum exhibit, this grouping of recent oils also revives the former Newport Harbor Art Museum's series showcasing up-and-coming California artists.

"One of the most engaging painters to emerge in the San Francisco Bay Area in the past decade," wrote OCMA curator Bruce Guenther in an exhibit brochure. "Reichman presents a prescient conundrum to the art world--a gay artist whose beautiful paintings, with their gay-camp subtext, present universal issues of human nature."

Being gay in the AIDS era inevitably has drawn his consciousness to loss--the loss of life as well as of innocence and the sense of freedom that once prevailed in the gay community, Reichman, 39, said by telephone from his San Francisco home.

"A gay sensibility is something that's just there in the work because that's who I am," he said.

"Threefold," a painting of three elves intractably tangled into a roundish knot, is a case in point. Anxiety seems to shadow one's face, which Guenther and others have said implies the threat of AIDS. Reichman doesn't disagree.

The same sense of doom haunts "A Painting That Tells a Story," which likewise reveals Reichman's fascination with duality and misleading appearances.

One of the red-cheeked elves takes center stage in the large painting. Lambs with little curls poke through ornate rococo carvings (which Reichman models after flea market furnishings he picks up). A yellow glow from behind shines with promise. Or is that a harsh amber warning light?

"My work has always toyed with fables and storytelling, often out of childhood, so it has this very cheerful kind of Christmas expectation or enthusiasm, but at the same time, I'm not certain that those Christmas presents are going to bring much joy, again, tapping into our cultural obsession with how things look."

The anxieties Reichman explores aren't exclusive to any single group, however. He paints about fear of death and the seemingly unsolvable conflicts or unbridgeable chasms within personal relationships.

"Parallelism" depicts only the arms, and perhaps legs, of two elves, one dressed in red and white stripes, the other in green and white. The limbs, impossibly tangled together, also show up in "Too Hard a Knot to Untie." The life seems to be sucked out of some of them, flattened and devoid of body parts.

"We think of something that's knotted as being kind of cohesive," Reichman said. "But I think these knots are almost the opposite of that; things that are knotted together [may never] really come together or connect.

"Relationships are very difficult," added the artist, who sews his elfin "subjects" to use as fabric models for his paintings.

For all his interest in nostalgic childhood toys and relics, Reichman didn't play with elves and such as a kid. But the 1940 Walt Disney classic "Pinocchio" had an enormous impact, he said.

His super-bright colors have a cinematic feel, which he freely attributes to the influence of Disney animators. However, there was something more compelling about the tale-telling wooden puppet that desperately wants to become a real boy. Reichman had difficulty explaining exactly what that was, except to say that the story's message is a multilayered one. "It has to do with facade, just facade."

* "It's Hard to Be Happy," paintings by Brett Reichman, on view through Oct. 4 at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Hours are Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: $4-$5. (949) 759-1122.

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