|Signs and Wonders The Paintings of Jesse Reno
People are wilder than we have been taught to be, says
Jesse Reno, and in more danger than we know. Only he says it in his
paintings rather than in any kind of political tract.
My first encounter with Reno's unusual images produced, in my own
mind, memories of pictures I have seen of cave prehistoric paintings.
Flat and two-dimensional, and with various stark and half-way
recognizable elements placed in odd relationships to each other,
Reno's images easily conjure up for me the very shadows that must have
danced in the firelight as the men and women of Lascaux in France
painted their animals and stick figures those thousands of years ago.
Here are some of the words and notes I wrote down in response to
seeing a half dozen of the paintings that are in this show at Rougette
Medieval flatness, cave flatness. The horned man. Indian headdresses
and an eagle carved in the style peculiar to the Pacific Northwest
Indian. Totems. Saint with halo, and the devil at Coventry cathedral.
The minotaur, and the price code bar symbol. Rail tracks and city
blocks in symbol. Blind heads in ornate headdresses, following stars.
The consuming spider and the consumer's price code. Winged man with
the symbol of the flower or the atom. Cave walls.
I was particularly please to find, when I looked up Reno's biography,
that he lives in Portland, Ore., and that my sense about the Pacific
Northwest was apparently on the mark. But this is not really about me
reading another man's signs and wonders, rather it is about the
artist's world and how accessible it is to the rest of us.
Taken as a whole, the list of words and impressions given above holds
together with a remarkable consistency. Here are ideas connected to a
more primitive idea of our species, although not necessarily to an
Reno successfully blends images as old as the devil with
representations of the universal UPC symbol, the little black bars
found on all the products of our modern lives that are scanned at
supermarket checkouts. The implication is clear, that perhaps these
are two forms of the same devil. What we have, then, seems to be a
fairly open and critical commentary on aspects of contemporary life.
But as I keep reminding myself, looking at art is not simply a matter
of decoding the symbols it appears to contain.
True, the appearance of a minotaur-like creature in one painting
speaks to me of the terrifying labyrinthine trap described in the
ancient Mediterranean legend of Crete. The horned man belongs to the
pre-Christian world of the Celts. The devil, who is his own kind of
horned man, still holds such a place in our current library of ideas
that he does not much need to be explained. It is also true that Reno
openly ascribes literal meaning to some of the symbolic shapes that he
uses in his paintings.
But this is not some Mad Hatter's idea of the Da Vinci Code, promising
to lead us to some fantastic and shattering final conclusion. Art is
intended to steer people toward their own private conclusions, or at
least to get them moving in some direction. And there is no obligation
to ever arrive, not even to move in the same direction as anybody else.
Ultimately, once art is completed by the artist, then art is
exclusively for the viewer's own purposes. The artist's skill or
craftsmanship, however, does survive the completion of each painting,
and deserves its own consideration. These are extremely powerful and
visceral paintings, not simply for the images and ideas they have
conjured up in my mind as a viewer, but also because of the literal
effect of the artist's choices in bringing them to life on his
Some of the excellently outlandish figures in Reno's paintings remind
me of the carefully distorted or rearranged representations produced
by Alan Magee, for example. The apparent connection between the two
artists? styles, which after all might exist only in my own opinion,
helps me realize the universal nature of the things that artists
(people, really) have within us, the things which we find ourselves
While I am more than happy to laugh at the Da Vinci Code theory of the
meaning of life, (it has more in common with Monty Python's theory
than anything else,) I do believe that good art will demonstrate the
identifiable humanness of the artist behind all the shades and colors,
forms and figures, that appear in the art.
Reno's art has this quality. It is real, and it is about something we
all know is real, the fears and terrors that have followed us as a
species from the caves we once lived in, and which strips away our
modern disguise. It therefore looks ferociously attractive,
appealingly terrifying, like the urge to lean too far over a precipice
is also appealingly terrifying.
These are indeed wild images that Reno paints on his equivalent of the
ancient cave wall. He paints to warn us of the power of the hunt and
of the hunter, even if our version of the hunt is more prosaic than
the primal pursuit of the mammoth and the giant aurochs. He paints to
make us fear the hunt, nevertheless, and so to overcome our fear ? or
be ruined by it.
David Grima, Editor, The Camden Herald
Jesse has always loved to draw despite significant impairments to his vision as a result of a fever that almost killed him and kept him hospitalized for the first year of his life. Ironically, Jesse believes that the peculiar demands of his vision have enhanced his work.
Always a good student, Jesse would finish his work as soon as he could so that he could draw. He loved looking at pictures of African art and ancient masks and sculptures in library books. “I was attracted to primitive art,” says Jesse, at times even now “I go to the library, I like Aboriginal art. It’s not like I could copy it, though, I go to get inspired.” For Jesse, the symbolism of art is what “rules.” He feels his primitive work is most is most natural to him, “it’s strange, I really do see them in dazed states…also during Tai Chi they will flash through my closed eyes.” Jesse is troubled by “the lack of ideas” that people have regarding art, “buying and selling art you care nothing about, because you think it makes you look cool, because it’s expensive, or whatever…the ancients believed in what they were doing, it meant something to them.” Jesse works on his pieces until they mean something. A recurring theme with kings and crowns relates to his commentary on how people, who need money, are ruled by it instead.
Jesse approaches his creations in the same way and believes this is what motivates him and makes him avoid submitting to materialistic pressures to serve other people’s ideas. “My art captures whatever feeling I had. I know I felt it. I know what was going on in my head.” If you can relate to it great, if not, that’s okay with him, too.
Tai Chi has been instrumental in this focus. Jesse suffers from the chronic pain and tendonitis in his neck – he has to hold his neck in awkward postures to see his work. “Sometimes I’m crouched over it 1 foot away. Actually, a lot of times the work is done before I can see the whole thing!” He took up Tai Chi to help reduce the pain and strain from the demand of seeing. “I had to do a lot of meditation, I become more aware of my posture, I became more confident about my art…soon, I didn’t question myself. I knew when it was done.” Jesse eventually learned to “go with” the more frustrating aspects of his vision -- some areas of his eyesight are blocked, his right eye is particularly sensitive to light, and color is seen as brighter and darker. Further, he has found that something happens when his eyes are strained to fatigue – “I can see shapes, see things I haven’t seen all day.” It is at this point that he lets go of his vision. “More is accomplished, sometimes drastic things happen at the end of the day. I’m more fluent. I’m looser, I draw faster, I run with the (new) perspective. I rework it until it means something”.
Jesse was initially discouraged from pursuing art and pursued music instead. He moved out on his own at 18, earned an Associated Degree in Radio and TV, had a home recording studio, played guitar in a band while supporting himself as a mailman. Of course, he drew all the time in the mailroom, too. A few years ago Jesse got excited about another artist’s work “and I started painting a lot, quickly”. The artist he admired saw his work and was enthusiastic and supportive. “Then I got fierce. I painted all the time."
Jesse was supported at key points by the enthusiasm of other artists and did everything and anything he could to show his work. “I put on a show, I organized shows, I went anywhere – tattoo shops, salons, coffee shops, record stores” – where they hung art, “I promoted it, I did the publicity, art walks, anything was worth doing to get people to see it. Even if I didn’t sell anything, it led to a commission.” About 3 ½ years later he was able to quit his job as a mailman. His hard work paid off. Eventually he earned the attention of regular collectors in the United States and abroad.
Several years Jesse moved from Pennsylvania to Portland, Oregon. He has stayed busy particularly after being promoted by a well established gallery in Los Angeles. He has also started painting live for commissions which he says he enjoys quite a lot because he likes being engaged with people while he works. He now considers his music career a hobby; although, when he has time he plays and records--he is currently playing experimental music.
The art produced for the Rougette Gallery 2007 show reflected his awareness that in 4 short years his life has taken a dramatic course from where he thought he would be. "I'm not where I thought I would be and that may have been irrelevant. My personal measurement of what I thought I would be doing isn't what I think now. That's why there are a lot of arrows in my work now -- it feels like all of these ideas are coming out of me and that I should look at all directions, all ideas at what I could be. As long as I move forward, stay on my game, go deeper, and never cop out. Push, push, push myself. What's certain is my work is all I think about right now -- and, how I work out what's in my head. It's important that I am claim who I am by (letting myself) think what I think and say what I say and not worry about it."
When Jesse started to show with this gallery he had been a full time artist 6 months. Jesse notes at that stage it was easy to dream about being a working artist but he knew he wasn't free of the mindset of being a guy with a job who hopes to be an artist until he recently got a tattoo on his hand in a place where "everyone" could see. (He has others.) This year he has been feeling that he is free to fully be himself as an artist and is aware this attitude has led to some critical success and constant work. The important element in his creative work is to use his art to make sense of his own psyche and what is going though him. "If I pay attention to my art I have a clear sense of what's going on inside of me. It's funny, when I look at my old work I can tell exactly what was going on with me then. Now, when I'm working on something, I ask myself 'why does this mean this to me?, what am I learning?' Lately, I feel like the Phoenix Rising and a lot of that (feeling) has shown up in my work."
Jesse also spent some time this Summer in Winnipeg, Canada, working with underprivileged teenagers, mostly native kids, teaching them to paint murals through structured graffiti art programming. "The provincial government funded a huge grant to bring in 3 international artists and 3 Canadian artist to work with the kids." We'll skip the part about the Byzantine governmental/non-profit hierarchy which caused a delay in the arrival of the paint but Jesse did enjoy working with the teens and created a 1000 sq foot mural as part of the commission (see above).
Jesse's art has been published in a number of book, including "Truth Will Measure: The Art of Jesse Reno" . 2009 brought a prestigious award: he was the winner of the " Most Expressive Artist" Award at the Festival International Art Singulier Contemporain in France.