Steve Reynolds’ work is a poke in the eye; enmeshed in contradiction, it is deeply intelligent, prickly, and tough-minded. His work is uncomfortable to look at, defying all categories, always an amalgam of the beautiful and the ugly. Neither of these qualities have been his focus, they emerged as an indirect consequence of his process. His work reconfigures two major forms of symbolic communication: images and the written word. These forms are generally put to work as mutually exclusive entities, their coherence relying on the preservation of their distinctions. In response to the limits of this system, Reynolds invented a method that side-stepped such limiting conventions.
Reynolds (1940-2007) had an omnivorous curiosity, expressed through a wildly eclectic range of interests including linguistics, semiotics, philosophy, ornithology, and aesthetics. His work mirrors these interests, creating a densely complex mosaic that pits recognizable images against text. This antagonism produces a level of abstraction that defies easy meaning. Reynolds invented a symbolic script corresponding with those used by non-Western cultures, a hieroglyphic structure that eliminates conventional uses of text. His language forms often seem tangential to his objects but they clearly define them. Reynolds’ glyphs and pictographs represent his belief that meaning is inherently unstable. His merger of word and image produces a flexible rebus structure that encourages conversation between object and onlooker. This collaboration is ongoing, constantly changing; a reflection of Umberto Eco’s concept of the “open work.” His pieces often mate color and image with a calligraphic word or phrase on or near the object. These words and phrases are complex and eclectic, drawn from, but not confined to English and Latin. They often include text so obscure as to seem concocted. This is a means for using text as a jolt, shock or trap. It was Reynolds’ way to float a meaning constantly in flux above and below the surfaces of his images. This was achieved in a choreographic manner, setting into motion a tango of alternating signifiers that create a zone of hyper-visuality.
Reynolds’ work is a tour de force, his technical facility allowed him to push the ceramic medium to extremes. His work interweaves a number of media that include the full ceramic spectrum; thrown and altered, handbuilt, cast, multi-partite, painted or glazed, decorated with decals, and accompanied by gold leaf and gaudy frames. Each object he made is a consequence of oppositions; rubble and artifact, the smooth and the inflected, glazes and transfer decals, tiles and handbuilding, all stitched together with text. His work is comprised of equal portions of intuition, strategic thinking and the canny ability to match form to conceptual context. Each of his segmented objects represents a series of individualized ideas. Each is budded-off from a conceptual core and diverted into different avenues of potential. The ideas that generated his work are inseparable from the way he made it; each object is a spontaneous variation within the matrix of his ideas. The process is rhizomatic, each idea sprouting off in its own direction from a single root.
Much of Reynolds’ works were studiously improvised; old pieces were constantly reconfigured, elements from other pieces interchanged. “Completed” works were intentionally changed to accommodate particular spaces. This constant flux illustrates Reynolds’ attitude toward his work, his interest in conversions, repetitions, recombinations that skew and reassign meaning. His body of work is really a single entity constantly varied, impossible to title, date or measure.
Reynolds was a natural postmodernist and a brilliant intellectual. The ceramic sculptor Don Reitz noted that Reynolds’ work “always evoked questions, not answers . . . as you ponder the work in your mind you soon realize the deep philosophical implications. His tremendous knowledge of techniques, the spontaneous handling of objects and juxtaposition of shapes, are part of his signature.”
Reynolds often said that his intention was “to create situations and configurations that blur the conceptual boundaries between sculpture, painting, and ceramics”. His use of non-sequiturs, found objects, and collage provide the platform for these ‘situations’. They present the viewer with a range of vantage points, each offering a different option for approaching and absorbing his work.
Reynolds’ wall installation Aleph (2000-2005) makes use of every meaning inherent in that word. Jewish mysticism relates it to the concept of scintillating intelligence. Aleph is also the beginning of the words that make up God’s mystical name in Exodus: “I Am That I Am, the Alpha and the Omega.” Reynolds’ interpretation of Aleph is a 40-foot-long, wall-supported installation that employs clay, glazes, paint, decals, metal, wood, and glass. (The installation assumes different dimensions depending on where it is installed.) It offers a panoramic view of the history of life on earth (vis a vis humankind) beginning with creation and ending with gradual extinction. It is comprised of the following elements (described in order of appearance): The word aleph, is stenciled left in large, scriptlike letters, at the beginning of a procession of objects. To its right is a polished, forked stick toothed with short spikes. A thin, tongue-like arc emerges from the spikes embracing two small, polychromed humanoid objects (titled Adami and Evita by the artist in stenciled text), who are accompanied by a flock of varicolored figures, both human and animal, reminiscent of hunting figures in cave paintings. These elements are made from porcelain and earthenware and fan out across a long expanse of wall. They are arranged horizontally, emphasizing the left-to-right scan pattern of Western reading. The end of this procession of objects is marked “Finis,” and adjacent to it is a specimen case containing meticulously handcrafted porcelain birds’ heads. These are an obituary for disappearing species, the finis after the Creation. In all, Aleph is both obituary and homage to life on the planet with its mixed history of tragedy, high achievement, celebration, horror, beauty, and mystery.
Reynolds often played with meshing the two different modes of representation, the illusory (two-dimensional) and the physical (three-dimensional). He combined these in ways that made distinctions between the two unnecessary. He was fascinated with the DNA of imagery and meaning. Reynolds used his ideas, images and methods as if they were genetic elements spliced and transplanted into new work. This mutability is typical of his work, enabling him to convert his wide ranging intellectual interest into visual coordinates.
Reynolds’ piece Fusion (2005) merges different materials and processes. A brilliant title, it is a fusion of differently inflected forms. It is roughly 6½ × 5 feet, and at its deepest point stands 8 to 12 inches from the wall. The organic section in the upper left is glazed ceramic. The square framed tile just below that is glazed ceramic with photo decals. The rectangular framed section to the right, with an array of the bird images, is a digital print made from earlier collage elements (not ceramic).
The lower section, with its blue and yellow stripes and text, is painted and collaged. Painted bent wood chair elements are placed over the words wark, fyke, and mulct. The leg at the top of the piece gestures towards the word ect. At bottom right a separate wire structure resembling a hamster run, juts into space while encircling a richly glazed ceramic form. This object is one Duchamp would have adored, a visual pun framed in the crazy, associative manner the surrealists loved. Although the elements used appear to be totally disparate, they are connected in a nonlinear, semiotic fashion. Each section is linked to the adjacent via a combination of the loony, and dead serious. Every aspect of Fusion spins out into some free-associative mental space where it creates its own meaning. Through the juxtaposition of images and the readymade elements, each section seems to embody meaning without being linked to any in particular. The words used are obscure, but according to the artist’s notes: wark means pain or ache, fyke is a long, bag-shaped fishing net held open by hoops, mulct implies to deprive or to punish. The meaning of each incomprehensible word builds on the next, resulting in a oddly poetic word salad. Fusion is one of many objects Reynolds created that guide a flotilla of signifiers toward their visual counterparts. His objects imply a sybilline meaning waiting for a propitious reading. The word fusion has as assortment of meanings. The most significant of these is an optical reference: fusion involves combining the images from each eye into a single visual perception. Reynolds’ work represents a series of challenges; Fusion is a sophisticated rebus waiting for a solution, a Rosetta Stone, wit wrapped inside of a pun.
Reynolds maintained an intense commitment to his craft; he served as president of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, sat on its board of directors for 8 years and was voted a fellow of the council in 2006. In addition, he taught for 43 years, 28 of which he spent as professor of ceramics at the University of Texas, San Antonio. He participated in over 300 national and international exhibitions. He was a Fulbright fellow in Hungary and was elected to the International Academy of Ceramics in Geneva, Switzerland. His legacy is not only found in his work but also in the generosity he extended to many other artists.
the author Kathleen Whitney is a ceramic sculptor and a contributing editor at Sculpture magazine.