And the Music Never Stops: Randi Reiss-McCormack’s “Wonderlust”

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The first time I saw reproductions of the Maryland-based artist Randi Reiss-McCormack’s fiber-based paintings, I thought, “This person’s work deserves a museum show.” Museums came to mind more vividly and emphatically after seeing, in person, her canvases’ extreme, unique physicality. Right now I’m thinking, “Good for the Myrtle Beach Art Museum,” in South Carolina, where her work is presently on display (January 10-April 16th).

You could kick up your heels, rollicking through the hectic, compressed spread of the mammoth, four-part, visually seamless “Prowling the Undergrowth.” On the flip side, you could lose your way, your breath, the beat, trip over a serpentining vine, or step into a rabbit hole in the undergrowth’s ungreen greenery. But it wouldn’t take long getting back in sync or picking back up the beat, because standing before “Prowling,” we’re not just ordinary viewers of paintings or weavings; we embody the poetics of sharp-eyed ears and hearing eyes.

This extraordinary jumble of a textiled jungle makes for a robust trek. How we trek from here to there—with all the missteps we might delight in on our mazy, crazy path—matters.


"Prowling the Undergrowth" detail.

It’s a lovely art hike, harmonious even at its most tumultuous. In its almost eleven thousand, jammed-packed square inches, it figures out how to get us home before the music stops. Of course, in the layered, lyrical world of “Prowling the Undergrowth,” the rhythmic beats never stop.

Let’s address the title’s first word. I see this jungle maker’s largest-ever art project as majestically raising hell, whereas for me the term “prowling” normally suggests sinister shadows and hushed tones. I don’t think of brightly lit cacophony, as in this tufted masterpiece. But then, we’re viewing a very specific subject portrayed by a very unique and unpredictable artistic daredevil. So why wouldn’t it be handled and titled distinctly? There’s lots of ways to move through the world and to describe that movement.

Ungreen “Undergrowth?” What if green swallowed the painting’s deep dark blues and blacks? Then the title might be more predictable. But less provocative. Randi Reiss-McCormack’s works are built on surprise, like green disguised as brown disguised as undergrowth disguised as dark blue daisies disguised as wild, wide-eyed, eye-popping song and dance.

"Prowling the Undergrowth" Installation view
"Talk Talk"

Three years ago, a community art center in Greenbelt, Maryland invited the artist to create a work the length of its longest uninterrupted wall. By upping the scale and ambition, this tightly- knit tour de force allowed her to flex her muscles. This is healthy not only for health-conscious, physically fit folk, it’s sweetly badass for everyone strutting and prowling among us. 

By significantly shifting scale, artists learn new skills and problem-solving solutions. They develop new muscles while maintaining old ones. And they size up how close they can get to an abyss without falling into it. Even if they fall, they wind up benefiting from not having played it safe, which no one can accuse Reiss McCormack of. “Prowling” and another mammoth weaving of hers, “Talk, Talk,” are full of grand risks, successfully pushing their limits to extremes—conceptually, aesthetically, technically, or materially. And size-wise. 

Of course, shifting scale works both ways. In terms of downsizing, in many of her collaged canvases, she brushes flocked pigment and glues down beads the dimensions of sand grains.

In her catalog essay for Reiss-McCormack’s solo show last year at The Painting Center in NYC, Cara Ober wrote “Printmaking, paper pulp relief, and stencils have played a significant role in the evolution of Reiss-McCormack’s thinking. [B]ut,” Ober continued, “learning Peyote stitch beadwork, weaving, needlepoint, embroidery, flocking, and punch needle rug tufting have elevated her practice into truly personal and integrated visual outcomes… that somehow, visually coalesce.”

“Prowling” and “Talk, Talk” might be too big and busy, and take too many gutsy chances for common-denominator tastes. “Too” makes uncommon these tufted murals. “Too” keeps them from being too easy to like—which is a good thing. And it gives them an impolite edge—good, too. “Uncommonness” allows these images to be their labyrinthine best, which makes them rewarding to wend through and to test what can be gotten away with. “Too” tends to heighten a work’s singularity. But it’s tricky. A bit too much or not enough of what distinguishes it can make its specialness slither away, make it unlikeable, which this artist’s work never is. No easy challenges here.


"Hue 250'
"Talk Talk" detail

The clean dirt, soft rocks, and ungreen greens snake through the oxymoronic nature of “Prowling” and other of her abstract landscapes. In “Hue 250,” blue rules. Here, squiggles and shapes shimmy across the surface of a midnight lake, hiccuping abruptly from an unsuspecting sky like lightening pops. Unlike what we have in the landscape-oriented “Prowling,” in “Hue 250” there is background, relatively flat background.     

It’s also the star of the show despite all that’s going on in front. Figural elements are crisply isolated and integrated as equal partners into the strikingly intense, even field. I’m reminded of the author, Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant paradoxical insight about depth. Novelists, she explains, write about what they see on the surface, but their angle of vision is such that they begin to see the surface before getting to it, and they continue to see beyond its outward appearance after passing it by. It has to do with time, slow time, no matter how high-speed it may initially seem.       

Warmly clothed, the abstract, earthy figures in “Hue 250” comfortably populate their icy blue surrounds. Because they’re not racing around, and because of the spaces between, they have a chance to appreciate one another. Meanwhile, surplus servings of the painting’s out-of-breath rhythms are breathtaking.

In her artist statement, Reiss-McCormack says she derives her shapes and forms from nature. That’s certainly the case in her most overt landscape, “Tufted Terrain.” Dawn or dusk greens prevail, and the artist leans into a mostly dark, cool palette, as opposed to the earthen colors of her paintings “Talk Talk,” “Ceremonial,” “Ebullience,” and “Prowling the Undergrowth.” In “Tufted Terrain”, her signature allover nature gives way to a flatly painted heaven above a hilly horizon.


"Tufted Terrain"

A very different, more calligraphic approach to landscape is the aptly titled, layered “Ebullience.” Here, pale blue encompasses elaborate choreography. I sense the abstraction smiling while lines and forms, once again, zestfully dance in their grayness.

Hot off the press, the loud and fast “Fool’s Paradise” is her most recent undertaking in this show. As gestural and active as the parts here are, so too are the relief-like planes of yarn. The visual action is dizzying. Filled with areas that have the clarity and power of figures or characters—in his own work, Joan Miró called them “Personages.” 

An exchange with changing partners, “Fool’s Paradise” represents a conversation between dazzling patterns and relative solids, high-speeds and slows, warms and cools. Space is tied to the see-saw between physical and flat. The thick burgundy wool that overlaps heavily the series of black shapes cursively crawling across the bottom of the canvas is a bold example. 

There’s also a fluid conversation between the inside shapes and the outside, organic perimeter. “Fool’s Paradise” does not conform to the convention of straight lines and right angles that serve as most paintings’ outer boundaries.

To see her dreamscapes properly, move back and forth. Get close to see her materials in all their textured glory, further away, to see the overall blend. And stand still midway; you can’t go wrong. In Randi Reiss-McCormack’s gritty, graceful work, there’s wild, yet carefully choreographed dance. There’s lyrical, rhapsodic song. And the music never stops in this well-deserved museum show.


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