Art

Confronting Our Fears of Looking at the Unknown

A new mural by Macon Reed invites us to consider subjects that are “other,” and to whom we don’t have full access with our gaze.

Macon Reed, Who Is Watching You More Than You Are Watching You (2018) at the Knockdown Center (photo by Kalaija Mallery)

Experiencing Macon Reed’s art can feel like walking into an old-fashioned candy store. Known for creating immersive sculptural installations, the artist’s use of bright, saturated colors give her work an unapologetically attractive quality. I was first introduced to Reed in 2015 through her project “Eulogy for the Dyke Bar” at the Wayfarers Gallery in Brooklyn, where she created her own dyke bar to lament the increasing disappearance of lesbian spaces all across the United States. There is a modest tradition of artists who resurrect bars, and walking into the installation I had expected something resembling the most well known of them: Edward Kienholz’s “The Beanery” (1965)an accurate yet grotesque reconstruction of the 1920s Los Angeles bar Barney’s Beanery (now permanently on view at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam). While certainly compelling, “The Beanery” has also always creeped me out, if only because of its famous sign “Faggots Stay Out” hanging above the bar. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the dyke bar did not radiate the uncanniness of Kienholz’s work, nor did it feel haunted by the past. Rather, Reed provided a welcoming, rather utopian space, in which the meticulously executed plaster-cast objects that filled the bar appeared as if they were made out of marzipan or bubblegum. I found myself not only dazzled by the visuals, but also guilty of craving to touch and taste my surroundings.

A similar pleasure arose when I visited Reed’s expansive 52-foot-wide mural Who Is Watching You More Than You Are Watching You, currently on view at the Knockdown Center in Queens. The vibrant colors of her mural recall oil pastels and bouquets of freshly sharpened pencils (as Tom Hanks would say), and share a clear affinity with the work of Lynda Benglis. In fact, Reed’s mural could be mistaken for a Benglis floor painting were it to somehow magically melt off the wall. By no means derivative, Reed’s work is in dialogue with her feminist predecessor known for embracing the fluid and sensuous in the wake of Minimalism. And while Reed certainly considers herself a feminist, her practice should not succumb to the danger of being stereotypically labeled as “feminine.” If Reed’s mural shows a feminine sensibility purely on the basis of its bright colors and playful shapes, then so do Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings of the late ’90s.

Macon Reed, Who Is Watching You More Than You Are Watching You (2018) at the Knockdown Center (photo by Kalaija Mallery)

While flirting with abstraction, Who Is Watching You More Than You Are Watching You is undeniably representational. Reed has here depicted a series of caves surrounded by mineral formations known as stalactites and stalagmites, but the main subjects are a series of eyes staring at us from inside the caves. In 2016, Reed undertook a solo project at ICA Baltimore titled “Who’s Afraid of Magic?”. While the title of this earlier project was a more open-ended question, the “who” of Reed’s mural at the Knockdown Center is represented in the work itself — and this “who” is watching you more than you are watching yourself. While we could speculate on how this title might play into our current political climate of constant surveillance, the exhibition’s description suggests that Reed’s mural “combines the threat of extinction of popularly known species of plants and animals to the extinction of a more intangible nature: the cognitive space of the imaginary.” Perhaps this is what prompted me to embark on a more imaginative reading of the work.

Film still from The Scarlett Flower, directed by Lev Atamanov and based on the fairy story of the same title by Sergey Aksakov. Produced at the Soyuzmultfilm studios, Moscow, 1952. (via YouTube)

Upon my first encounter with it, the mural instantly called to mind a Russian folktale that I obsessed over as a child: an appropriation of the French fairytale Beauty and the Beast from 1740 (made famous by the Disney adaptation in 1991) titled The Scarlet Flower, by Sergey Aksakov, published almost a century later in 1858. In the Russian version, the beast is more gender ambiguous than the masculine figure Disney presents us, and in The Scarlet Flower it lives in a gorgeous, lush landscape. The film animation of this tale shows various scenes in which the beast observes his object of desire from behind the flora and fauna — with only the eyes visible to the viewer. The Russian beauty, named Nastenka, ends up falling in love with the beast without ever seeing his full appearance.

The mural and the fairytale both invite us to consider subjects that are “other,” and to whom we don’t have full access with our gaze. Both also present a mystery, making us feel hesitant and wary about the unknown creatures we might encounter. The inquisitive tone of Reed’s title causes viewers to assume that they are the ones being watched, that the eyes staring out from the caves are spying on them. But what if we are not being looked at, but the ones who are looking? What if we are not in the passive, powerless position that is often associated with being looked at, but in fact the active looker, the voyeur? This tension in Reed’s mural between looking and being looked at, seeing and being seen, touches upon the untraversable divide that Jacques Lacan observed between the lover and the beloved: “When, in love, I solicit a look, what is profoundly unsatisfying and always missing is that — You never look at me from the place from which I see you. Conversely, what I look at is never what I wish to see.”

Macon Reed, Who Is Watching You More Than You Are Watching You (2018) at the Knockdown Center (photo by Kalaija Mallery)

The lover is never able to see themselves from the perspective of the other looking at them. What we learn in Reed’s mural, as in many fairytales, is that when we are unable to fully grasp the space of the other, we tend to be intimidated or unsatisfied. Often, we read the unknown as threatening, but can eventually discover that within this daunting unknown can lay an unexpected tenderness. Ultimately, Reed’s mural reminds us, it’s not all in the eye of the beholder.

Macon Reed: Who Is Watching You More Than You Are Watching You continues at the Knockdown Center (52-19 Flushing Ave, Maspeth, Queens) through August 12.

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