A visual journey with artist Peggy Reavey
A little goofy, but mightily sincere
The daring, compositional inventiveness of painter Peggy Reavey
by Bondo Wyszpolski
As emphasized once again by the recent midterm elections, we live in politically contentious times. Two years ago, when it became clear that Donald Trump was headed for the White House, some artists lapsed into a creative coma, but fortunately others were galvanized and approached the easel with renewed fervor.
Peggy Reavey was among the latter. But like history’s most inventive artists she approached our political and social climate through a side door, largely by focusing upon certain parables found in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. Traditionally we’ve looked to these stories for moral and spiritual guidance, but maybe they’ve also been the source of prejudice and superstition. After all, the 12 apostles didn’t include blacks, Asians, or Hispanics, and certainly no women. That perspective needs to be taken into account, and Reavey has done precisely that in her recent paintings which, and I’ll say this upfront, are remarkable works of art with regard to color and design. The title of her current show, “When the Whaledogs Come Back,” can be viewed through Dec. 29 at Gallery 478 in San Pedro.
With one exception, the pictures in “When the Whaledogs Come Back” were painted after November, 2016. The results of the Presidential election, Reavey says, “was a really shocking experience for me.” In her studio she created an armband that she wore to subsequent marches and demonstrations “because I didn’t want anybody that I encountered on the street to think that I was okay with this. I just wanted everybody in the world to know: This is not okay!”
Her paintings, however, are not blatantly angry, but they are pointed and they often question our complacency and blanket acceptance of the patriarchal system that holds sway at virtually every level of our society.
“These are themes I’ve had in my work all along,” Reavey says, “themes about the cruelty of too much power and the arbitrariness of that power; and the assumption of men being in charge and then men having currency. This is something that I just grew up with. I don’t really blame anybody for it; the women in my family were very smart and educated, but they did not have the currency the men had, and they certainly didn’t have the power.
“But also I was very aware of the Bible and Bible stories,” she continues; “not that my father was a preacher or that we were constantly discussing religion, but we went to church regularly and my father referred to those parables all the time. I grew up thinking that the Bible is an important piece of literature and as I got older, on my own, I think of it as an extraordinary work of art” in which people, then as now, “are wanting to understand how we got here, what are we doing here, and what’s the point of it.”
She mentions the immense feeling, the mystery, and the cruelty contained in that sacred text. The words and the emotions harbored in them have their parallels today. “The fact that they were written by human beings who have the same flaws that people out of the Bible have is a really important thing to remember. Particularly if, in this culture right now, you are going to say, ‘Well, it’s okay for our leaders to be this way because the Bible says this is the way it should be.’”
But what Reavey wants to emphasize is this: “If you’re going to be loyal to something you’ve got to choose something that you have respect for and that holds your values.” Perhaps many religious people fail to consider this, choosing, blindly or otherwise, to accept as truth or gospel every line that’s in the Bible or any other sacred text for that matter.
One of the well known Biblical parables that Reavey has chosen to illustrate is the discord, fermented by God as it turns out, between brothers Cain and Abel, who have approached the Supreme Being with their respective offerings. Cain presents a sheaf of grain and Abel a lamb. Today, many of us would praise Cain since his gift or sacrifice doesn’t entail forfeiting the life of another creature. Well, maybe now, but not then.
“God is very approving of the lamb, Abel’s gift,” Reavey says, “but is thumbs-down on Cain’s. And so Cain is upset of course; he hangs down his head and God says, ‘You shouldn’t be upset, what are you upset about? If you do the right thing I’ll be happy, and if you don’t do the right thing I won’t be happy. So do the right thing.’ But the right thing is completely arbitrary. It’s all about what He decides He wants: What’s wrong? What’s better? “‘It’s all because I said so.’”
God should have known what was coming, right? Cain’s a farmer. He didn’t own a Toyota dealership or a clothing store, let alone a flock of sheep. In his line of work it had to be something organic, from the field.
After completing half of the painting, with God’s head swiveling from one brother to the other, and with both pleasure and displeasure on the two sides of his face, Reavey paused and wondered how to continue.
“Then I thought, well, what needs to happen here is you need to find a different God. You can’t go around worshipping a God who is modeled after an ordinary, primitive tyrant. It’s a human character that has been portrayed as a God and it has all the human faults of a narcissistic maniac, and it has nothing to do with anything that’s beyond human.
“So I created a little God which, believe me, I’m not saying anybody should worship. It’s sort of a floating creature that has vegetables sticking out of its mouth, or her mouth. You need to find a God that loves you and loves what you have to give. And so the title is “Find a God who eats her vegetables.” Of course it’s goofy in a way, but I’m very sincere about this.” Formative, formidable years
That last sentence might actually describe much of her work, past and present. Without slapping any label on Reavey’s pictures, there’s a cartoonish aspect to them which could be mistaken for naive or primitive folk art, or even outsider art like that by the late but much-heralded Henry Darger. If we let down our guard we might dismiss them as unsophisticated, but boy would we be wrong.
As curator Ron Linden astutely notes, “Peggy Reavey is a figurative painter and storyteller. Her work has been variously described as eccentric, surreal, tender, caustic, and largely autobiographical… Formally, Reavey’s paintings are raw, seemingly uncooked by cultural and artistic influences… resulting in often daring compositional inventiveness.”
And most of them either carefully planned or worked out during the act of creation.
“I do a lot of painting and rubbing out and painting,” she explains. “I do a lot of painting under each painting because I’m also very concerned with composition, color, and where the eyes are going… all the formal things you think about as an artist. And also the placement of those things helps me say what I’m saying.”
But if the process is one of making discoveries, plus changes and detours as she proceeds, at other times Reavey has a clear idea from the beginning as to how she wants to express her vision. A case in point is “Sarai gets caught laughing at God!” And why is Sarai (or Sarah) laughing at God? She is told while in her late 80s or maybe at 90 (i.e., Arvo Pärt’s “Sarah Was Ninety Years Old”) that she is going to bear Abraham a child, and presumably her first thought is, “You’ve got to be kidding!” That is, until she realizes that God is serious (Is God ever not serious? Good question). And, sure enough, Isaac comes along. If we think about it, he’s the only person we know of, Biblical or otherwise, whose mother, had she died in childbirth, might well have died of old age rather than of other complications.
Like “Find a God who eats her vegetables,” “Sarai gets caught laughing at God!” can be described as both goofy and sincere. But, again, the composition didn’t just fall into place. Reavey’s foray into a career of making paintings began a long time ago, even before 1965 when she enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art.
“I went to art school straight out of high school,” she says. “I loved it, but I really didn’t have the confidence to stick with it at the time. Ultimately I moved to California with my first husband and daughter, and I worked as an illustrator for a while for a small publishing company. I was also doing some writing and I got very interested in writing stories. So I got a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing (from UC Irvine), but the novel I wrote then was about an artist, and the paintings that this artist was doing were what interested me the most. I was then painting the kitchen cabinet and the feel of the paint was just so delicious to me that I thought, ‘I really want to go paint these paintings that I’ve written about,’ and that’s when I went back to being an artist.’ I’ve done that ever since.”
Somewhat offhandedly, Reavey mentions that she learned more about art from being around her first husband. “We went to art school together. He was like a big star and I was nothing; I was like a cute girl. I had talent, but no confidence at all. And all anybody had to do was to say ‘boo’ and I would just fold.”
As artists, she and her former spouse can still connect, and both have created work that is a little “out there,” mildly speaking. But Reavey would prefer that he be left on the sidelines of the conversation. However, being that he’s the internationally renowned filmmaker David Lynch, and that he made the trek from somewhere in Hollywood down to San Pedro for Reavey’s opening reception, well, it’s hard to ignore him altogether. On top of that, Lynch arrived determined to see and presumably to buy, the show’s title painting, “When the Whaledogs Come Back.”
My take on it, though, is this. Reavey and Lynch spent some crucial, formative years together, and I’ll speculate that both had some artistic influence on the other. Their human collaboration produced a daughter, a noted film director in her own right, Jennifer Lynch. Bible studies
But let’s not stray from the work at hand.
One notices that, with her feet propped up, Sarai sits in her armchair next to the television in Reavey’s depiction of her as she realizes that God isn’t joking around when He or She announces that her childbearing days aren’t over yet, even at the gentle age of 90.
Reavey reiterates that the Bible is an endless source or grabbag of mystery that people have delved into for generations, and it goes without saying that painters have been drawn to the texts like ants to a spilled bowl of sugar. But to bring it up to the present, “I moved it out of the environment of people walking around in the dust wearing sandals and robes. I moved it into more of a 1950s interior,” and thus grounding it, Reavey says, in the atmosphere of her own youth. Now, visually, it’s more relatable while still retaining an individual touch. “This is not some kind of myth happening off in a foreign land. This is what it’s about, it’s about human beings, in your house and doing this, and what do you think of that?”
Which leads us to the strange, yes, but compelling “When the Whaledogs Come Back.”
“Right-wing fundamentalist Christians often talk about when Jesus comes back, and how this is the end times and all this stuff’s going to happen, and the people that are saved will go to Heaven and the rest of us will fry in Hell.” Reavey then mentions a friend’s son who’s involved with a right-wing Christian recovery house: “They have informed him that they know there’s a Hell because they’ve drilled down to the middle of the Earth and they put microphones down there and they can hear screaming.” She pauses. “Okay. So this is the kind of consciousness that we’re dealing with here.”
“So, anyway, I was painting this horizontal landscape and I had all these little houses with a sinner in each one, each performing the Seven Deadly Sins, all of which I confess I’m guilty of. But the main thing that’s going on with these people is that they are very self-absorbed. They’re inside these little cut-out things and then around them you see the world, you see the horizon, you see the ocean. And to the right these creatures are coming on land, which they’re unaware of.”
Reavey had recently learned that eons ago whales emerged from the sea, evolved into land-based mammals, walked around on all fours like you and me, changed their minds and returned to the water (which in retrospect was probably a smart idea).
“And I just thought, ‘Wow.’ I’m more interested in the whaledogs coming back than in Jesus coming back. The whaledogs remind us that we are not the main thing, that we are in a big world with a huge ocean in this giant universe, in an infinite space. So, when the whaledogs come back things are gonna happen.” Reavey laughs. “You’re gonna realize things. I don’t mean you’ll only be punished, I just mean ‘Let’s open our eyes.’” Especially now, because between the self-absorbed populace in their homes and Nature outside there’s a widening disconnect: “One of the absolutely mind-bending things that Trump has done is abandon all concern for climate change, and for the environment.”
The whaledogs are symptomatic of revelatory, maybe even apocalyptic developments if our complacency and disregard for the world we live in reaches a boiling point. But let’s not get the idea that Reavey lacks a sense of humor. Far from it. “I think it’s really important to laugh at this stuff,” she says, referring to the Bible and even to God, which doesn’t mean belittling the one or the other, only that one’s personal deity should be more like a friend you can joke with rather than a sadistic prison warden. “If you have a higher power that is constantly berating you, that’s not going to help you. If you ask your higher power, Should I do this or this?, it’s helpful if it says something non-destructive.”
Many would hope that the higher power of their choice is currently paying attention. The underlying impetus of so much art these days radiates from the White House and Donald Trump’s surprise victory two years ago.
“I was sort of paralyzed,” Reavey says. “I tried to go to bed after he won and couldn’t sleep. I just couldn’t believe it. But when I got up in the morning and I made coffee, and the coffee machine worked, it was immediately reassuring. It was like, Not everything has been completely destroyed.”
And then, for artists and other people like Peggy Reavey, it was time to roll up their sleeves and get back to drawing and painting.
When the Whaledogs Come Back, a solo show devoted to Peggy Reavey and curated by Ron Linden, is on view through Dec. 29 at Gallery 478, located at 478 W. Seventh St., San Pedro. Hours, Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and by appointment. (310) 600-4873 or (310) 732-2150. PEN