Bunnie Reiss is an OG. A magical, silver-haired desert queen who looks like she stepped out of one of her folk-inspired futuristic fairy-fueled paintings, Reiss has the unique perspective of a woman who has truly tread the world as an artist in every sense of the world for the last several decades. Reiss has worked tirelessly on her latest body of work entitled "Space Angels"-- a body that is perhaps more a retrospective than solely a solo show--and Jux contributer Lauren YS sat down with Reiss to discuss the inspiration behind these pieces and the story of how they came about in this restless era.
Superchief Gallery LA is pleased to present the exhibition of Space Angels, a new body of work by Bunnie Reiss, known for her vibrant murals, featuring over two dozen new paintings, sculptural pieces, installations, quilts and more. This is her first solo exhibition in two years. The opening reception will be held on November 4 from 6pm—11pm. Space Angels will be on view until December 2, 2017.
Lauren YS: Tell me about the theme of "Space angels?"
Bunnie Reiss: With these paintings, I wanted to build a potential future world that seemed attainable and not as far into the future as we think. Because of my fascination with Elon Musk and also the tremendous grief that came upon all of us last spring, I was obsessively reading and daydreaming about where we could go from here.
A lot of it had to do with the political choices that we all made as a country and the grief of Ghost Ship combined. It was horrible, the way that all of a sudden marginalized people became the enemy, and that all these communities and spaces and people were under fire in a way that they never had been—at least not in my lifetime. Not like this.
So I took all this trauma and grief and went right into my imagination. My first thought was, "don’t let it harden you. Don’t become like a block. And I thought, what if trauma made us soft? Like imaginal cells—“bug soup”? That’s the scientific name for what happens to a butterfly when it’s in its cocoon. The butterfly doesn’t actually stay this form, it liquefies into gooey cells, and then it re-forms into another thing.”
So I thought, “Maybe we’re just bug soup, and now we have this choice.” And I starting building this new world, where there’s a space boat that crashes, and we have to be really careful not to make the same mistakes but become more human than we've ever been.
LYS: And how do your chosen mediums reflect this ideology?
BR: And so I started building this world of Space Angels, and there’s nothing perfect about it... the work is a tension between the really formal (square panels) and other kinds of softer collage or mixed-media pieces that talk about the tensions between those two energies. That’s really what’s causing problems between everyone right now. We don’t want to let go of things but we need to move forward. We need to be more compassionate, we need to believe in time travel, that our dimension is not just here but extends into the future.
There’s a French theorist named Geoffrey Sonnabend who writes about the “theory of forgetting,” it's the idea that when we think about the past, what we remember is actually just what we've created in our heads. It doesn’t really exist- so all of our memories are fabricated to a certain extent. Basically the idea is that what we should we paying attention to is what we have forgotten, not what we remember. So, in between our gaps of memory here are all these things we’ve forgotten - how we treat each other, how we treat nature, how we look at animals, basic stuff.
I like that as I’m moving forward, I’m trying to remember what I’ve forgotten.
And that’s where the imaginal cells would really start to breed- because we could get our arms around it, and it doesn’t feel like a piece of wood, it's actually a big ball of something squishy.
LYS: How do you want people to react to the work or feel in this space you’re creating?
BR: I want people to take a break and feel good in the space. So the colors are soft, the work is gentle. And these deities or archetypes I paint, for the first time they’re really women, and they have skin tones. They’re usually covered. They wear black leggings for example, or they live in the shadows, and these people are actually mixed race, they look more human than ever.
I want them to be forgiving, not covered up. I spent a lot of time mixing skin tones because I believe that the future of our color is going to get really crazy, there will be all these beautiful shades, and no real delineation. I usually pay attention to design details but this time I was looking at gesture, skin color, other things that make us human.
LYS: What are the deities/archetypes doing?
BR: They are in positions of asking—not wondering but asking a question. I wanted to create in a 2D context a conversation that feels private with people - a lot of the gestures are meant to create thinking or a back and forth with the viewer.
LYS: Are they planting seeds? There seem to be a lot of floating islands with greenery? Is that meant to provide any type of commentary?
BR: There’s always a commentary about environment in my work... it’s infuriating that people don’t believe that climate change is real. Looking at the evidence, if you're not paying attention climate then you have a big, big issue going on. It’s always a major theme in my work that our answers will lie in our respect for mother nature. And things will change in a way that could be catastrophic or it could be beautiful, we just have to pay more attention and get back to our selves.
I’m not saying to give up on the internet or future or robots, but we have to figure out where the two worlds meet. We’ve gone way too fast. In the world of my paintings, there isn’t a lot of hard floor to stand on. This island is floating, this crashed into something and now it’s collecting other things that are floating. It's building itself.
LYS: You’re also a mural artist. What’s your workflow like between studio time and painting outdoors? Which do you prefer?
BR: For me, the paintings are the most joyful part but they take the longest. Little paintings take so long. There’s such a preciousness to small things. Especially when you work on murals, you start to learn you can be very forgiving on something large that the scale is almost like a mirage.
I go through phases; I love public art as a whole because it’s so available and political and in line with my idea of the world. My work is about creating mood change and happiness and taking fear away. I love creating things that help neighborhoods talk to each other and communities interact in public. But I also think as an artist, you need to have quiet time too, so I go back and forth.
Murals are also incredibly physical and I feel like we're not really in a race here, were in a marathon. Slow and steady with everything. If you're feeling burned out, you take a break. And if your body is hurting, stop for a minute. I start to get antsy though, when I need to be in public again.
LYS: So I know you have a truck that’s totally outfitted for long drives, you just did a mural tour across the country - how does that tie into this work?
BR: I started this work last spring, around December. The Ghost Ship fire happened December 10th, and the election was in November, and so I saw everyone around me just horribly depressed, including myself. The worst I’d been in a really long time, and it wasn’t clinical. But having lost such a tremendous amount of creative people so quickly in a scene that I cared so much about—that made me who I am as an artist and woman—was terribly painful.
So, I got this museum project in New York, and they were going to fly me and I decided to drive instead, because I felt like I needed to try to fall back in love with my country. Because if I didn’t, I was just going to leave. And so I took my little truck and drove for 10 days by myself. I went all over the place, to weird places, random parts of Kansas—I don’t even know where I was most of the time. I would camp alone, swim everywhere, look for little water holes.
And what I found, is that we have so much more in common than not. Despite tattoos and hair color and weird lifestyles we are much more the same than we think we are. People are living the way they have to in order to survive, and even if that’s not ok for us, it’s a problem we have to consider. People are suffering on a large level. Middle America is in a bad way. I found a very poor country. Poor, not in a third-world sense, but it could easily be there if water becomes contaminated or climate affects agricultural growth. It’s real, the tipping point is close.
I also saw some of the most beautiful lake country I’ve ever seen.
LYS: Do you feel like you achieved your goal of falling back in love with America?
BR: I feel like I’m not ready to give up. I don’t know if I feel necessarily good, but I do feel like I’m not in pure flight mode like I was. It took me 3 months of being on the road- I had to wring it out of my system, I had to get incredibly depressed and leave my surroundings and live out of my car, drive over 7,000 miles. I was on this cathartic journey, like a sponge. If you let that stuff eat you alive, it will. It is a cancer in this society. It is growing out of fear and hatred and people don’t know who the enemy is anymore. We don’t even know who the bad guys are anymore. And it’s tremendously huge problem.
LYS: Is there anything else you want us to know about this show?
BR: I want Superchief to keep surviving because I think its one of the few galleries in LA that really support artists doing whatever they want. Bill offers a space that’s flexible to really go crazy. You do the best on all things. Even on your bad days.
LYS: What X-man (or woman) would you be?
BR: What's really funny is that I never wanted to be a superhero, I wasn’t really into that stuff. And then I watched Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and I said, I wanna be that one right there. Mantis. She's the best. She's a little gentle alien creature, and her superpower is that she's an empath. She can feel other people’s feelings. And her tentacles light up when they're feeling something.
LYS: Do you have advice for other artists who are feeling down /hopeless about creating in the current political climate?
BR: In the end, it won't really matter what is happening in the world, your country, or even in your backyard. If you have something to say, than say it. Scream it! Write it on the wall! This may be your only chance, so just go for it! The world is a big, beautiful bright adventure waiting to happen and you never know when something you say might just be the little thing that makes the big impact.
Photos by Lauren YS and Chase Koopersmith