Two to Watch: Gretchen and Paul Reynolds
Gretchen and Paul Reynolds live in a Victorian house in the lower Avenues. It’s a floor plan you know if you’ve lived in Salt Lake City, but their home draws you in with a warmth that belies what must be a rich labyrinth of coexistence. They’re committed artists. Every room is clothed in images—landscapes of northern Utah, paintings for painting’s sake, personal photographs and points between. A leaved dining room table has been converted into a table tennis court, and that’s how our interview begins. Gretchen makes coffee for us and opens a beer for herself, while Paul beats me several times at ping-pong. Then we sit down to talk.
One of the first things I ask them is how much they talk about art. I’m not sure if I mean each other’s or that of everybody else. Gretchen replies, “Paul has taken me to some of the best things I’ve ever seen. We were in New York City once when I was 22 … It was nighttime and the hotel room door had a sign that said something to the effect of, ‘Don’t go outside, you’ll be instantly killed!’ There were maybe five locks on the door. Paul said, ‘We have to go out, we have to go to Greenwich Village.’ [Incidentally, it was Halloween.] We went down and we heard the best music of my life.” Paul cuts in, “We caught Ron Carter playing bass.” Gretchen continues, “We were sitting so close to them we could have tuned their instruments … It’s always been like that. He dragged me to all of the 12 Minutes Max [works in progress] shows in Seattle.”
Ironically, I first saw Gretchen’s work myself at her own works in progress series (also called 12 Minutes Max). We met in a windowless basement room, the now defunct DUNCE School of the Arts in Sugarhouse. In collaboration with Alexandra Karl, Gretchen was administering the series as well as participating as an artist. Her work “Choreographer’s Dream, Puppeteer’s Nightmare” was a strikingly simple deconstructed puppet show which changed my sense of the form’s possible range. It was as if Jan Švankmeyer himself had made the three little gnomes, who danced with vigor to Elvis. The piece de resistance: the little stage revolved in a circle in order to reveal its netherspace and, intimately, the three men operating the puppets.
I think it’s fair to say that Gretchen is working on reinventing herself. She credits much of who she has been as an artist over the last 20 years to the excellent technical training she received at the University of Utah from professors like Paul Davis and Tony Smith, who taught her that much of art was simply a matter of learning technique. (The motto was “fuck art, just teach me how to draw.”) But now, inspired in part by studies in performance art with Kristina Lenzi, she wants to work in a more conceptual frame, while continuing the honoring of “skill” that she says has kept her engaged in the art scene in Utah.
“I want to focus on the puppets. I just got to go down to the Avant GaRawge in Provo,” she says. There, she remounted a work she had made for the Utah Opera’s Rigoletto years ago, the set for which had been in storage. Paul described the work: “It’s one puppet in a completely black setting, doing really simple things to this really elegant music. He’s sitting down with a knife in hand. As he cuts into the pie, birds fly out of it, one by one, and out a window.” The title is “Pocket Full of Rye.” The music is an improvisation on the tune of the rhyme “Sing a song of sixpence…” Paul and Gretchen were both effusively complementary of these “vastly talented, unpretentious” Provo musicians, headed up by Christian Asplund, who perform new music every Sunday at 8:30 p.m.—next on February 2. Also playing at Gretchen’s show were Logan Hone and Jesse Quebbeman-Turley, who play together in the band Bright Whistles.
“When I have done puppet pieces before, it’s been like a little show, telling a story … one example of this would be ‘The Utah Cowboy,’ which I made with the Deseret String Band … Working with [these new] musicians brings so much else into the work … [As I] womaned the puppet [in ‘Pocket Full of Rye’], I thought, I am a puppet tender … [these puppets] take on such a life of their own in performance,” says Gretchen. Now it’s more about improvisation, about being “on the ball, at one with the ball, even,” she says. Everything from before the last couple of pieces “feels like dangling little bobbling objects—crass—[whereas] this was subtle, even minimalist.”
Paul offers a performer’s perspective on the shift that is occurring in Gretchen’s work. “In ‘Dream,’ there are three performers [including Paul], and each is paying attention to his fellows and trying to make it work. The first time [Gretchen] ever stood out in front of it and watched, she said ‘That’s just not doing it.’ It was Greg [another of the performers] who finally said, ‘She wants us to listen to each other,’” says Paul. Gretchen continues, saying, “And the next time it was spot on, absolutely transformed … [Where I want to get] is being able to combine that with improvising on an instrument that [I] do fully understand … like those amazing musicians down in Provo.”
A bold red canvas, its singular color cut by a thin meandering line, hung above us throughout the interview. It was hard to see—the light of the room didn’t quite reach it. The cut might be the circuitous iridescence of a snail’s trail or the fault line—a linear artifact of mental instability. I don’t realize until the conversation shifted that the painting was Paul’s. “For years I was working in a different vein, pushing abstract expressionism, working with marks and shapes, letting those push one another around,” he says. Like Gretchen, Paul’s work is now also in transition. His current series of paintings each begin with simple physical acts and strict rules of engagement.
He says, “This one [the painting above us] is the record of me turning around. I change hands, with my back to the canvas, and then continue to the other side without breaking the line. [The form that resulted] was a complete surprise.” He says he’s looking to approximate, as closely as he can, something unintentional in these “records of moments.” Then he adds another layer––he attempts to finish the pieces such that no brush strokes are visible. Sometimes he forms the compositions around the automatic line drawings, sometimes he “buries” them. “The great thing about oil painting is that you can obliterate anything. But, painting something out in one of these paintings is really hard because I am going for no brush strokes,” says Paul. One in the series has shown at the Utah Arts Council Annual Show, and Paul has plans to mount an exhibition of the series soon.
Paul is also a tremendously important curator and facilitator in the community. Utah’s 12 Minutes Max, that defunct works-in-progress series where I first saw Gretchen’s work, is now coming back to life at the City Library under the co-direction of himself and Jason Rabb. At the same time, Paul is transferring responsibility of another significant series, Under the Radar, to fellow SLCPL librarian Jessica Glade. It’s become an important resource in the last year for those interested in seeing fringe and international film in SLC. Paul has pioneered a rich, unique model in having each film introduced by another artist. For example, in October, iconoclast curator Kent Maxwell presented “The Screaming Men.” In the spring under Glade, the series with shift to focus more on local filmmakers. “We’re also going to continue doing the annual performance art festival that began this year,” says Paul. Kristina Lenzi will be curating it again and it will be happening in early October. Luke Williams, a local musician, has begun work on a large-scale puppet opera in collaboration with Gretchen. Neither of them will say much about the content of this project, but if we’re lucky, we’ll see some of it at the new reincarnation of 12 Minutes Max at the Library. The first performance will be Sunday, March 23 at 2 p.m. Paul and Gretchen are too cool to have their own websites, but are happy to reply to email inquiries about their work via [email protected] and [email protected], respectively.