Peter Reginato: Improvisations

"You can borrow a lot of things," says Peter Reginato, "and you can fake a lot of things. But one thing you can't fake is drawing." For an artist who has devoted most of his creative life to sculpture, he's oddly insistent on this point. And he doesn't mean drawing for sculpture, made before the fact to test out the idea; nor drawing of sculpture, made after the fact to document or memorialize it. Reginato understands drawing rather as a vital part of the process of sculpture. He sees it as the true, spontaneous means of invention, a way of creating powerfully individual form.

It's not surprising, then, to find this artist readily critical of what he calls the "neutralization" of drawing by a generation of minimalists who substituted for it the ideal of reductive, geometric form; and of the host of modernist and post modern artists for whom this basic task has been superseded by the ubiquitous found object, or by the techniques of photo-based borrowings and appropriations. The shapes he himself uses, Reginato insists, originate in the simple and spontaneous act of making marks on metal.

Seen now from the perspective of the 1990s, this refusal to "fake it" represents a refreshing reversal, after decades in which critically selfconscious and often socially-directed irony has dominated artists' work, as well as our ways of looking at it. And the authenticity we sense in Reginato's work as a result is not that angst- and ego-ridden authenticity of the post-Sartrian, existentialist Abstract Expressionism of the fifties, but a vital and spontaneous outburst of idiosyncratic form and color. Massive as it is in some of its larger manifestations, Reginato's work never fails to impress us as an act of marvelous prestidigitation, a dazzling juggler's act of shapes and colors in which quarter-inch steel becomes magically lighter than air.

In short, there's nothing cool or correct about this work. Consider its basic elements — the shapes Reginato invents out of the flanks of curved steel pipes and the flat plates which are the raw material for his torch. Quite apart from their hand-drawn origins of which he makes so much, many of them flout the canons of modernism with multiple referential values. With blithe indifference to natural scale or any other logical relationships, Reginato baits the observing mind off on side-trips into widely disparate realms of experience: pods, petals, leaves, and flowers have a biomorphic presence, for example; hints of doors, domes, and windows evoke the domain of architecture while stylized whirligigs, boats and wrenches suggest such human artifacts as toys and tools.

If this diversity of shapes has an inner coherence, it is perhaps in a common heritage from the exuberant, somewhat zany design and architectural forms of the inventive fifties - and it is not insignificant, surely, that one of Reginato's passions as a collector is for the furniture and clocks of this period. Unlike the high seriousness, the expressive bravado, and the psychological introspection which characterize the visual arts of the time, these utilitarian artifacts remained curiously clean in line, optimistic, even utopian. Their practitioners were clearly looking back to the playful formal inventiveness of a Matisse, a Miro, or an Arp, and expressing a sometimes almost perverse joy in sheer surprise, originality, and decorative excess. Unashamed of bold, primary color, of pure sensual pleasure, of simple humor, or of stylization, they generated a myriad of forms which quickly went out of style and were despised for decades for their quirky artificiality.

Yet for all its evident fascination with the period, Reginato's work is not a validation of fifties design nor an appropriation of its forms, for his shapes inevitably yield to structure. And here again, we find nothing cool, nothing distant in the way he works. on the contrary, we sense that his structures are designed specifically to stimulate our amazement. Working always from the ground up, he uses both the shapes themselves and the elegantly branching lines of steel rods (he calls them "wires" -a high-wire act, perhaps) as structural means of cantilevering the weight of his components up and out in a breathtaking defiance of the eye's expectations of gravity.

And with Reginato, it is not simply a matter of sheer mass and weight and the challenge they offer to the physical laws which govern our experience: it's also his ability to make these heavy objects not merely stay in space, but dance there for us. Confronted by their disorienting interplay between balance and imbalance, we slip easily into the sense that we must ourselves become a part of the support system in order to maintain the needed equilibrium. By the same token, we are engaged in the artist's improvisational purpose, since our eye is set in constant motion not only by the visual strategy of the work, but by our own movement in relation to it.

Beyond their formal complexity, Reginato's structures are also disconcertingly anthropomorphic — another offense, of course, against modernist dogma. Aside from the distinct, often quirky "personalities" which they invariably suggest, many of his sculptures have the air of curious robots, sent to test our earth's atmosphere from some distant planet where life-forms, though similar to ours, have combined humanoid with biomorphic and non-organic matter. (Here again, it's surely no coincidence that Reginato's collector's eye attracts him to toy robots and space-ships from the 1950s and 1960s. They line the shelves in an eyepopping, museum-like display in the anteroom to his studio across from the hundreds of lunch boxes embellished with comic-book superheroes and icons of the early television age. His vital imagination feeds on images, as well as spawning them.)

Reginato's use of paint fits right in with the logic of his stuctures. Brushy and gloppy, spattered and dripping, it gathers here and there in puddles, and colors merge into each other with no particular rhyme or reason. If one of their functions is to lighten up the structure, another is to constantly surprise. Their changes intrude suddenly, breaking the rhythm, for example, of the long curve on a connecting "wire." And as we move into and around the sculpture, edges and corners yield everywhere to witty syncopations and odd juxtapositions, and structural windows open up to reveal a subtle rhyme here, a raucous contrast there.

Above all, the colors keep us constantly alert to structural changes. The closest analogy for a Reginato sculpture is a jazz composition — particularly now, perhaps, that he has taken to introducing a dominant primary color to determine the overall tonality of the larger works. The colors keep us constantly alert to structural changes. (Showing them as yet untitled in the studio, the artist was recently referring to them as "The Red Piece," "The Blue Piece," "The Yellow Piece.") Here, color works as theme and structure as riff, with improvisational variations carrying the line of thought. The rest, as in jazz, is virtuosity. Everything depends on change, for it is the modulations of form, structure, and color, of positive and negative space form, that create the peculiar beauty and intricacy of the work.

All the wit and sparkle and virtuosity of jazz, however, would seem shallow without its abiding roots in the blues. And by the same token, beyond the formal exuberance of Reginato's work lies another, more disturbing quality, which suggests the obverse of the playful, decorative coin in which he deals. It's a kind of baroque flirtation with excess, with the overblown blossom, the dark side of the beautiful: the juggler's dazzling act would not entrance us were it not for its close encounter with disaster; behind the comical robot lurks the golem, the friendly servant-machine gone berserk and seizing power; and the blooms that are heaviest with beauty are the deadly nightshade and the Venus flytrap whose threat some of these shapes recall.

Like the work of those baroque word-mongers whose virtuoso and intricate conceits the modernists dubbed "metaphysical," Reginato's sculptures celebrate the delights of the sensual world in the same breath as they evoke its dangers, and with however light a touch, they always carry with them the intimation of entropy and decay. Beyond the task which they perform with such graceful and pleasurable ease--to delight the eye--it is their quality, finally, which assures them the complex and deeply human substance that challenges the mind. This, too, is something that can't be faked.

. . . Peter Clothier

February 1, 1992

Los Angeles