"Time feels so wild right now," says artist Macon Reed.
Reed is walking her dog in Kingston as we chat on the phone, a place she "got married to a little bit this year." She's always loved the Hudson Valley, having spent time here visiting friends. Reed also spent time here as an artist-in-residence at Stoneleaf Retreat—an artist residency and creative space for women and families in Eddyvillle, founded in 2017 by Helen Toomer and Eric Romano.
Reed, who grew up in Richmond, VA, was five months into a 10-month fellowship at London's Royal Academy of Arts when the pandemic hit in March. As the world went into lockdown, she found herself forced to leave the UK. "I had four days' notice! I didn't have anywhere to stay, so I posted online to find temporary housing. Helen saw it and invited me back to Stoneleaf," Reed says. The artist's cabin she stayed in soon became the canvas for her latest project. She also ended up signing a year's lease on an apartment in Kingston, so she could stay in the area after she left the cabin.
Reed brings the same vitality to our conversation as to her art, with its arresting palette, reminiscent of an O'Keeffe landscape—opposite colors coming together to complement almost-abstract strokes creating concrete imagery. I'm not the only one captivated by this antithesis of color and content. Toomer mentions it, too. "I love that it draws you in with bright neon colors and childlike paintings or sculptures, but highlights important social issues," she says.
Reed herself has grown more cognizant of how this palette—originating as a sort of artistic decision to challenge the patriarchy—impacts her art after reading David Batchelor's Chromophobia. Batchelor's book is an exploration of the fear of intense, bright color in Western art traditions and culture. "The most fascinating part is the idea that dominant culture was trying to control or dismiss groups, ideas and issues that bright colors were associated with, like queerness, mental illness, people of color," Reed tells me, adding that the book helped her understand her impulse to use color to challenge traditional ideas.
We're doing a remote walk-through of her new, as yet untitled, mural at Stoneleaf just after its December 6 unveiling, discussing its symbols: the carrot on the stick, tic-tac-toe game, X-marked door, the bonfire, the references to the bubonic plague.
The mural captures so much of the tension of trying to find meaning in times of peril that its genesis had to have been the pandemic—but the coronavirus wasn't the singular catalyst for the imagery that runs through it.
Like almost all her other work (notably, her installation Hammer of Witches, Pears of Anguish, which depicts medieval torture chambers), this too draws from Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch. The book is a "contemplation of the bubonic plague's impact on our understanding of things like early capitalism," Reed says, adding that this inspires her recurring symbols like the fire, evil eye, and carrot on a stick.
There are also images of hope: a horseshoe and four-leaf clover. A splash of blue paint was inspired by the pond at Stoneleaf. A playful reference to some unfortunate similarity between our times and those past hovers over the bottom left corner, a brown form. "That's basically a pile of shit," Reed says. It's an allusion to the odd things people believed would cure them of the plague. "People thought the plague came from breathing foul odors, and if they breathed other foul odors first, it might fill up their reserves," she explains with a laugh.
Much of Reed's art is committed to creating space for LGBTQIA communities and, as Toomer says, "to discuss issues and share stories in a safe and welcoming environment," evident in how weighty imagery blends so well with its bubblegum base. Like the breasts in this mural, alluding to justice, liberty, female bodies, and BDSM and queer culture.
Toomer tells me she and Reed first met when she presented Eulogy for the Dyke Bar, her response to the disappearance of lesbian bars, at Pulse Art Fair. The immersive installation was a fully functioning bar, with silkscreened faux-wood paneling that Reed says was a departure from her usual use of materials that are "tactile and fast." Reed once lived in an old-growth tree to save it from being cut, so it's no surprise recyclable materials like papier-mâché on cardboard are her preferred medium for installations.
Reed's mural at Stoneleaf Retreat will be on view during the 2021 edition of Upstate Art Weekend, August 29-30, 2021.